The Proof is in the Pollen

By Beacon Staff

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SOMERS – Early on Saturday morning, Julienne Valentine and her husband, Jim, set out for Spokane and returned with about 60 pounds of precious, buzzing cargo: 21 nuclear beehives, or “nucs,” each of which contained about three pounds of bees and one queen, from the Sunshine Honey Farm.

The Valentines made their trip on behalf of several local beekeepers who paid $90 per nuc to begin cultivating and caring for the bees as spring timidly enters the Flathead Valley.

Valentine is one of many members who brings the breadth of her experience to the Flathead Valley Beekeepers Club, a year-old organization that gathers the area’s beekeepers together to share knowledge, discuss techniques and help each other with an undertaking that is at once gratifying, difficult, and ecologically imperiled.

Some of those who ordered the nucs, like Valentine, will add to the bees they already have. On a windswept afternoon earlier in the week, the two existing hives in Valentine’s backyard were literally buzzing with activity, despite the chill. And though she had yet to remove the pieces of foam insulation tied around the two boxes, Valentine was clearly pleased her bees had survived another long winter.

“I probably look at the hive just about every day, just watching them come and go,” she said. “I’m so attuned to checking my own bees.”

Valentine has been beekeeping her whole life, and it shows. She estimated each of her hives produces around 200 pounds of honey annually. She planted pussy willows because they begin producing pollen early for the bees. When a hard gust of wind pins down a bee on one of the boxes, she doesn’t hesitate to pluck it up with two fingers, slide the lid of the box over and drop it onto the mass of bees feeding on honey inside. At another point, she picks up two bees that appear dead, cups them in her hand against her mouth and breathes on them to see if the heat revives them: no luck.

Picking up their nucs, several beekeepers asked for advice on introducing the queen to the rest of the population, and on setting up their new bees. As a group, the Flathead beekeepers are a diverse lot, with some doing it as a way to produce honey, or help pollinate their gardens. Others feel a greater urgency.

Veronica Honthaas began organizing the group last year, and her reason for doing so is straightforward: “The bees are in trouble, no ifs, ands or buts,” she said. “We have to build stronger bees and change our management.”

The mass deaths of western honeybees, which have been ongoing for the last five years, are by now well known. A recent report by the United Nations attributed the phenomenon, called colony collapse disorder, to a number of sources, including a parasitic mite, damage from pesticides, fungal infections and a low-protein diet caused by monoculture crops.

In the Flathead, Honthaas and others believe the strength of local honeybee populations can be reinforced through “regression,” a technique that involves caring for the bees in a way that allows them to, essentially, shrink to a more natural size. (Though bees have been bred for size to create more honey, some believe it’s easier for the varroa mite to dig beneath the exoskeleton of large bees, making smaller bees more resistant to the parasite. Others disagree.)

“Bigger is not always better,” Honthaas told the 20 people who gathered at the Glacier Discovery Center in Columbia Falls for the Flathead Beekeepers’ first meeting of the year. “When our swarms go wild, and they are left alone, they will slowly regress down.”

Acknowledging that not everyone supports regression, Honthaas called on her fellow Flathead beekeepers to work together to develop a genetically hardy breeding stock of bees capable of withstanding Montana’s harsh climate. Too many bees are imported to Montana from southern states and California, she added, which contributes to their fragility.

“We need different genes,” Honthaas said. “We need bees that are resistant.”

Though Honthaas’ message is one of deep concern, the overall tone of the Beekeepers Club meeting was genial: a gathering of like-minded enthusiasts eager to share what they have learned through often painstaking trial and error.

Roger Hegwald gave a presentation on how to build a “Warre Hive,” which he described as a traditional Japanese design. Shortly after Hegwald’s presentation, John Henson demonstrated the hive he built in the Kenyan “Top Bar” design, which resembled a long, inverted triangle resting on four legs.

The different hive designs make evident that beekeeping is a practice different cultures have been refining for thousands of years. It’s also, clearly, passed on through generations. Many beekeepers describe learning from their parents.

Valentine learned beekeeping from her father, who was a paraplegic, and required her help managing as many as a thousand bee colonies at a time. Beekeeping, she said, has gotten more complicated than when she was a child. The populations are less diverse, and it’s sometimes harder to find healthy queens that keep a swarm together by reproducing steadily.

Living along the large agricultural pastures north of Flathead Lake, when a farmer sprays their field with certain pesticides, Valentine will find dead bees at her hive.

“What’s happening on the outside is usually a good indication of the health of what’s happening inside,” Valentine said. Nor will she deny that she has developed a connection to the bees. Upon finding one floating in a bucket of water, Valentine will remove it, and set it in a sunny spot to dry out and recover.

“It just seems like it’s a part of me,” Valentine said. “The curiosity of what Mother Nature does is pretty interesting.”

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