You’ve heard of eco-roofs and rooftop gardens, but the latest twist to hit Portland comes with a sweeter payout: Rooftop honeybee hives.
New Seasons Market recently installed a honeybee hive atop its store in Happy Valley, a picturesque suburb 15 minutes east of Clackamas that’s a mix of newer homes and farmland.
“They’ll go to all these neighborhoods, start pollinating everyone’s gardens and yards, the fruit trees and farms,” says Portland beekeeper Damian Magista, surveying the skyline from the grocery store’s roof. “It’s a great environment here. There’s plenty of food.”
In other words: Happy bees make lots of honey.
By late August, Magista expects the bees to produce enough honey to start selling it at the Happy Valley store.
But that’s not the primary motivation for New Seasons’ “Bee Part of the Solution” campaign.
The company aims to educate people about the honeybee’s critical link in the ecosystem, and the fact that they are dying out worldwide, due to what’s known as Colony Collapse Disorder.
The number of managed honeybee colonies in the U.S. has decreased from 5 million in the 1940s to 2.5 million today, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
A May 2 report by the USDA and Environmental Protection Agency points to a variety of stressors; including parasites, disease, genetics, poor nutrition and pesticide exposure.
Scientists at the Oregon State University Honey Bee Lab have been focusing on two factors in particular.
They’re studying the impact of a honeybee pest called the invasive varroa mite, as well as poisoning by pesticides applied to crops or to hives to control insects, mites and other pests.
New Seasons sees it as part of its mission to educate people about the phenomenon, because of the direct link to the food chain.
“There is an important link between the health of American agriculture and the health of our honeybees for our country’s long-term agricultural productivity,” said Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, upon the release of the latest federal report.
New Seasons could install a second rooftop hive at its Sellwood store in Southeast Portland in June after a process required by Multnomah County to notify neighbors.
The initial hope was to install honeybee hives on all 12 of the local grocery chain’s rooftops (a 13th location opens late August in Northeast Portland’s Eliot neighborhood). But Washington County won’t allow it, so the Progress Ridge store in Beaverton may miss out.
The rooftop hive idea was sparked by an incident last summer, when a swarm of bees made its home above the New Seasons sign at its Raleigh Hills store in Southwest Portland. Local TV cameras came and documented the removal of the swarm, which was safely relocated.
A few other grocery store chains have begun rooftop hive projects, including Bi-Rite in San Francisco, which New Seasons used as a model, says Mark Feuerborn, the Happy Valley store manager.
Feuerborn, a home beekeeper who’ll manage his store’s hives, is excited for what’s to come. A “bee cam” will let people peek in on the hives and the honey harvesting. Shoppers can draw a direct link to the products in the store through new displays of honey-based products — everything from lip balm and candles to jars of pure, unprocessed honey made in Portland.
“Two miles away is Saelee Farms,” Feuerborn says. “We can see our bees pollinating their products, ending up on our shelves. This is a way for people to remember that.”
Lots of local buzz
Interest in urban beekeeping has soared in recent years.
“Portlandia” could even write an episode called “Put a bee on it.”
There’s a Portland Metro Beekeepers’ Association, whose members keep bees for hobby and business.
The Portland-based Xerces Society, a nonprofit invertebrate conservation group, launched a “Bring back the pollinators” campaign. That’s attracted more than 1,000 people who signed a pledge to do four things: Grow a variety of bee-friendly flowers that bloom from spring through fall; protect and provide bee nests and caterpillar host plants; avoid using pesticides, especially insecticides; and talk to neighbors about the importance of pollinators and their habitat.
There’s also a Portland Urban Beekeepers group, which aims to promote the public’s awareness of “apiculture” and the overall health and diversity of bees in the Pacific Northwest. Club president Tim Wessels says his group started with a dozen or so people meeting informally in 2010. Last spring they’d grown so large that they created officer positions and began meeting monthly. Today there are 115 members who pay the $15 annual dues, plus another 240 members on Facebook.
As president, he’s asked people why they’re drawn to bees, and he more or less gets the same answer: “Well, the bees are hurting, aren’t they? We just want to help out and see if we can bring the population back.”
Others just like honey, and he’s cool with that, too.
Wessels and fellow beekeeper/business partner Glen Andresen are working with a grad student at OSU’s Honey Bee Lab and retired entomologist Dewey Caron on an effort to breed a local queen bee. Most of the purchased queens here come from Southern California or Kona, Hawaii, Wessels says. Unsurprisingly, they’re not able to survive Oregon’s winters.
Wessels believes it’s possible to breed a Portland honeybee with “hygienic behavior,” which is their behavioral mechanism of disease resistance. After the queen lays an egg in a cell, if a worker bee somehow determines mites are in the cell, it would remove the mite. The result is that the mites aren’t able to reproduce.
It might sound like a far-fetched idea, but Wessels and his team have about 100 hives around Portland, and they’re collecting swarms that did survive this past winter.
“If we are successful in developing a more locally adapted honey bee, perhaps others can use this model in other cities,” he says.
Sweet new products
Magista, the beekeeper working with New Seasons, owns a startup company called Bee Local, which harvests and sells micro-batches of artisan honey varieties — with flavors made distinct by the flora and fauna of each neighborhood. He works with backyard beekeepers in the Mt. Tabor, Laurelhurst, Powellhurst and Brooklyn neighborhoods, and the buzz is spreading.
Beekeepers estimate there are about 500 hives being kept by people in Portland, many on rooftops, since bees are attracted to trees at about the 15-to-20-foot height.
One of those rooftops is at Noble Rot restaurant in Portland, and more could soon follow. That’s good news for honey connoisseurs.
“What dictates the taste is the flowers and forage in that particular area,” says Magista, who won a 2013 “Local Food Hero” award in March, presented by Ecotrust.
“It’s more than just the honey, it’s really about getting people to be more in touch with their immediate environment. What can I do at my home, in my yard to make a difference?”