A global pandemic won’t stop the Urban Ecology Center’s Chris Steinkamp from making sure people are staying connected to nature. As Volunteer and Evaluation Coordinator at the Milwaukee environmental education center, Chris promotes sustainable urban living. He also serves as the center’s beekeeper. I chatted with him about the hives and the use of bees as an educational tool.
All of our centers are closed until at least May 15 at this point. All staff are working from home and I haven’t been to the centers in weeks. We have been staying connected with our partners with updates and there has been a tremendous response. We are encouraging people to enjoy the parks with distancing guidelines.
Yes, I keep bees personally, using Heritage Honey Bees from Sullivan. I have hives in my backyard as well as in a community garden.
I had a friend who was moving out of Milwaukee and had a Beepod that had been sitting in his garage. He didn’t have room for it in his new place and asked me to store it in my garage. I got to thinking I should learn how to keep bees.
I did and unfortunately two of them were dead. A third hive is weak but hopefully it will make it. The deadouts are probably due to mites. I was expecting this to happen and already placed orders for more bees.
I have been doing a no-chemical experiment for the past two years. I think a Varroa battle is too hard to fight without chemicals.
The hive has enough honey and pollen from the winter. It’s just a question of if the queen can rear up her egg-laying before the mites take over. I could do a simple syrup feed.
The UEC does not remove more than a small bit of honey for kids to taste the honeycomb. As a rule, I don’t extract honey unless there’s a deadout. For my personal hives I extract 20-30 lbs.
Feral bees collect all they need to survive the winter. When we take honey bees and remove honey you have to be careful how much you take. If the rest of the year is dry and there is not a lot of bloom you have to feed a food source like sugar water which is a much less ideal food source. The best thing for bees is to leave everything in the hive.
I like top bar hives for educational purposes and public spaces. The Beepods design has a nice window to see what’s happening in the hive without opening it up.
The main narrative tends to be about the honey bee population because honey bees are used commercially to pollinate almost all of our foods. But of pollinators in general, the honey bee is the least important for our natural ecosystem. Imported from Europe, honey bees put pressure on native bees. For anyone interested in conservation of pollinators, honey bees are the lowest bang for the buck. They help pollinate your large garden but compete with native bees. Because they are commercially managed, honey bees can carry diseases that negatively influence the population of native bees.
That said, I like to keep honey bees at the centers because it is a great entry point to get people interested in pollinators. Then we can take the conversation deeper. The end goal is to keep thinking more broadly about all of our pollinators. I ask children if they know the 500+ native species of bees. Sightings of the rusty patched bumble bee were exciting for people interested in native bees.
Some groups of seven-year-olds have been really excited and some high schoolers are very timid. Usually, there are a few that are scared and a few really bold. I try to work with the ones who are bold and they rub it off on their peers.