Two honeybee colonies -- made up of nearly 50,000 pollinators -- now live on the roof of the Fisher's Landing New Seasons Market, part of the regional chain's new "Bee Part of the Solution" campaign. The company did the same in April at its store in Happy Valley, Ore.
The goal is not only to provide the bees with a safe place to raise their brood and make honey, but spark further dialogue on the precarious plight of the important insects. By next spring, the rooftop bees' ranks could grow to more than 120,000.
The Portland beekeeper who was hired to help kick-start the campaign said it might just raise awareness about dwindling bee populations and ongoing threats to their survival, such as pesticides, parasites and disease.
"A piece like this is a great way to start that conversation," said Damian Magista, owner of honey company Bee Local.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that beekeepers have been struggling in recent years with higher-than-average yearly bee losses; some have lost up to 90 percent. The alarming "colony collapse disorder" phenomenon was first noticed in the winter of 2006. Researchers are investing significant resources to find the cause of -- and counteract -- this trend.
Bees pollinate a majority of food crops in the world. The Washington State Department of Agriculture estimates the value of plants in the state that are pollinated by bees is more than $2.75 billion.
Bees escape on moving day
Moving day is usually a burden, but you probably haven't had one quite like Magista.
Early Monday morning, he transferred the bees -- living in special boxes called "nucs" -- from their temporary home in his Southeast Portland yard. But when driving to Vancouver, some of the bees made a great escape by chewing through the carrier in his van.
Out came the bugs. Not all of them, but enough to jolt even the professional bee man. A handy role of tape did the trick to cover the hole, but the insects remained irritated until finally set free on the roof. The bees were particularly attracted to Magista's hair, and throughout the morning he would sweep his hand over his locks to brush away any pests, whether they were actually on his head or just imagined.
Despite his ordeal, Magista said honeybees are typically not aggressive and should leave shoppers alone. Worker bees travel miles away to gather nectar and bring it home to feed their kin and queen.
Making honey, money
Next spring, once the hives are more established, the company might start selling its own honey brand. It'll also use the harvested sweetener in its products.
New Seasons would like to bring bees to more of its 12 stores, but for now is keeping it simple.
"We're making sure these hives do really well before we expand it," said New Seasons' Chris Tjersland, a Vancouver resident who is leading the bee campaign.
Before taking charge, the private brand development manager said he, like others, gave little thought to the pollinators.
"I misunderstood them a bit," Tjersland said.
A few New Seasons employees will be trained to tend to the insects and Magista will pop by routinely and make sure the bees are healthy.
Kathy Peirce from the deli department was one who volunteered for that duty. A few years ago, she took a class on bees and has since become intrigued by the insects and their necessary role in the food chain.
"They are fascinating and important," Peirce said.
There's a growing buzz around urban beekeeping and many grassroots initiatives have been created to bolster bee numbers in populated areas.
The Port of Seattle recently donated property by the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport so The Common Acre nonprofit can create a honeybee habitat.
Related projects are popping up across the country.
Bike-a-Bee in Chicago brings beehives via bicycle to green spaces, while Bee Public in Indianapolis also places and maintains bee colonies around the city. And rooftop bee hives just like at New Seasons have been showing up across the country, even on top of New York's famous Waldorf Astoria, where honey is harvested for use in the hotel's kitchen.
"It's become a larger movement," Magista said.
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