Every Third Bite

After every third bite of food you eat, stop and thank the honeybee. Nearly one-third of the world’s crops are dependent on them for pollination. Without honeybees, there would be no fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.

Honeybees are fighting for survival. The population of these food-producing, honey-making creatures has decreased by about a third every year since 2006, reports the USDA Agricultural Research Service. What’s worse, there’s no real consensus on why. Pesticides, disease, parasites, poor weather and the stress of being trucked from orchard-to-orchard to pollinate different crops all play a role in the decline of managed honeybee populations. It’s a big problem – they are an integral part of the production of $15 billion worth of crops ever year in the United States.

Last spring, two guys with some hives decided to do something about it, and started Sweet Beez on a rooftop in Rochester. The goal of their nonprofit organization is educating people about bees, advocating for bee survival, mentoring those interested in beekeeping, and supporting the vocation of honey farming.

Bees Make More Than Honey
They help produce some of our favorite foods.
Apples, Oranges, Lemons, Limes, Broccoli, Onions, Blueberries, Cherries, Cranberries, Cucumbers (and the pickles made from cucumbers), Cantaloupes, Carrots, Avocados and Almonds (Source: National Resource Defense Council).

Urban outposts
Five years ago, when Mike Atwood and Brian Babcock were neighbors in Canandaigua, they decided to take a beekeeping course offered by the Ontario County Cornell Cooperative Extension. “We went just out of curiosity, but fell in love with it,” says Atwood. “I got one hive and just kept going.”

Babcock got the Sweet Beez ball rolling when he approached his employer, FoodLink, about starting some hives. Although FoodLink declined to get into the honey business, it donated space near downtown Rochester – the top floor and rooftop of its old warehouse on Exchange Street – to Sweet Beez.

Atwood and Babcock manage more than 20 hives there, and provide education outreach to local schools, libraries and community events; and help new beekeepers get started. They point out that cities may be the honeybees’ last refuge. “They have the least amount of agricultural pesticides – what many of us think are killing the honeybees,” says Atwood. “Our bees travel from their hives at the warehouse across the canal to Mount Hope Cemetery to collect pollen from the 196 acres of grasses, trees and flowers.

While honeybees prefer to find flowers close to the hive, they will forage as far as five miles away.

Looking for More Information About Honeybees and Their Plight?
Atwood recommends the movie, “More Than Honey” available on NetFlix. Visit the Sweet Beez blog at sweetbeez.org, and find them on Facebook.

Buzzing Rochester’s rooftops
There’s a hive on the roof at The Harley School on Rochester’s Clover Street. It adds to the microenvironment of the school’s rooftop garden, and deepens the students’ understanding of food production and the links between plants, insects and people. Students in Nancy Barrett’s second-grade class there began a study of honeybees as part of a project-based science and reading unit. “My students got very excited about the importance of the study and about sharing what they had learned,” says Barrett. “What’s even more important is their increased awareness of the plight of the honeybee, and how it affects the production of food worldwide.

“SweetBeez let us try on the beekeepers’ outfits and taught us about being around bees, calming the bees with smoke, extracting honey, collecting the beeswax and identifying queen bees,” adds Barrett. “The kids loved it.”

Also successful are the two rooftops hives Sweet Beez helped Rochester Art Supply set up on West Main Street. Eventually the store hopes to use the bees’ wax to create a locally sourced and produced paint.

It’s not about the money, honey
SweetBeez is entirely volunteer run. Atwood and Babcock recruited their spouses and two other couples to keep the organization running. Among them, they spend about 40 hours a week on the various efforts of the organization.

They not only contributed their time, but also their financial support. Startup costs were covered by the founders, and two important $1,000 donations allowed them to buy observation hives for their educational programs, additional frames for the hives, and extra bees. Donations are gratefully accepted.

The bees make honey and Sweet Beez sells it, but the $5 they make for each eight-ounce jar goes right back into the nonprofit. “We’re not looking to make money,” says Atwood. “We want to educate people, get them excited about honeybees and have them understand how honeybees affect them.

“We don’t process our honey,” he adds. “We extract it from the wax cells in the hive, strain it and bottle it. Raw honey still has all the beneficial bacteria. Store-bought honey may be irradiated, heated or have additives, all of which kills the bacteria.”

Raw honey ranges from light and fluid to darker colored and stiff depending upon the time of year and the source of the bees’ food.

Atwood is excited by the organization’s successes so far and hopes to see Sweet Beez grow. “We would like to get hives on more rooftops,” he says. “Anyone can do it. It helps the effort and the owners get free honey!”

He would also like to add community members to the Sweet Beez board of directors, expand its education efforts with other organizations, recruit more volunteers and someday hire paid staff.

“If we lose the puzzle piece that is the honeybee, we will lose a lot of our food and food sources,” says Atwood.

Every third bite could become a mouthful of air.


by Barb Frank