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Debates swarm around bees

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Bees enjoy a warm February afternoon on a hive in Glen Andresens yard.Bees need beekeepers like fish need bicycles.

That’s the philosophy of many “natural” beekeepers in Portland, who think that the less beekeepers mess with the bees, the better.

“I ask new beekeepers, ‘What are you doing’ when they go into a hive. They say ‘I don’t know,’ “ says Matt Reed, a Southeast Portland beekeeper since 2008, who started a business called Bee Thinking a year later. “Unless you have a plan, (checking on the bees) is probably more disruptive than helpful.”

That hands-off approach runs contrary to mainstream teachings found in books, online resources and many classes for beginning beekeepers.

Other leading beekeepers in Portland who also ascribe to the natural philosophy have a slightly different take.

“There’s nothing wrong with going into the (honey) comb and taking a look,” says Glen Andresen, a master beekeeper of 20 years who’s led classes around town since 2008.

“The bees might not necessarily like it, and it might set them back an hour, but if you’re careful, there should be no harm done,” Andresen says. “If you do nothing, it’s likely your bees are going to die or swarm.”

Bee parents

Not unlike parenting, there are strong opinions on all aspects of urban beekeeping — from what kind of hive is most sustainable, to what kind of chemicals are used. (Natural beekeepers agree on using no chemicals at all).

With the meteoric rise in beekeeping in Portland and the United States since the 2006 discovery of colony collapse disorder, it seems there’s a new backyard beekeeper starting up every day.

But people who get into the hobby without taking proper care of the bees run the risk of doing more harm than good, experts say.

“Someone who makes a hive and doesn’t do anything with it just creates a reservoir for pests and diseases,” which will spread to other hives in the neighborhood, says Mace Vaughan, pollination conservation specialist for the Portland-based Xerces Society.

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Master beekeepers Glen Andresen (center) and Tim Wessels, right, along with intern Anne Tracy, check on bees in their mating yard. They set up neighbors with hives populated by drones that appear to be winter-hardy, hoping to breed local queen bees that can withstand Portlands cold winter temperatures. Reed, of Bee Thinking, recognizes the subtleties in the decisions involved. He wants to help beekeepers be conscious of all of their choices. That’s why he chose the name he did for his company, Bee Thinking.

The former information technologist-turned-beekeeper offers hives, classes and supplies, and advocates for his own brand of natural beekeeping at forums around town and nationally.

“Beekeepers love their bees and want them to succeed and thrive,” Reed says. “They feel like they want their efforts to be important and giving them the right things will make them thrive.”

That said, beekeepers are some of the most opinionated people he knows. “If bees could talk,” he says, “they’d probably tell us to be quiet.”

Hive debate

One of the biggest questions in beekeeping these days is what kind of hive to get. In Portland, that basically translates to what is most sustainable.

And people on both sides of the fence love to rally for their favorite.

Reed’s 3,000-square-foot shop in Southeast Portland’s Ladd’s Addition neighborhood sells three high-end specialty hives made from western red cedar.

He uses all three styles at home with his own bees. But he considers himself an expert on the “top bar” hive, which has two distinct features Reed thinks are beneficial.

It is a single-story, rectangular frame that has no plastic or beeswax foundation for the bee colony, thereby allowing the bees to freeform cells on their own.

“It’s amazing what the bees have done with all this,” Reed says, as he lifts up the top bar of the demonstration hive at his shop, revealing a fully formed honeycomb. “All we have to do is give them a wooden bar with a groove in it.”

Michael Bush, author of several natural beekeeping books, advocates for a natural cell size, as do other experts.

Reed’s top-bar hives also feature a large horizontal window, to allow beekeepers to watch their insects at work, much like an ant farm.

Reusing the hive

Andresen and Vaughan prefer the more common style: the Langstroth hive, a vertical column of boxes with removable frames of pre-made wax or plastic foundations.

They also come without foundations, but Andresen and Vaughan prefer the foundations, for several reasons.

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Bee Thinking owner Matt Reed leads a sold-out beginners class on beekeeping at his Southeast Portland store.One is that bees tend to produce at least twice as much more honey with a foundation, Andresen says. “It seems to me that if the bees can produce that much honey, they’re thriving more,” he says.

He also argues that honey production is not as sustainable with foundation-less hives because the comb must be crushed to remove the honey.

The bees must start over building a new comb each year, which Andresen likens to having to rebuild your home after a disaster.

With a foundation, beekeepers can remove the frame, uncap the honeycomb, extract the honey from the cells and then return the empty frame to the hive. The bees will clean up and refill the cells.

Reed also sells a third type of hive, the Warre, a vertical top-bar hive. “The best hive is the one that is best for you, in your situation,” he says.

Damian Magista, owner of Bee Local, an artisan honey company based in Southeast Portland, has his own definition of sustainable beekeeping.

Similar to the philosophies of Reed, Vaughan and Andresen, it involves using low-impact techniques, maintaining forage-rich environments, planting native plants to attract pollinators, reducing chemicals, using local queens and leaving enough honey for the bees to avoid additional feeding, if possible.

“Essentially, sustainable beekeeping is the exact opposite of current commercial beekeeping practices,” Magista says.

Local beekeepers couldn’t be happier that more people are taking an interest in the role of pollinators on the planet.

While they might disagree on the small points, they don’t want to lose the big picture.

“Anytime we’re putting bees in a box, it’s unnatural,” Andresen says. “Right off the bat we have human impact to the bee. Where they live is kind of immaterial. It’s just a domicile.”