Bee-lieve in the power of pollinators
Approaching the apiary, a group of about eight beehives, the dull hum is the first sound you hear. From 100 yards away, the noise of thousands of bees working fills the air. It's a dull hum, almost mechanical, and is a sign the bees are hard at work laying eggs, sealing honeycomb caps, and producing honey.
Beekeepers don their protective veils, and fill canisters with wood and fuel to smoke out the bees. Once the bees are calmed by the smoke, it's time to inspect the hives.
Hobby beekeepers, farmers and apiarists (people who study bees) crack open the hives and pull out combs full of bees. The bees are dense and circle around the beekeepers. Some even hold bees in their hands. Most bees are unlikely to sting unless provoked, and a gentle hand means they're relatively safe to handle.
These bees are part of an apiary that the Oregon State University Extension office uses to research and monitor honeybees in Jefferson County. The hives also serve as a learning tool for anyone in the county to interact with and increase knowledge of honeybees. These bees are here year-round and overwinter in the cold dessert.
However, in early summer every year, Jefferson County imports hundreds of thousands of additional bees.
No bees, no carrot seed
The bees come in on large pallet trucks in their hives from commercial beekeeping outfits from across the state and country. They're here to pollinate carrot plants.
Carrot seed is one of Jefferson County's largest agricultural exports. The seeds grown here provide the rest of the country and world with seeds used to plant and grow carrots, both commercially and in hobby gardens.
According to Oregon State University, Jefferson County grows enough carrot seed to meet 55% of the domestic demand and 45% of the global demand.
Carrot seeds are a highly valuable crop, selling for around $11 a pound, and each acre netting around 400 pounds. OSU estimates that the average net income per acre of carrot seeds is $1,233.
Jefferson County is uniquely positioned to produce carrot seed, due to its low rainfall and humidity, cool nights and moderate summer temperatures.
Most farmers in the area begin planting the seeds in the August, or plant from roots called stecklings in the spring. The plant goes to flower in June or July and flowers for about three weeks. These three weeks are where the bees come in.
People know bees as valuable pollinators that help flowers and foods grow and provide delicious honey. Without them, Jefferson County could not produce the foods, vegetables and other crops it does.
Planning for the flowering of carrot seeds begins at Central Oregon Seeds Inc. long before seed is in the ground. Coordination between the local farmers, commercial beekeepers and COSI make the operation possible.
COSI coordinates with farmers and the OSU Extension to plan what fields are planted with certain crops and manages where beehives will be placed to ensure each field is properly pollinated.
"We do a lot of planning for the bees," said Bruce Martins of COSI. "What we do here would not be possible without them."
The beehives that roll into Jefferson County on large trucks are managed by commercial beekeepers. These businesses come from across the country to Central Oregon in the summer. They bring with them 10,000 to 15,000 beehives total; at 20,000 to 80,000 bees per hive, this means between 200,000 and 1.2 million bees enter Jefferson County each summer and return to their travels at the end of the season. According to OSU, the average colony rental fee for farmers is $35.40 for vegetable seed, and the bees are stocked at three colonies an acre on average.
These bees have travelled up and down the West Coast following the flowering seasons of a variety of plants.
"Most commercial beekeepers start their season in February, following the almond bloom in California. That is the biggest event of the beekeeping year," sad Heike Williams, the OSU Central Oregon Extension's apiculturist, another word for someone who studies bees. "After that, they move to a variety of places, they travel north to the fruit trees in Hood River in spring, many end up here for the carrots in July."
The commercial beekeepers and the farmers both benefit from the introduction of honeybees to the crop. The farmers see marked increases in the production of their fields, and commercial beekeepers benefit from the rent farmers pay to use their hives and the sale of the honey they produce.
In Jefferson County, these commercially kept honeybees are essential to the success of farmers, and the worldwide production of carrots.
"Without bees, we wouldn't have the food and vegetables we grow here," said Williams. "We wouldn't have any of the natural growth."
Save the honeybee
Over the last 15 years, saving the bees has been a large push by environmentalists and average citizens alike. The push to support honeybees was and remains big, and spurred conversations around the use of pollinator friendly pesticides.
This push came because of Colony Collapse Disorder, which was first reported 2006. This phenomenon results in high colony losses, often very suddenly.
The impact this had on honeybees was drastic, but increased protection and awareness of the impact pesticides have had on honeybees has dramatically reduced the amount of colony collapses. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, since 2008, losses due to CCD have dropped by roughly 60%.
Honeybees are still threated by pesticides, CCD, and human impact. OSU continues to conduct research into the health and benefit of honeybees during their season in Central Oregon.
"Now, honeybees are doing better," said Williams. "It is important to take care of honeybees, and our native bees. The native bees are essential."
While many are familiar with the bumbling honeybee, they're not native to Oregon. In fact, they're not native to the United States.
The European Honeybee, Apis mellifera, is the most common honeybee species. It's native to Eurasia and was one of the first domesticated insects. It was brought to the Americas by European colonists in 1622.
This non-native bee is great for pollinating large crop fields and producing the delicious honey so many enjoy, but the Apis mellifera is not the vital part of the ecosystem Oregon's native bees are.
Oregon is home to at least 630 species of native bees. These bees vary widely in their formation of colonies, production of honey, size, and color.
Previously, little was known about Oregon's native bees. No large study had ever been conducted, and a definitive list had not been created. This made gathering information about the health of these bees almost impossible.
In 2017, researchers from OSU, the Oregon Department of Forestry, and the Oregon Department of Agriculture came together to work towards identifying Oregon's native bee populations. The Oregon Bee Project and the Oregon Bee Atlas were born.
"The goal is really to engage individuals with the native bees around them," said Williams. "We are training regular people to identify and collect data on the bees around them."
The project has already identified several previously undocumented bee species native to Oregon, for example the Oregon Lava Hole bee, Atoposmia oregona, which had not previously been seen since 1969, and was only spotted four times since its discovery in 1927.
The bee lives within the lava fields of the Cascades, nesting in the small holes formed by gas bubbles 2,000 years ago. It was identified again in 2020, by an expert melittologist, someone who studies native bees.
The Oregon Bee Atlas teaches citizens how to find and identify bees, like the Oregon Lava Hole Bee, and many others, as well as the plants they prefer for pollen. This allows researchers, legislators and even the average person to make decisions to benefit bees. Anyone can join the citizen team, and more information can be found at https://extension.oregonstate.edu/bee-atlas
"Just by planting the right plants, and providing the right environment, you can make a difference for native bees in your backyard," said Williams. She added that the OSU Extension for Central Oregon has a variety of tips to plant bee friendly lawns and gardens, as well as ways to provide bees with shelter.
Bees, both native and honeybee, are an essential part of our ecosystem, and buzz around Jefferson County year-round. Honeybees allow Jefferson County farmers to provide the county with one of its largest exports, and the world with most of its carrot seed. Native bees keep our flowers blooming and vegetables growing.
When July comes and you pass semi-trucks full of beehives on the highway, see the white beehives dotting the fields, or when you see bees buzzing around flowers, remember the positive impact they have on the world around us.
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