Healing Honey And The Beekeeping Craze From urban rooftops to suburban ranches, apiaries are hip. As the ranks of backyard beekeepers grow, they're reporting some mysterious and sometimes disturbing behaviors, including the disappearance of whole hives. And what about the honey? Is it really good medicine, or just a sweet treat?
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Healing Honey And The New Queen Bee(keepers)

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Healing Honey And The New Queen Bee(keepers)

Healing Honey And The New Queen Bee(keepers)

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This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

In Your Health today: milk and honey. We look at why some folks are convinced that raw milk is better than pasteurized. First, though, a resurgence in backyard beekeeping. It's teaching urbanites about the huge role bees play in sustaining our nation's food supply. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY: Just outside Cleveland in the town of Medina, Ohio, there's been a big shift in who's signing up for beekeeping classes. There were twice as many students this year compared to last. And who are these new beekeepers? Well, lots of them are women.

Mr. KIM FLOTTUM (Beekeeping Instructor): The surge has really been with younger, urban women. And 20 years ago, nobody would have guessed that.

AUBREY: Kim Flottum has been teaching beekeeping for years, and he says this seems to be the trend. Nationwide, there are roughly 100,000 backyard beekeepers. Subscriptions to the publication Bee Culture are on the rise. And when he published a how-to book aimed at making beekeeping easier with more lightweight equipment, 60,000 people snapped up copies.

Dr. JEN SASS (Scientist, National Resources Defense Council): I know how I feel when I take my honey out of my beehives. I feel really excited. I mean, I tell everybody. I post it on my Facebook.

(Soundbite of laughter)

AUBREY: Jen Sass is one of these women at the top of the new beekeeping bell curve. As she walks me out to her two hives that sit along the fence of her small backyard just outside Washington, D.C., I ask her why she thinks people are so gaga for bees.

Dr. SASS: I think there's a real sort of revival in an interest of rural-type things. I think also it's something...

AUBREY: Even if there are urban horns in the background.

Dr. SASS: Yeah. We're very urban here.

AUBREY: And also very into the local food movement. So, even if space is at a premium, the beauty of bees is that they can pollinate flowers and plants and yards all over her neighborhood. As she lifts off the cover of one of her hives, she says she loves to watch the bees at work.

Dr. SASS: What I'm trying to discover is how productive my bees have been.

AUBREY: Looks like there's plenty of honey, so that's good. But there's also a bunch of bees loafing at the bottom of the hive. These are the male bees, the drones. Their sole purpose is to fertilize the queen, and now that they've done it, they're just hanging out. So the queen is about ready to kick them out. She gives this job to her female worker bees.

Dr. SASS: They kind of peck and bother them and kind of chase them out, unfortunately.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SASS: It's a cold winter if you're a drone.

AUBREY: It's really cutthroat, the hive. If you're a slacker, you're out. And this has served the honeybee species well over the millennia. But Sass says there's a big problem for bees these days. Despite all the urban enthusiasm, turns out that honeybee populations are way down. There's a syndrome called colony collapse disorder where whole hives suddenly perish.

Dr. SASS: We've lost 40 percent of our bee colonies in the past 10 years. So it's really a mystery what's happening.

AUBREY: Now, if the only thing bees did was to make honey, maybe this wouldn't be a big deal. But bees are hugely important to our food supply. Jen Sass, who also happens to be a scientist with the National Resources Defense Council, explains bees pollinate billions of dollars worth of fruits and vegetables every year. And I'm willing to bet any of you out there listening now that before this day is over, you'll have eaten something - maybe an apple, a cucumber, some blueberries or almonds - that could not have been grown without the bees.

So how does this all work? Well, let me introduce you to commercial beekeeper Dave Hackenberg. He drives his beehive all over the country from cranberry bogs in New England to almond groves in California so they can pollinate these crops. We reached him in his truck en route to another delivery.

Mr. DAVE HACKENBERG (Commercial Beekeeper): We're actually in Tahlequah, Pennsylvania. Just got done delivering bees to pumpkins.

AUBREY: Yep, he said pumpkins. Now, no one's thinking about jack-o-lanterns or pumpkin pie in July, but this is prime growing season, and without bees in the field to pollinate, the pumpkins just wouldn't grow right. They'd be lopsided or really small, and the farmer wouldn't get enough pumpkins to make it worth his time. So, you can see why farmers need bees.

But Dave Hackenberg says it's getting tougher for commercial beekeepers like him to make a good living. He's lost a bunch of hives to this colony collapse phenomenon.

Mr. HACKENBERG: When you're losing thousands of them and you've got to replace them on a yearly basis, then you're probably going to go out with them.

AUBREY: The U.S. Department of Agriculture is trying to prevent this. They're handing out some $6 million in emergency assistance this summer to beekeepers who've lost their hives, and meanwhile, scientists are still trying to figure out what's causing bee colony collapse. The latest thinking is that some combination of viruses, mites, pesticides and climate change may be weakening the immune system of bees.

For now, there's plenty of honey to go around, thanks in part to the enthusiasm of urban pioneers like Jen Sass.

Dr. SASS: For sure, there is a food revolution, and the revolution is to stay local and be more excited about, you know, what you can put on the table from, you know, within 50 feet of your house.

AUBREY: And if you've ever wondered whether the liquid gold really has healing powers, well, you can find out the answer in my web show, Tiny Desk Kitchen, on npr.org.

I'm Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

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