photos by Daniela Buvat

Bees are dying, and we need to do something about it.

save the bees Polly Draker

Beekeeper Polly Draker

I’m praying I don’t get stung by one of the 70,000 bees buzzing within a foot of my face. Polly Draker has no such worries. A beekeeper in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Draker has spent the past two years of her life raising these bees in her backyard hives. She knows them and knows not to be nervous — at least not about the thousands of stingers within striking distance. When it comes to bees in general and the challenges they currently face, that’s what makes Draker nervous.

Within the past few years, bees have gone through serious struggles, including widespread pesticide use and an increase in colony collapse disorder. And while there has been a recent uptick in the number of bees nationwide, there is still reason to keep a close eye on the diminished bee population. During an afternoon in September, Draker explains why these insects are crucial to our food chain and society as a whole.

save the bees daniela buvat

We suited up in a beekeeper’s protective uniform and prepared a smoky fire to calm the bees. “A lot of people think it’s the fire that keeps them calm,” Drake says. “In reality, it’s actually detrimental to them. The smoke is what soothes them.” The smoke blocks the alarm pheromones released by guard bees that get injured while Draker inspects the hive. This allows the beekeeper to work without interrupting or angering the bees.

After calming the bees, Draker feeds them a food supplement that looks and smells like lemonade. Considering the time of year — fall — and the fact that she harvests the hives’ honey, the bees’ food stock needs to be replenished for the hive to stay healthy. “It’s water, sugar and a product called Honey B Healthy, which contains lemongrass oils that promote bee health and feeding,“ Draker says. In a perfect world, she wouldn’t worry about feeding these bees; they would adapt to their environment and survive. But Draker says pollution, disease and seasonal fluctuations make adapting more difficult.

After opening the hive crate, I was expecting all of the bees to swarm out and attack my face. Instead, they were all calm. “Each bee has a specific job,” Draker says. “For example, we caught these bees in the middle of creating wax to fill the crevices of this area. They see flaws and try to fix it.” Draker quickly undoes their work as she begins scraping off the pieces of wax. “Wax serves so many purposes most people don’t know about. It’s really a great natural thing with tons of natural health benefits.” For example, humans often use beeswax as a skin moisturizer. It can also lower cholesterol and protect the liver.

The bees are separated into man-made frames inside beehive crates. Two years ago, Draker started with 10,000 bees. “They ship them in crates. You have to order them by the pound. It’s a crazy process.” As the hive grows and the bees make more honey, filling up the available space, Draker has to add more crates. “You want to make sure they have enough space to store their honey because, if you don’t, they’ll decide this isn’t a good place to live and they will swarm,” she says. Draker currently has four crates, each weighing 60-70 pounds when full. “The more honey, the heavier,” Draker says. While she removes the box, I worry that all the bees might escape. Draker assures me that the bees wouldn’t fly too far. “They always come back,” she says. “Their queen’s pheromones attract them, and keeps them from ever permanently fleeing.”

“(The queen bee) is their everything,” Draker says. “She’s somewhere in the middle of all of these, but if the queen ever tried to go to a different hive, they would kill her.” Lovely.

Bees are responsible for a third of the food we humans enjoy. Unfortunately, our striped friends are still experiencing population problems. Even with a recent increase in the population, bees are far from being in the clear. Shane Bixby, a certified master beekeeper at the University of Montana, says we have to take action, and fast. “There are a lot of different reasons the bees were — and still are — dying out,“ Bixby says. “Colony collapse disorder is what people mainly blame, but it’s more than that. Pesticides on farm crops, which are actually insecticides, are being sprayed on plants and bees. The things that people use to spray things on our lawns are worse than what farmers use. We have just stacked the cards against the bees, and we don’t realize how much we need them for survival.”

So does beekeeping help or hurt the cause? Draker originally started beekeeping as a passion project and so that she could make her own honey. But in the last year, she has become more aware of how important her role as a beekeeper actually is. “I know I’m not changing the world, but I hope I’m at least making a difference for this surrounding environment by helping pollination and the food chain,” Draker says. Bixby says that an uneducated beekeeper will lose at least one third of their bees, which would create more problems than if that person had never started a hive at all.

Later in the day, Draker’s bees become angry. “They start to go into panic mode,” she says. “I can tell they are starting to get a bit agitated. They notice us, and we have kind of interrupted their normal schedule of working for too long.” The buzzing of 70,000 bees is slowly growing louder, and I notice that they’re becoming more aware of me. I remain calm, but am fascinated by the loud buzzing noise that all of them collectively created.

