The City of Milwaukee is one of the few cities in the country where a beekeeping ordinance allows residents to maintain beehives in the city. How you maintain and support your bees is, of course, very important. One group that is making a difference in the world of apiculture is Beepods.com LLC, a company that plans to manufacture horizontal bee hives as compared to the more traditional vertical hive. The design of a Beepod reflects centuries-old concepts that mimic the use of hollowed out logs. One Beepod can yield up to 40 lbs of honey in a single season.
Beepods.com was one of the attendees of the Homegrown Village at the 25th Anniversary Farm Aid, held earlier this month in Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s Miller Park. The company said its purpose is to focus on preserving nature's pollinators in both urban and rural farmland areas alike.
The people at Beepods.com believe that decentralized beekeeping is as important an effort as is the effort to preserve family farms. Bees pollinate over three-quarters of the staple crop plants that feed human kind and nearly 90% of all flowering plants in the world. Those numbers translate to honeybees having pollinated more than one of every three bites of food we eat. Unfortunately, in the last several years, 30% of the commercial honeybee colonies in the United States have collapsed due to pesticides, disease and starvation.
I thought it would be interesting to talk with CharBee Koenen one of the members of Beepods.com, about how he got started in apiculture.
Here is our interview in its entirety.
TK – How did you get started with beekeeping and making beepods? Where did you get the idea?
Charlie Koenen – A few years back, 2002, I was working on marketing for what was then an anonymous urban farm cooperative called Growing Power, when I was asked to photograph the different areas of activity going on there. Will Allen, albeit a big man, was afraid of the bees so he suggested I photograph them when one of the two beekeepers was there... So with a really long lens in camera, I went out to meet Michael Thompson of Chicago's Honey Coop and Mayor Daily's rooftop hives fame. He was calmly suited up and had one of the four hives half apart with thousands of bees flying round him. I stood a considerable distance beyond the fences that give room for bee flight paths and began snapping shots. Michael persistently requested that I don a veil and join him but I whole-heartedly refused. But, he was more convincing than my heart and I soon found myself peering over his shoulder into the beehive in amazement.
That’s all it took and I was hanging out with Growing Power's main beekeeper, and soon to bee Beepods.com founder, Jesse Spanaus, learning the trade. I got my own hive, a stacked box Langstroth—the only kind offered. Then, by mid July, with the hive several boxes tall, it occurred to me I had to harvest a lot of honey. See, up to that point, I was keeping bees for the bees, for the wonderment of how they worked, how they had such great group skills and amazing productivity. Now, it dawned on me that I had to collect the honey from them or they'd swarm away having been so successful in nurturing this hive—not all swarms are bad, you see.
Well, this honey harvesting was a bit of a revelation to me. Fortunately I had Jesse and Growing Power's extractor and tools to help me spin the 175 lbs. of honey into 5 gallon buckets! But now I had to do something with it. I purchased bottles and designed labels, so Colbydog Apiaries, "Home of the Left Wing Bees", was off and buzzing! I gave most of the first batch away to clients, family friends and anyone I could barter with. It was really fun. Then came the hot August flow and the bees filled up the hive again, only this time the hive had boxes stacked up over my head. Every two weeks, I had to do a hive inspection. That meant I had to carefully pry open and lift off each of the eight supers (boxes) to check on my bees. Each box weighed upwards of 70 lbs. and contained several thousand bees. In 90 degree sun, it was now fast becoming a vocation, not a hobby.
Meanwhile, I began helping Jesse teach beekeeping courses at Growing Power's workshops. Back then, most people interested in beekeeping were much older and had fond memories of helping an uncle, neighbor or parent keep bees when they were young. But time and again, their faces turned to sadness as they realized the manual labor required and additional expense of spinners and capping boxes were deal-breakers for their dream of keeping bees. So back in 2003, Jesse and I started theorizing about a hive that would spread sideways, not vertically, and be up on legs to minimize bending. We wanted to find a way for people of all ages to share the pleasure of interacting with the bees without the work associated with "traditional beekeeping.”
Then, we met a MIAD graduate designer Dave Hinterberg (www.burnwerks.com), who designed the parts and wrote the programs that ran the computerized milling machine for a family business that produced beautiful wooden quilt-making machines. He had the smarts and vision to take our ideas and create the first version of Beepods in 2005. The design was modular cubes on legs that attached to each other on one of four sides, using removable openings that also could be entrances, vents, windows and even play centers for the bees.
That season, we kept a colony and expanded it to three boxes. They didn't survive the winter and we realized that as much as we thought we knew about beekeeping, we really didn't know much about bees. In addition to making a design that would cost a ridiculous price at market, it was built too well for the bees. We made it too air tight for winter and wound up having not enough ventilation to keep the bees dry as they worked up a sweat keeping their queen and brood a balmy 94° during the winter. They froze from the humidity they created while respirating!
