Backyard beekeeping is big in Portland, but it’s also increasing in popularity worldwide, bee educator Rebekah Golden says.
She teaches classes on how to be a backyard beekeeper at Bee Thinking, a locally owned beekeeping supply store and education center in Southeast Portland.
But she didn’t always like bees. Her entire life, Golden said, she was “quite fearful” of the little pollinators. She originally studied ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona with the intent of studying chimps in Africa.
It was when she worked as a research assistant in a bumblebee pollination lab that she discovered bees were far more docile and unique than she had ever imagined.
“I fell in love with them,” she said.
“There are 4,000 native bee species to North America. Most of them are not social and don’t produce honey like honeybees do – honeybees were actually introduced from Europe in the 1600s,” she said. “Most of our pollination is done by our native bees, and they are actually better at pollinating than honeybees. The way we use our honeybees as commercial pollinators is actually a misuse of their skills.”
The mason bee will pollinate 95 out of every 100 blossoms it visits, making it very popular with gardeners who have cherry, apple or other fruit trees. It’s also quite gentle compared to the honeybee, Golden said.
While honeybees live in large colonies that need to be managed, a single female mason bee will take care of all her own young.
Bee Thinking builds several alternative models of backyard hives for honeybees, made from sustainably sourced wood grown in the Pacific Northwest. For those who want to keep honeybees, starter kits range upward from $99 without the hive, and $349 with a hive.
But for about $20 to $30, they also offer mason bee houses you can stock with paper tubing for bees to nest in. These small houses look more like birdhouses than beehives and require very little maintenance.
Mason bee houses can hang from a building or in a tree, and should be about 6 feet off the ground. You can also purchase cocoons and place them in the paper tubing where they will nest.
Bees will emerge from the tubes and pollinate your garden; then it’s hands off until October, Golden said.
RELATED: Turn your garden into a pollinator habitat
The bees will hibernate in the winter, so in the fall, remove the cocoons from the tubing, get rid of any that have parasites or disease, and then stick them in a refrigerator for safe keeping until the spring.
Bumblebees and many of Oregon’s other native ground-nesting bees require even less maintenance.
One of Oregon’s native ground-nesting bees, the mining bee, is so docile that children at Sabin Elementary in Northeast Portland call it the “tickle bee,” and made it their school mascot. Thousands of mining bees make their home at the school, and they earned their nickname because they “tickle” when they touch the students’ skin.
To accommodate ground nesters, simply leave a bare patch of loosely packed earth that gets some south or southeastern morning sunlight, Golden said. The trick is to simply leave it alone throughout the year.
“You’ll see people who have planter boxes with perfectly manicured and mowed lawns, and it’s really organized and aesthetically pleasing,” Golden said. “Or you could have something that looks just a little more chaotic, and is lived in.”
In addition to leaving some bare patches of ground, she recommends planting perennial grasses, which have extensive root systems that make good homes for ground-nesting bees. Allowing some weeds to grow will give pollinators a pollen and nectar source when many other flowers aren’t in bloom.
She also recommends avoiding pesticides, especially neonicotinoids.
“There are a lot of different neonicotinoids, and it’s under dozens of names in products you can purchase off any garden store shelf. A lot of people know neonicotinoids are bad, and don’t want to spray them, but then don’t realize that that’s what they are using,” Golden said.
RELATED: The widely used pesticide that's killing Oregon bees
“Even some natural pesticides are going to have problems,” she said. “They mostly come from really concentrated plant compounds, but those plants were evolving for thousands of years to combat herbivores, so it’s still very toxic, even though it’s natural.”
Throughout evolution, as plants up their toxicity, insects evolve a resistance.
“It’s kind of this arms race between the two,” Golden said. “Whereas pollinators have spent thousands of years in a mutualistic relationship with plants, so they don’t have a lot of the same pathways that develop resistances to pesticides or to other plant compounds, so a lot of times they are more susceptible to those toxins than other insects are.”
While you will not need a permit from the city to keep mason or ground-nesting bees, you will if you want to have a honeybee hive. You will also be required to notify your neighbors, have a visual barrier and meet a number of other requirements. If you rent, you will need written permission from your landlord.
Get a permit
You can visit Portland Urban Beekeepers’ website to learn more about the permitting process at portlandurbanbeekeepers.org.
Take a class
Bee Thinking offers beginner beekeeping classes for $30. They are typically held from 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Meet the experts
On June 28, Mace Vaughan, Pollinator Program co-director at The Xerces Society; Ben Bowell, organic education specialist at Oregon Tilth; and Rebekah Golden will each give a short lecture for an In Good Tilth magazine launch party at Bee Thinking’s store and mead taproom at 1744 SE Hawthorne.