Above the Waterline: The BeeShees carry on a family tradition

Searching for the queen and queen cells in springtime to determine if the hive might swarm. L-R: Denise Champagne, Jim Williamson, Andi Beyer and Ramsey Cook. (Photo by Monica Sheppard)

Who doesn’t love honey? It’s an easily digestible, pure food considered by some to be one of nature’s best all-round remedies. If I’m not feeling well, a cup of hot tea with honey will always make me feel better. Even just a spoonful of honey improves my outlook on life.

So, I was supremely disappointed when a beautiful, amber-colored jar of honey that I selected during a holiday gift exchange last year was “stolen” from me, per the rules of the Dirty Santa game. Luckily, my beekeeper friend Monica Sheppard, who provided the gift for the game, noted my disappointment; she surprised me with my own jar a few months later. Every time I taste a spoonful, I think of her carefully-tended bees, foraging for nectar in flowers growing in the fields and woodlands near her home.

Monica is one of the BeeShees: four women (including her daughter Ramsey) who have kept honey bees for many years on property near Rome, Georgia. Carrying on a family tradition – her father kept more than fifty hives in locations from their backyard in Tucker to north Georgia – Monica has taught her daughter the joys and challenges of being an organic beekeeper in a world with a changing climate and growing pesticide use.

Warmer winters mean that the bees are more active and must be fed by their keepers, due to the lack of natural food. Pesticides used on nearby corn fields may be the reason that the BeeShees have lost several hives. Parasites can also cause a bee colony to collapse and changing land use patterns can lead to malnutrition.

While honey bees are obviously essential to the production of honey, their most important role is as pollinators for fruits and vegetables that we love to eat: apples, oranges, blueberries, strawberries, cherries, cranberries, cantaloupes, lemons and limes, avocados, almonds, onions, broccoli and more. They all depend directly or indirectly on this tiny non-native species; bees were brought to the United States from Europe by early settlers.
Pollinators transfer pollen and seeds from one flower to another, fertilizing the plant so it can grow and produce food. Cross-pollination helps at least thirty percent of the world’s crops and ninety percent of our wild plants to thrive. Yet, in the United States alone, where crops pollinated by bees are worth at least $15 billion per year, a quarter to a third of the managed honey bee population has disappeared in recent decades, according to experts.

Beginning in 2006, beekeepers began to report that bees were abandoning their hives, never to return: a condition known as colony collapse disorder. At the peak of the crisis, forty-five percent of hives were lost in one year. While there is evidence that these collapses may be dwindling, honey bees – and our food supply – remain threatened by climate change, pesticides, parasites and habitat disruption.

How can we help our honey bees? Here are a few ideas from Metro Atlanta Beekeepers Association (metroatlantabeekeepers.org):

  • Allow a little wildness to creep back into your yard with dandelions and clover.
  • Plant native wildflowers from seeds if possible, instead of hybrids (nursery plants grown with pesticides).
  • Get the BeeSmart app on your phone to help in plant selection.
  • Eliminate garden pesticides and move to organic gardening
  • Leave some bare patches of soil for ground-dwelling bees – a little mud is good!
  • Support your local beekeepers, like the BeeShees.

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper , a nonprofit environmental organization whose mission is to protect and restore the drinking water supply for nearly four million people.

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