Good buzz: U researchers find hope in the thriving urban bee

Bee in flight on the Hirshfield's, Inc. roof
A honeybee takes flight on the roof of Hirshfield's, Inc. warehouse in downtown Minneapolis.
Judy Griesedieck / For MPR 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," said Becky Masterman, who oversees the museum's colony as part of the University of Minnesota Bee Squad, a research group managing 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.

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U of M Bee Squad coordinator Becky Masterman
University of Minnesota Bee Squad coordinator Becky Masterman tightens a strap on a bee box on the roof of the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. The straps are used to make sure that the tops of the boxes don't blow off in the wind.
Judy Griesedieck / For MPR News

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 said. "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 honeybee is not native, coming to this continent from Europe in the 1600s.

Checking colonies on the roof of the MIA.
University of Minnesota Bee Squad members check bee colonies on the rooftop of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Minneapolis skyline as a backdrop. They are, left to right, Jessica Helgen, Jenny Warner and Chris Kulhanek .
Judy Griesedieck / For MPR News

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."

Varroa mite, seen here on the pupae of a bee
A threat honeybees face is the varroa mite, seen here infesting the pupae of a developing bee.
Judy Griesedieck / For MPR News

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.

July inspection at the MIA.
Bee Squad member Jessica Helgen examines a frame full of honeybees, bee brood and honey during a July inspection on the rooftop at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
Judy Griesedieck / For MPR News

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 United States in 1987, suck blood from adults and young and shorten their life spans.

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.

Besides managing the rooftop bees, the squad advises beekeepers and teaches bee colony care and keeping.

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 quoted her mentor, Spivak.

"People need clean, diverse food," she said. "So do bees."

U of M entomologists have created a list of flora that people can plant to help bees thrive. Click here to find it.