We were all a bit discouraged after finding the dead colony in the spring, but Jesse and I still had several stacked box hives that had survived. So, we tended them and studied up on bees and different methods of beekeeping. Then, David went to work elsewhere and the project was mothballed. But, two years later, as news spread of bees dying in massive numbers to a mysterious fate called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), David was open to rethinking our ideas.
(Honey Bee Disorder Symptom (HBDS) or Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is an occurrence where worker bees suddenly disappear. The workerless hives still have a capped brood, along with the presence of honey and bee pollen. Bees normally will not abandon the hive until the bees have all hatched. While beehives have disappeared throughout history, this sudden phenomenon has been happening at an accelerated rate since late 2006. Why CCD occurs is a mystery although speculation and research has turned up some interesting theories. One hypothesis associates the CCD syndrome with the Israel Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV). In 2004 and again in 2007, both Israeli and US researchers found a significant connection between IAPV and CCD in honeybees. Other factors also considered to be part of the problem include poor nutrition, pesticides in the form of neurotoxins, germs, immune disorders, fungus, electromagnetic radiation and beekeeping practices such as the use of antibiotics, or long-distance transportation of beehives. The research is, at best, inconclusive. Some suspect the use of pesticides; specifically neonicotinoids, a type of neurotoxin that kills by attacking the bee’s nervous system. The main manufacturer of this type of pesticide is Bayer Crop Science, a subsidiary of the German pharmaceutical company Bayer AG, a company that has fought with regulators and defended itself from lawsuits from beekeepers who suspect that this particular category of pesticides have killed their bees.)
Soon, cities around the world began responding to the serious decline in bee populations by legalizing beekeeping, and with our experience in the hardships of stacked box beekeeping, it became imperative to give this horizontal hive another go. Not so much for making money on the growing interest, but more to provide an alternative to the stacked box hives that are the only option most people will get when considering beekeeping in the US. I learned first hand that stacked box bee hives are hard on people as well as bees.
In the meantime, we'd all done a bit more ‘bee-haviour’ research, looking back into previous methods and practices. Bees and beekeeping are actually second only to man as the most prolifically researched and written about topic in history. There are cave paintings dating thousands of years B.C. and ancient Chinese texts that refer to bee keeping. Even much of ancient Egypt held the honeybee in high esteem, so it wasn't hard to ‘bee-come’ immersed in bee history and culture. That’s where we found the Top Bar Hive design that became the current Beepod.
It turns out that, while conquering the southern Mediterranean regions of Africa, both the Greeks and Romans discovered Kenyan tribes who harvested the golden nectar from bees the tribes kept in hollow fallen tree trunks. Prior to this, man had never found a way to keep bees alive once they harvested the honey. Ancient Egyptians created clay and straw skeps, or domed hives, but they had to drown or kill the colony before harvesting the honey. So, it was in ancient Roman texts that the Kenyan Top Bar Hive design was first recorded.
David, while looking at dozens of links to research hive construction, found the dimensions and, after a few rounds of revisions, added the signature look of a bee head for the Beepod's profile. We took our prototype to the Urban Ecology Center and asked a bunch of traditional beekeepers to ‘comb’ through our design and give us their feedback. In what is now a common occurrence, every one of the beekeepers said they had never seen anything like it and were not eager to embrace its possibilities. We began discussing how it worked and who we thought would buy it and, one by one, the light bulbs went on. By the end of the meeting, even the harshest critic was at least silent. The main thing we learned from talking to old time beekeepers was how important ventilation was with the bees. We went back and refined our design to vent the top bars, bottom board and add the three round vents to the lid that also signify the tiny UV eyes bees use to navigate instructions given them in their waggle dances. Beepods were born.
The first thing we did was to create a test group of new and old beekeepers to have them build a Beepod and spend a season working out the bugs ;-) This proved very valuable as we identified many challenges the new beekeepers faced, allowing us to develop tools, techniques and instructions, as well as revisions to the design, to meet their needs. Now, we began working on our website and literature to bring together the education, advocacy and products that together make up Beepods.com
TK - Can you describe exactly how beepods work?
Charlie Koenen - The principle idea is to let bees be as natural as possible. Bees make their own hive inside the Beepod by drawing honeycomb from bars laid on the top. Bee keepers start a hive by purchasing a box of bees and a queen. You can also find a feral swarm, but that’s more for advanced beekeepers. You add a queen and bees into an inner chamber, made within the Beepod between follower bars and about six top bars. The bees will begin drawing comb from the wax-tipped ends of the top bars and as soon as she can, the queen will begin laying eggs. The inner chamber is small, allowing just a few bees to regulate the temperature. As the colony grows, you add more bars and expand the inner chamber until it fills the whole Beepod. Eventually, the bee colony starts producing honeycombs at the ends of the inner chamber. You harvest the honey and pollen from these end bars, replacing the bars with new bars. The first 10 bars are for the bees to use during winter, any bars beyond the ten are yours to enjoy.
