By Alicia Wrigley-Gailey, Sustainability Resource Center
Frank Whitby holds what is perhaps the most whimsical-sounding title in all of Salt Lake City government: “Official City Beekeeper.” His post, which requires tending to the hives atop the Salt Lake City Public Library, provides Whitby with very real opportunities to educate the public about the importance of honeybees and the challenges faced by the species.
Such an opportunity is coming up and promises to be an event not to be missed. On Wednesday, Feb. 26 at noon, Whitby, who is also an assistant research professor in Biochemistry at the U, will give a lecture as part of the Social Soup series at the Gould Auditorium in the Marriott Library. Students and community members who attend will learn what has made the library’s rooftop hives so successful, how they can start keeping bees themselves, and why there has been so much (pardon the expression) buzz about honeybees in past few years.
Additionally, representatives from the University of Utah Beekeeper’s Association, an organization that cares for hives on campus, will be on hand to help interested students without backyards get involved with beekeeping.
Just five years ago, such a lecture would have been useless. It wasn’t until December of 2009 that the Salt Lake City Council voted to amend ordinances, making beekeeping within city boundaries legal for the first time since the 1980s.
In other cities, the legalization of urban beekeeping is still on the cutting edge of sustainable policy changes being made. Just a little more than a week ago, the Los Angeles City Council began the process to review and change laws that currently make urban beekeeping illegal there.
The reasons for such policy changes are sobering. According to the USDA, the total number of domesticated bee colonies in the U.S. has decreased from 5 million in 1940 to 2.5 million today. While this is obviously bad news for bees themselves, it’s problematic for humans, too. Bees are responsible for the service of pollination, which is crucial for the production of about 30% of all food produced worldwide, including crops such as apples, pumpkins, almonds, cucumbers, blueberries, carrots, avocados, onions, and broccoli, and many others.
The major reason for such huge losses in beekeeping is a mysterious phenomenon, particularly prominent among commercial hives, which has been named Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD.
When CCD affects a hive, worker bees, which are responsible for gathering nectar from flowering plants to to feed the colony, vanish. It’s not clear if the worker bees die, since dead bees are rarely found in hives affected by CCD, but their mysterious disappearance leaves the queen bee and the brood without access to enough food to sustain themselves for long. Eventually, the entire hive dies.
Possible causes of CCD have been highly researched and debated. Theories about CCD’s causes have ranged from waves from cell phone towers (which has generally been accepted as disproven) to genetically modified crops to parasites. Currently, a popular theory is that the culprit behind CCD is certain types of pesticides called neonicotinoids. To date, however, there is nothing generally considered by the scientific community as the cause of CCD, and so far, nothing has been really effective in slowing its effects among commercial hives.
That’s where backyard beekeeping comes in. According to Whitby, “Resurgence in urban beekeeping promises to sustain a reservoir of healthy bees, potentially buffering against losses by commercial beekeepers.”
What’s more, bees raised in an urban environment might even be superior to other bees. According to a TED talk by bee researcher Noah Wilson-Rich, urban bees have better winter survival rates and produce more honey than their rural counterparts.
Lastly, there are plenty of non-scientific, fun reasons to keep bees. Kirstie Kandaris, who serves as vice president of the University of Utah Beekeeper’s Association, says that being involved in caring for the on-campus hives has been a good experience for a variety of reasons.
“First of all, beekeeping is fun,” Kandaris says, “but to feel like I’m helping the problems that bees have faced in the past years, even in a small way, is really nice. You’re also contributing to the community and helping the environment, too. Plus, it’s productive: you get honey and beeswax. All around, it’s a great hobby and a good way to help out.”
Kandaris recently purchased her own hive for her yard, and says she sees herself continuing to keep bees throughout her life. She added that the Social Soup lecture will be an important opportunity to avoid the learning curve that comes with getting started in beekeeping.
“I think there’s a lot of people who are interested in beekeeping, but don’t know how to break in. The lecture will be an awesome opportunity for anybody like that. It’ll just be a broad introduction into what beekeeping is, how you can get involved, and how Salt Lake is getting more bee-friendly,” Kandaris says.
Alicia Wrigley-Gailey is a senior in Communication and Jazz Performance. She is a Sustainability Ambassador with the Sustainability Resource Center.