The fruits of honeybees' labors add to a wholesome human diet and augment our natural pharmacopeia.
But the insects' own failing health is behind the recent proliferation of backyard hives, with beginning beekeepers determined to preserve the species and its critical role.
The tide of honeybee deaths has been steadily rising since the 1950s, experts say. A swarm of factors — parasites, viruses, chemical toxins, nutritional and genetic deficiencies, modern farming methods and even weather — seems to cause colony collapse disorder, which kills entire hives swiftly and unexpectedly.
Ailing bees can't pollinate plants that yield food for people and animals. Nor can they produce the sticky and sweet substances that support human health.
"There are so many medicinal properties that come from honey," says beekeeper Sarah Red-Laird, who taught "Healing With the Honeybee Hive" last fall at Ashland's North Mountain Nature Center.
The product of nectar cured with the bees' own gastric enzymes, honey is a proven sleep aid, cough suppressant and antibiotic when applied topically to wounds and burns, says Red-Laird. And it contains "all the goodness" of flowers, she adds.
Flower pollen is nutritious to humans as well as bees, modulating appetite and elevating one's mood. It's higher in amino acids, pound for pound, than animal proteins and also boasts vitamins C, D, E and the B complex.
Comprising tree and plant resins collected by bees, propolis "actually is magic," says Red-Laird, citing its inclusion in natural toothpastes to prevent gum disease. Full of essential oils, vitamins and minerals, this "bee glue" also has anti-bacterial, -viral, -fungal and -inflammatory properties and is the subject of research for treating cancer and HIV, she says.
"It's a great cold and flu remedy," says Red-Laird, explaining that it can be administered as a tincture or in capsules.
Taken internally, royal jelly — the fluid in which queen bees are raised — can help balance hormones and often is used topically to smooth wrinkles. Beeswax is another boon to beauty treatments.
"It's something you know is healthy," says Red-Laird.
But beekeepers' overeager harvesting of hives can damage their bees as much as any natural or man-made adversary. Leaving bees without honey to eat in winter likely makes them more susceptible to pathogens and other culprits in colony collapse disorder, says Red-Laird. Hobbyist beekeepers invariably are shocked to hear their bees died of benign neglect, she adds.
"It's important to baby your bees."
Red-Laird's nonprofit Bee Girl practically started itself last year when people began asking for help establishing hobby hives. Although the 33-year-old Ashland native kept bees while researching colony collapse disorder as an undergraduate at University of Montana, she says she didn't realize there was such interest in backyard beekeeping in the Rogue Valley.
"The hobbyist beekeepers don't really have anybody to help them."
So rather than toil as a "worker bee" for commercial apiculture, Red-Laird decided to focus on education. Operating as a nonprofit makes Bee Girl eligible for grant funding, allowing Red-Laird to bring hives into local schools and work toward "save the bees" initiatives. Providing consultations for hobbyists is a niche that no other beekeeper had filled locally, says John Jacob president of the Southern Oregon Beekeepers Association.
"It's a tremendous resource," says Jacob, whose Old Sol Enterprises in Rogue River has supplied starter hives for Bee Girl clients.
Hobbyists purchased 70 to 80 percent of the hundreds of starter hives Old Sol has sold every year for the past four years, says Jacob. At the same time, attendance at the Southern Oregon Beekeepers Association's monthly meetings has roughly tripled, he adds.
"There's been a fantastic boom in backyard beekeeping," he says. "(Colony collapse disorder) really brought a lot of civic awareness."
Concern for bees' welfare spurred Ashland resident Scott Allison to action last year. Connecting with Red-Laird through Jackson County Master Gardeners, he enrolled in a few of her classes before enlisting her to bring bees to his organic fruit trees and berry bushes near Talent.
"I wanted to do whatever I could to support populations of bees," says Allison.
Red-Laird first surveyed the one-acre property, identified the best habitat for bees and gave Allison a list of supplies. Allison's initial costs were about $200, with follow-up fees for Red-Laird to deliver the bees and then perform a health inspection several weeks later.
"She's real big on education," says Allison.
The bees also did their part to put a new keeper through the paces. Not even a few stings could distract from Allison, 55, from his fascination with the colony's comings and goings.
"They fly with a purpose; they conserve their energy," he says. "They know a lot."
Mental and spiritual communion with bees also can have a profound effect on human health, says Red-Laird. Exercises in calming the mind and emotions in order to avoid exciting the hive have been used in prison rehabilitation programs, she says. Historically, beekeeping often has occupied a mystical realm in harmony with the natural world.
"It brings an awareness of your surroundings," says Red-Laird. "It's a very, very calming, very relaxing ... almost Zen-like experience."
For more information about bees and beekeeping, see Bee Girl's website, www.beegirl.org and the Oregon State Beekeepers Association website, www.orsba.org. The Southern Oregon Beekeepers Association meets at 7:30 p.m. the first Monday of the month at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, 569 Hanley Road, Central Point.