The main purpose for Beepods is to bring honeybees and the wonders of beekeeping to a wider audience and, in that way, help restore a healthier decentralized bee population. Bees pollinate a great deal of food we consume. If the current collapse continues, we will see price spikes and shortages of fruits, vegetables and many things that define our lifestyles. As more people are starting up backyard gardens and learning the advantages of local food, bees are nature's miracle-gro and complete the link of local food. But before we can get bees in our backyards, we have to overcome a lot of misconceptions and fears.
Many people confuse honeybees with wasps and hornets. Honeybees are rarely seen anywhere but en route to water or a nectar source. They are not attracted to soda or your back porch meal. Those are wasps that are hungry, especially now as plants prepares for winter. Honeybees will only sting if you spook them or threaten their queen or hive. When they sting, their stinger stays in you, ripping a venom sack from their body which kills them but remains pumping venom through their stinger. Wasps can sting at will and often do it to get you away from "their" soda or salad. More than 90% of claimed bee-stings are actually done by wasps. We need to fix this misperception, so that people appreciate the importance of honeybees. We should be saluting them whenever we see them, not flailing our arms like frightened ninnies.
TK - Do you think beepods help bees stay healthier?
Charlie Koenen - The miracle of honeybees is their symbiotic relationship with nature. In the wild, honeybees do nothing destructive to their environment. In fact, every interaction with the honeybee actually produces a benefit. They take nectar and pollen from flowers and provide essential life-giving pollination services to the plants. They use tree sap to make propolis, which they then use to seal any imperfections in their hive space. They excrete wax from glands to make their comb rather than destroying wood like termites or ants. Even the water they use to regulate temperature in their hive is not stored in excess. Bees have a gift for everything they interact with and they produce this golden nectar that is unable to culture bacteria and therefore has no expiration date.
Stacked box hives (Langstroths) came into existence during America's industrial revolution while everyone was focused on mechanization and assembly-line efficiency. Ever since then, we've treated bees like an expendable part in a grand profit-making machine. We've forced them to work longer and in closer proximity to each other. We've dictated their honeycomb shape and size, loaded them on huge semi-trailers, trucked them across the nation to work huge tracts of a single crop, then violently blow them off their comb to extract their honey. We fumigate them with toxic pesticides and feed them toxic herbicides and then wonder why they aren't doing well?
TK - Will the Beepods make bees stronger?
Charlie Koenen - Yes. Clearly any design that promotes a slower, less disruptive, more natural interaction with bees will make them stronger. True, one can employ the same care and concern for the bees using a stacked box hive and many people certainly do. But from experience, it takes a great deal of time and effort to be as gentle in a model that tears bee's homes apart by floor and ceiling. Many new ‘wannabee’ beekeepers will get into beekeeping like me, without necessarily realizing the actual work and hardship of beekeeping involved in stacked box hives until it’s too late. So by design, Beepods are less destructive of the bee-space, produce plenty of honey, wax and propolis, while providing a greater opportunity to engage with the bees in a calm un-threatening environment that lets both bees and beekeepers gain from the interaction.
TK - In other words, do you think the bees living here have a better ability to fight off IAPV (Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus)?
Charlie Koenen – So, yes, bees living in any hive that allows them to create their own home as they've been doing for 40 million years, with minimal disruption to their space, and not crammed together with dozens of other hives, will give any living creature a better chance at survival. It is now known that bees that make their own brood cells have fewer mites than ones given predetermined cells. Bees who are not moved fare far better than ones transported, and bees not pollinating Genetically Modified (GM) crops or crops using neonicotinoid herbicides are less likely to have CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder).
Let me set the record straight. IAPV, like Nosema and Iridovirus, are present in bees suffering CCD. While the Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus was found to be a recent mutation, all of these are genetically-based problems and fail to implicate the source. So, many articles seem to pop-up declaring cures—like two in the headlines of The New York Times last week
None of the articles, if carefully read and researched, have actually declared the problem. It’s analogous to scientists getting headlines by saying that Hiroshima victims suffered from radiation sickness without mentioning the Atomic bomb. The elephant in the room here are the pesticides and genetically modified (GM) seeds that contain low-levels of neurotoxins designed to attack the DNA of bugs. They are most likely the cause of the problems and their effects, like radiation sickness, are the genetic viruses and mutations that weaken their immunity. Here's their description: Neonicotinoid pesticides are modeled after the natural insecticide, nicotine. They are systemic with long residual activity acting on the central nervous system of insects causing excitation of the nerves and eventual paralysis and death. They are particularly effective against sucking insects.