Bees matter. A lot. And Bixby believes we all need to take action. “We need to do something!” he says. “We will lose foods we love, like coffee. You’d also be awfully hungry.” He suggests contacting state representatives and officials to demand they put native flowers and dandelions in roadway ditches to increase bee habitat. “We have got to do something for their nutrition and population or we are going to lose them,” he says. “Whether you like it or not, these bees help us. It’s our duty to keep it that way.”

We suited up in a beekeeper’s protective uniform and prepared a smoky fire to calm the bees. “A lot of people think it’s the fire that keeps them calm,” Drake says. “In reality, it’s actually detrimental to them. The smoke is what soothes them.” The smoke blocks the alarm pheromones released by guard bees that get injured while Draker inspects the hive. This allows the beekeeper to work without interrupting or angering the bees.

After calming the bees, Draker feeds them a food supplement that looks and smells like lemonade. Considering the time of year — fall — and the fact that she harvests the hives’ honey, the bees’ food stock needs to be replenished for the hive to stay healthy. “It’s water, sugar and a product called Honey B Healthy, which contains lemongrass oils that promote bee health and feeding,“ Draker says. In a perfect world, she wouldn’t worry about feeding these bees; they would adapt to their environment and survive. But Draker says pollution, disease and seasonal fluctuations make adapting more difficult.

After opening the hive crate, I was expecting all of the bees to swarm out and attack my face. Instead, they were all calm. “Each bee has a specific job,” Draker says. “For example, we caught these bees in the middle of creating wax to fill the crevices of this area. They see flaws and try to fix it.” Draker quickly undoes their work as she begins scraping off the pieces of wax. “Wax serves so many purposes most people don’t know about. It’s really a great natural thing with tons of natural health benefits.” For example, humans often use beeswax as a skin moisturizer. It can also lower cholesterol and protect the liver.

The bees are separated into man-made frames inside beehive crates. Two years ago, Draker started with 10,000 bees. “They ship them in crates. You have to order them by the pound. It’s a crazy process.” As the hive grows and the bees make more honey, filling up the available space, Draker has to add more crates. “You want to make sure they have enough space to store their honey because, if you don’t, they’ll decide this isn’t a good place to live and they will swarm,” she says. Draker currently has four crates, each weighing 60-70 pounds when full. “The more honey, the heavier,” Draker says. While she removes the box, I worry that all the bees might escape. Draker assures me that the bees wouldn’t fly too far. “They always come back,” she says. “Their queen’s pheromones attract them, and keeps them from ever permanently fleeing.”

“(The queen bee) is their everything,” Draker says. “She’s somewhere in the middle of all of these, but if the queen ever tried to go to a different hive, they would kill her.” Lovely.

Bees are responsible for a third of the food we humans enjoy. Unfortunately, our striped friends are still experiencing population problems. Even with a recent increase in the population, bees are far from being in the clear. Shane Bixby, a certified master beekeeper at the University of Montana, says we have to take action, and fast. “There are a lot of different reasons the bees were — and still are — dying out,“ Bixby says. “Colony collapse disorder is what people mainly blame, but it’s more than that. Pesticides on farm crops, which are actually insecticides, are being sprayed on plants and bees. The things that people use to spray things on our lawns are worse than what farmers use. We have just stacked the cards against the bees, and we don’t realize how much we need them for survival.”

So does beekeeping help or hurt the cause? Draker originally started beekeeping as a passion project and so that she could make her own honey. But in the last year, she has become more aware of how important her role as a beekeeper actually is. “I know I’m not changing the world, but I hope I’m at least making a difference for this surrounding environment by helping pollination and the food chain,” Draker says. Bixby says that an uneducated beekeeper will lose at least one third of their bees, which would create more problems than if that person had never started a hive at all.

Later in the day, Draker’s bees become angry. “They start to go into panic mode,” she says. “I can tell they are starting to get a bit agitated. They notice us, and we have kind of interrupted their normal schedule of working for too long.” The buzzing of 70,000 bees is slowly growing louder, and I notice that they’re becoming more aware of me. I remain calm, but am fascinated by the loud buzzing noise that all of them collectively created.;

Bees matter. A lot. And Bixby believes we all need to take action. “We need to do something!” he says. “We will lose foods we love, like coffee. You’d also be awfully hungry.” He suggests contacting state representatives and officials to demand they put native flowers and dandelions in roadway ditches to increase bee habitat. “We have got to do something for their nutrition and population or we are going to lose them,” he says. “Whether you like it or not, these bees help us. It’s our duty to keep it that way.”

save the bees infographic
Graphic created by Zoe Hanna.