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Published August 14, 2014, 09:42 AM

Rooftop bees at University of Minnesota are thriving

Bee colonies are dying off in alarming numbers in rural Minnesota and across the country, sparking worries about global food production and environmental health.

By: Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio News

Bee colonies are dying off in alarming numbers in rural Minnesota and across the country, sparking worries about global food production and environmental health.

It’s a different story, though, in the hives on the roof of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Nurtured by University of Minnesota researchers and MIA staff, the bees here are doing quite nicely, thanks. They’re healthy, breeding and making lots of honey.

“Their neighborhood is definitely feeding their bees very, very well, which is wonderful to see,” says Becky Masterman, who oversees the museum’s colony as part of the University of Minnesota Bee Squad, a research unit that advises beekeepers, teaches bee colony care and keeping and manages 12 rooftop bee operations in the Twin Cities.

The rooftop bees here hold important clues to the long-term health of the bee population in Minnesota, one of the nation’s top honey producing states. The trends appear to show that survival rates and honey production for urban and suburban bees outpace their cousins in farm country, where swaths of bee habitat once flush with nectar and pollen-rich plants have been plowed under.

By contrast, the institute’s bees have it easier.

“It’s likely that the urban bees are feeding on landscapes that are being well nourished and watered,” Masterman says. “They’re able to achieve so much as a group and make decisions based on resources, based on environmental conditions . . . and to be able to share that information with the public, it’s an endless source of intrigue and behavior that is fascinating.”

More than 350 bee species live in Minnesota, though the honey bee is not native, coming to this continent from Europe in the 1600’s.

Bees will fly up to five miles to forage and find their way back home. With enough food, they can survive winters. With a water supply they can endure desert-like heat with their collective air conditioning system. When bees sense their home is too hot they take a slurp of water, head back to the colony and move their wings to fan it around, Masterman said.

On a recent visit to the arts institute colony, Bee Squad members and a few observers wear protective veils to guard against bee stings as they walk past huge cooling units on the roof.

Most bees are not aggressive. They’re too busy making honey.

Even so, Masterman tells observers to stay back. “It’s a good idea to not stand in front of the colonies but standing behind them is fine.”

The Bee Squad members are here for a regular inspection. They puff smoke at the hive to slow bee activity. Squad member Jessica Helgen calls back information to Masterman: “This one’s got lots of eggs, really well fed brood, lots of honey, pollen. Looks good.”

After a winter and spring of weather gyrations the rooftop hives here appear to be doing just fine, though several newer colonies on other urban rooftops are struggling because of harsh spring and summer conditions.

It’s a bleaker picture elsewhere in Minnesota where bees are struggling. Nearly half of Minnesota’s bees died over the winter; 58 percent died in Wisconsin and 56 percent in Iowa, according to the non-profit group Bee Informed.

Loss of habitat and a mix of synthetic chemicals including herbicides and pesticides toxic to bees and their offspring are factors. So is an invasive parasite. The mites, originally from Asia and introduced in the U.S. in 1987, suck blood from adults and young and shorten their life span.

It’s no trivial matter. The impact of pollinators is significant. One-third of the world’s crops depend on insect and animal pollinators and in Minnesota bees are the top pollinator, University of Minnesota entomologist Marla Spivak told Minnesota lawmakers last year. That led lawmakers to approve money for a new bee lab at the university.

Spivak also used some of the $500,000 McArthur Fellowship she won in 2010 to help start the 11-member Bee Squad. She recruited Masterman to lead the squad and develop a two-prong program for people interested in bees.

Masterman, 44, is a Fridley native who says she was a bookish kid, not inclined at all toward the outdoors. Her undergraduate degree was history with a minor in biology but a part-time job in the university’s entomology department led to her fascination with bees.

Her work with bees ended almost before it began. As she was doing graduate work for her Ph.D., Masterman developed an allergy to bee dander. Ten years later Masterman says the allergy cleared up and she’s back working with bees.

When asked what it will take for bees to survive, Masterman quotes her mentor, Spivak.

“People need clean, diverse food,” she says. “So do bees.”

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