Once people realize that neonicotinoids are specifically designed to corrupt the nervous systems of bugs systemically through DNA mutation at extremely low doses and target "sucking insects"....gee, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know why the bees are affected, They suck nectar from the flowers and feed on the pollen produced by the plants. Unfortunately, neonicotinoids are found in low doses in our lawn care products... so a neighborhood of Chemlawn perfection is not a great place for bees either.
But in this day of mono-cropped, industrialized agri-culture, bees in the city outperform country bees by orders of magnitude. Bees, like humans, prefer a broad-spectrum diet. They gather from several plants if given the chance. Such diversity was once prevalent in rural settings, but now the more diversity comes in urban settings where boulevards are planted with ever-blooming flowers. People replace hanging baskets with new flowering ones and their gardens are rich with diverse plantings. In rural settings, beekeepers can count on three nectar flows in a northern climate—spring, summer and fall. In the city, it’s just one long full flow, even though the honey does vary distinctly as the seasons change.
TK - How would someone get started with their own beehive?
Charlie Koenen - Most people can buy a table from IKEA and assemble it with relative ease. Once built, everyone knows how to use it. But, make a beehive as elegant and easy to build as an IKEA table and most people haven't a clue what to do next. We're afraid the boom in beekeeping is leaning hard on the existing beekeepers who already have their hands full with CCD.
We decided to make an easy to assemble, safe to use beehive and create an online resource that provides information, learning resources and a social network of beekeepers to create a community with shared knowledge. Beepods.com is more than just a pretty hive; we've created an online source for learning and interacting with other Beepod and Top Bar hive owners from around the world. Yes, outside the US, top bar hives are quite common.
But, creating an online community is not enough. Many municipalities require proof that you've taken courses in apiculture before permitting you to have a hive, so we also provide beekeeping classes and symposiums, and speak at schools, trade shows and garden clubs. Check our website for dates and locations.
We are as passionate about advocacy and education as we are about selling Beepods. We don bee suits and veils to talk to grade school kids, develop special tools to help bring the bees safely in front of people and create curriculum to help educators teach about bees. We've even partnered with the Urban Ecology Center and Sweetwater Organics to learn how best to help schools and nature centers provide educators with lessons to teach about beekeeping and pollination.
We recommend the first step to beekeeping is to attend a ‘bee-sentation’ or advocacy presentation that demystifies bees and beekeeping. If you like what you hear, come to a hands-on hive inspection to suit-up and actually interact with the bees. If you're still on board, then take a basic classroom certification course that walks you through the beekeeping process. You must decide why you want to keep bees. If making money selling honey or trucking bees to farms for pollination is your aim, then Beepods are not for you. But, if helping the bees, increasing your garden's bounty, learning about bees or just saving the planet is your goal, then give us a call.
Regardless of the type of hive you wish to use, since CCD has threatened bee populations, you have to order your bees in January to be able to get them in March-April. That leaves all fall and winter to prepare for your bees arrival. Beepod classes go full swing from January to March then hands-on classes begin as the bees arrive. If you want to keep bees, you should work with them before making the commitment. Check our website for class dates and locations; we're adding more all the time.
As an addendum to the interview with Mr. Koenen, it should also be noted that Dr. Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist with the health group at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says that the CCD studies to date are interesting, but they have not answered the most important question, "Why are colonies dying? Is it because they're getting weak? People who have HIV don't die of HIV. They die of other diseases they get because their immune systems are knocked off, making them more susceptible." In other words, Sass believes that pesticides weaken the bees -- and then the virus/fungus/electromagnetic radiation/beekeeping practice combination seals their fate.
"Honey Bee Die-Off Alarms Beekeepers, Crop Growers and Researchers". Penn State University College of Agricultural Sciences. 2007-01-29. http://www.aginfo.psu.edu/News/07Jan/HoneyBees.htm.
"Mysterious Honeybee Disappearance Linked to Rare Virus". Science News (Scientific American). 2007-09-07.
"Israelis discover cure for bee colony collapse-associated virus | environment". Israel21c.org. 2008-09-22. http://www.israel21c.org/bin/en.jsp?enDispWho=Articles^l2290&enPage=BlankPage&enDisplay=view&enDispWhat=object&enVersion=0&enZone=Health. Retrieved 2010-06-22.
“What a scientist didn’t tell the New York Times about his study on bee deaths”, Fortune Magazine, 2010-10-08.
“Nature's sting: The real cost of damaging Planet Earth” , BBC News Online, 2010- 10-11.