At a glance
• The Forsyth County Beekeepers Club meets at 6:30 p.m. the fourth Thursday of each month at the Sawnee Mountain Preserve Visitors Center, 4075 Spot Road. For more information, visit www.forsythbeekeepersclub.org.
• To learn more about proper use of insecticides and how to avoid killing honey bees, contact the Forsyth County Extension Service at (770) 887-2418.
What was once buzzing with life is now just an empty space on a wall at the Sawnee Mountain Preserve.
An observation honey bee hive did sit on the spot, but now all that remains is a small metal pipe where bees used to travel in and out of the hive.
“When it was here, it was always covered up with kids looking at it,” said Heather Dowdy, an employee of the preserve on Spot Road.
Beekeeper Bill Dunn, who’s also active with the Forsyth County Beekeepers Club, said this isn’t the first time the observation hive has had to come down.
“We put the hive up about four years ago and I know there has been at least one other time a couple of years ago, and this is the second time this year,” Dunn said.
The reason is simple, but the solution to the problem is a big one.
Dunn explained that local gardeners using insecticides to kill garden pests are also inadvertently killing off honey bees.
Bees collect pollen from flowers. The pollen then serves as food for the hive.
If flowers are covered in insecticides, the bees also pick up that poison and return it to the hive, feeding it to adult and baby bees.
The death of an entire hive, like the one at Sawnee Preserve, can happen quickly.
“When this happened in March, the staff left for the night and came back the next morning and there was about 2 inches of dead bees in the bottom of the hive,” Dunn said. “The bees were just regrouping from that kill when this pesticide kill happened.”
While the death of honey bees at Sawnee Mountain Preserve is sad for visitors, the death of bees on a larger scale could be devastating for many more people.
Fellow beekeeper and club member Palmer Haffner said honey bees play a huge role in farming.
According to reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, honey bees in the U.S. produced more than 175 million pounds of honey in 2010.
But besides the sweet treat they’re known for, bees do much more for humans.
“Something I didn’t know before I started keeping bees is that they are either directly or indirectly responsible for about two-thirds of the food we eat,” Haffner said.
That’s because bees help pollinate many flowering plants that produce fruits and vegetables.
The USDA estimates that honey bee pollination services alone add about $15 billion to the value of U.S. food production each year.
Reports from the department say some of the top food crops that benefit from honey bee pollination include almonds, apples, cotton, peaches, cherries, grapefruits, tangerines, oranges and soybeans.
Locally, Dunn said he uses his honey bees to help apple growers in the northwest Georgia town of Ellijay, known as the apple capital of the state.
“Each year I take my hives up there to help them with the apple production because they don’t have a lot of honey bees up there,” Dunn said. “Every year, I get all sorts of calls from the apple growers saying they couldn’t have done it without these bees.”
Dunn and Haffner said there are many misconceptions when it comes to honey bees.
Among them, that they are aggressive.
“Whenever you say anything about bees, everybody always cringes,” Dunn said. “Everyone is afraid of bees.”
But, added Haffner, when most people think of stinging insects they’re actually describing yellow jackets or wasps, which are naturally aggressive. Honey bees, on the other hand aren’t unless provoked.
“I work with my bees in regular clothes,” he said. “When I first started, I used the veil and gloves, but then I realized that really was unnecessary. So long as you’re calm, the bees are calm too. Unless they feel the hive is being threatened, they won’t sting.”
Dunn said people often think full protective suits are needed to work with honey bees, but that’s not really true.
“A lot of the big commercial honey producers will wear them because they have to be more rough with the hives since they’re on tight schedules, but most of your hobbyist beekeepers never wear them,” he said.
Another misconception, said Haffner, seems to be that honey bees aren’t actually insects.
“People use pesticides to kill insects, but they don’t [think] about bees,” he said. “People will tell us all the time, ‘I bought this poison for bugs in my garden, why would it affect the bees?’ And we have to tell them that honey bees are insects too.”
Dunn said there are a few ways to avoid pesticide killings like those at the Sawnee observation hive.
First of all, he said, people shouldn’t automatically use pesticides just because they see one or two bugs in their garden.
“A few pests are OK,” he said. “You really only need something if you have an infestation.”
The best way to determine if a pesticide is really needed, he said, is to contact the Forsyth County Extension Service.
“People should also use the appropriate pesticide for the problem, if it’s needed,” Dunn said. “The extension office can help them determine what to use and how to use it.”
Another way to avoid bee killings is to carefully read labels on products, using only pesticides with a short life span only during times when honey bees won’t be collecting pollen.
“They make products that only last four to eight hours,” Dunn said.
The best time to use those products is late evening, after honey bees have already returned to the hive for the day and won’t be back out until the next day, he said.
“That way, the poison has already worn off by the time they return.”
Dunn encouraged anyone with questions about use of insecticides and how to help save bees to contact the Forsyth County Extension Service.
“The extension service is probably the most underused resource we have in our county,” he said.
Both he and Haffner hope the Sawnee Preserve observation hive will return soon, and people will think about bees as they garden.
“Losing honey bees would be devastating to our food supply,” Haffner said.