‘Bee City’ Buzz: Helping bees thrive

Susan Knilans

By Susan Knilans, Guest Columnist

They were not making it easy. They could have landed on a low, dangling branch. I have a lot of those in my yard. But they landed on four old, decaying fence boards. I “guesstimated” they numbered over 30,000 — a fine spring swarm of beautiful, amber-colored honeybees.

The bees came from one of the four bee hives in my backyard. Swarming is a much-anticipated part of the bees’ annual rite of reproduction. Birds hatch eggs, bunnies snuggle their hairless young. Bees in a healthy hive send half of their colony to fly off into the world in search of a new place to live. What was one is now two. And this is the season!

Hello neighbors. I’m Susan Knilans, local backyard beekeeper, and president of the nonprofit Preservation Beekeeping Council (PBC), centered here in Camas. At this time of year, I help with local honeybee rescue, rounding up the many bee swarms that are such a part of springtime doings each year.

The rest of the year, I tend my hives, weave new ones from straw, teach beekeeping and, along with PBC’s other volunteers, offer informational programs about pollinator health all over the region. Come autumn of this year, I’ll be in Holland, speaking at the first International Conference on Natural Beekeeping.

You could call me besotted with bees, but most folks who learn a bit about the amazing lifestyle and incredible value of honeybees switch from fear to wonder pretty quickly.

A few months ago, PBC approached the city of Camas about a special dream of ours. We invited the city to explore the possibility of becoming one of a quickly growing number of certified “Bee Cities” through the Bee City USA program. Seattle and Puyallup are already on board with this national charter, which requires cities to offer pollinator-friendly programs, events and education in the schools and in the community.

Imagine our excitement when city administrator Pete Capell listened to our enthusiastic pitch and said, “This sounds like fun!”

In the coming weeks, we hope to move from dream to reality with Bee City USA. Such a designation would highlight Camas as one of the cities in America truly committed to helping the struggling pollinators we all depend upon, with programs that can truly make a difference for the bees, for our food and for our health.

Let’s go back to those fence boards, where the bees are waiting. Standing in front of those four, rickety fence boards covered in pulsating bees, I knew my affection for the bees would guide me through the difficult work of collecting them.

Did you know that bees and wasps have facial recognition and rudimentary systems in place for personality? My bees have gotten very used to my face, as I sit by their hives and learn from them. We understand each other pretty well now.

Bee friend Thea helped me set up one of my skeps — old fashioned woven straw hives that I make and use. We placed it near the fence panels on a small table, propped up the edge on a brick, then placed a sheet-covered plank as a ramp from the ground to the hive.

That was the easy part. We would need to coax the bees into the skep after gently removing them from the boards with our bare hands, long feathers and a goofy little tool called a “bee wrangler.”

Swarming bees are at their most gentle. It seems the very process of swarming puts them into a delicious trance. Although many folks have a terrible fear of coming across huge balls of bees dangling in unexpected places, swarming bees are usually as sweet as puppies.

When I very slowly scooped up bare handfuls of warm, tickling bees and placed them in a carrying box, I expected no stings and the bees kindly obliged. An hour later, when we finally had them all in the box, we poured them all out onto the sheet-covered plank.

Within minutes, the confused mass of bees milling on the sheet turned their faces up to the entrance and began marching up the plank, wings all aflutter, thousands of bees singing as they walked.

I will watch this stately procession probably close to 20 times in the coming two months. And it never gets old. Watching this creation of new life, and dreaming new bee dreams for my town — what could be better?

Oh, perhaps a swarm for the Camas Library’s brand new habitat hive! Yeah … that would be the best ever. Camas Public Library (which hosts our monthly bee club meetings) will tell you it’s easy to fall in love with bees.

In the coming months, I’ll be sharing information about our Camas bees as Bee City USA becomes a reality. With our help, bees can thrive here. And with the bees’ help, our gardens and vegetables will thrive, too.

Susan Knilans is president of Preservation Beekeeping Council (PBC), a local nonprofit that educates about bees. Susan is a beekeeper, teacher and New York Times bestselling author. Her beekeeping and writing all celebrate the wonder of the natural world. For bee rescue, call PBC at 360-841-7632. For more information, visit PreservationBeekeeping.com or email Info@PreservationBeekeeping.com.