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Bees improve a garden's beauty, help food grow, make honey and more - and they could use your help

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Linda Zahl wears a protective layer to look over her bees, but other times she checks on the bees without protection. More important, Zahl says, is moving slowly and being aware of the signs when the bees are angry.

In Columbia County, environmental stewards, gardening enthusiasts and insect admirers alike are focusing on bees.

Columbia County is home to the newest branch of the Oregon State Beekeepers Association. In recent years, beekeepers in the county have found support and guidance in the Oregon State University Extension Service office. Two months ago, they branched out to form a club.

"A beekeeping club can share what best beekeeping practices are," said Linda Zahl, president of Columbia County Oregon Beekeepers. "Many times, new beekeepers really need that one-on-one support."

"Beekeeping is quite the challenge nowadays," Zahl said, describing Varroa mites that have become increasingly common in honey bee colonies.

The club brings in speakers each month. Next up is a honey judge, who will give advice on honey processing.

There are countless things you can do with the bee's handiwork. Even bee venom has uses: bee-stings can help treat rheumatoid arthritis. To help with the arthritis in her hand, Zahl has even been hoping she'll get stung soon.

Getting started as a beekeeper isn't cheap.

"That's why it's good to come to club meetings before you start," she said. "Therefore, when you spend your money, it's more likely that your bees will stay alive."

Commercial beekeepers are an aging population, but Zahl hopes more young people will become interested in bees. "Food is our future, and I think we're not telling young people this enough. They don't know it, so they don't know all these wonderful opportunities in food for our future — and honeybees are part of this," Zahl said.

Zahl encouraged anyone interested in beekeeping to join the group's Facebook group, "Columbia County Oregon Beekeepers."

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Zahl inspects a comb from one of her beehives. The bees produce wax, which they then use to build the small hexagonal cells that make up honeycomb.

Native bees

"Every region in the world has native pollinators who are a part of that ecosystem. Here in the Pacific Northwest, our indigenous pollinators are called mason bees," said Janet Gifford, a Columbia Land Trust board member.

Studies have shown that a third of the food we consume requires pollination to grow, but bee populations are threatened by illnesses, pesticides and changing environments.

Mason bees out-pollinate honeybees by a 60-to-1 ratio, according to Gifford. "Honey bees are being stretched to their absolute limit," she said, explaining that honey bees are imported, so they aren't as naturally equipped for the environment. But even mason bees are struggling today.

"Mason bees are threatened not by illness, but by development," Gifford said. Mason bees rely on trees to tunnel into and raise baby bees, or larvae, but development means fewer and fewer trees. Unlike honey bees, which can travel miles from their hives to find nectar, mason bees only go a few hundred feet from their home. This means it's hard to get them to move in, Gifford said.

Those who are interested in supporting mason bees can buy a few bees in winter and early spring. Gifford bought a handful of bees, and a few years later has hundreds of mason bees.

"There's so many more flowers blooming in my garden, and I have to give credit to mason bees," Gifford said.

Mason bees are particularly docile, according to Gifford. Plus, they don't compete with honeybees.

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - The beehives are filled with frames to make building and processing honeycomb easier for both the bees and beekeeper, but the bees sometimes ignore those guides.

Finding a bee baseline

It's well-established that bee populations are diminishing. But in Columbia County, there isn't much data to compare historical populations to today. To get baseline data, the Oregon Bee Atlas project was established by the Oregon Department of Agriculture, OSU, the Oregon Department of Forestry and others.

The Oregon Bee Atlas started in 2017 as a result of a bill approved by the state Legislature in 2015. Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, was a sponsor of the bill; Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, voted in favor of it.

"We're unique that we have a [state] Legislature that recognizes the needs of our pollinators and that we need to understand what is happening," Zahl said.

"Sometimes you don't really know what you've got until it's gone, so it's good to have some baseline data," OSU Extension Service agent Chip Bubl said. There are volunteers and supporters who are interested in honeybees, others who are interested in the native bees, and others who are fascinated by all bees, Bubl explained.

Deb Brimacombe is a volunteer on the Bee Atlas Project, which involves collecting specimens from locations around the county.

"I'm just a bug freak," Brimacombe said.

In 2011, she took the Master Gardener training offered by the OSU Extension Service office and was "fascinated" by the pest management section. When the Oregon Bee Atlas project came up, it was a perfect fit.

This year, there are 13 volunteers in Columbia County out collecting bees, a huge increase from the three volunteers the project had last year. Participation involves training on the collection process, which already happened this year. "Even though (interested community members) can't sign up directly right now, they can always go out with people when they want to go out and collect bees," Brimacombe said. "We can always use help educating others … We're more than happy to help them find a place they can get involved," she added.

Backyard buzz

Anyone interested in nature or food sources, even those not interested in building a beehive in their backyard, can choose plants that support bee populations.

Dandelions are a good source of food for bees, which means you can put off mowing your lawn. "Don't think of them as ugly weeds, embrace them as our friends," said local beekeeper Linda Zahl.

Mason bees benefit from plants that bloom between March and June. Good plants for bees include:

• Fruit trees and berry yields

• Weeds like dandelions and clover

• Native perennials, such as camas, early blue violet, stonecrop, red columbine, lupine, and Oregon sunshine

• Native trees and shrubs like Oregon grape, vine maple, crapabble, willow, elderberry, and snowberry

• Ornamental plants including redbud, forsythia, and andromeda

Janet Gifford is a volunteer technician with the Backyard Habitat Certification Program, which helps residents of lots one-acre or smaller to create healthy habitats for wildlife. (The program is not yet in Columbia County). There are five key things homeowners or renters can do to make their property a healthy habitat for wildlife, according to the program:

• Remove invasive plants,

• plant native plants,

• encourage wildlife to visit garden,

• add plants with deep roots to prevent erosion and help manage stormwater, and

• eliminate or reduce pesticide use.

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