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Beekeeper says changing climate affects species’ behavior and business

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BriarPatch Food Co-op is hosting a virtual fundraising event to screen the documentary film, “The Pollinators,” from Nov. 13-15. Money raised from that event supports the Nevada County Bee Keepers Association.

Much about bees remains a mystery, but the species’ behavior offers its closest observers insight into local environmental phenomena and climate trends.

According to Spencer Wingfield, of the Wingfield Honey Company, Nevada County beekeepers harvest the bulk of their honey at this point in the season in a “normal” year. Not dissimilar to the human experience of 2020, work was interrupted for some of the region’s hardest workers — honeybees.

Wingfield supplies honey to BriarPatch Food Co-op for both sale on a shelf and use in the deli and bakery.

Laura Petersen, the communications specialist at BriarPatch, said the co-op is mindful and wants to invest in its community to meet changing needs.

“We work with local beekeepers and we are concerned any time there are impacts to local agriculture. We try to keep a watchful eye,” Petersen said.

Wingfield described this year’s obstacles as a “problem twofold” resulting in the loss of, or delay, in honey harvest.

“We have a really poor crop this year for lots of reasons — dry conditions, heat in odd months, early heat and then the (relieving) weather events that took place were untimely,” Wingfield said.

Wingfield referred to the rains that shrouded the Nevada County blackberry bloom this summer, a key period of time for pollinators to collect nectar necessary to make honey.

“This year we had a rain event when the blackberries were blooming,” Wingfield said. “Prior to that we had very dry conditions which sets plants up for poor nectar flow. Stars have to align to make a crop of honey.”

Overall, the stars appear to be drifting apart, said another local bee keeper, Randy Oliver.

Oliver said the crop that may redeem this season’s precarious honey yield is the invasive plant yellow star thistle.

Oliver said the Mediterranean native made it to the Sierra in the 1990s and crowded out other plant species.

“It was a huge problem here until they introduced some bio-control insects,” Oliver said. “By the year 2000 it was largely corrected. We haven’t made much honey off of it in recent years.”

Oliver said yellow star thistle optimizes pollen production at high temperatures, which can provide bees with a “surprise nectar flow.”

HONEY AND CLIMATE

Oliver said beekeepers are made acutely aware of changes in the environment at-large as it is reflected in the health of their apiaries. Surprisingly, the fires and affiliated smoke do not have prolonged detrimental effects on the bees themselves or their honey production.

“After the first couple of days of smoke, they acclimate to it,” Oliver said.

Oliver said increased levels of CO2 do affect honey yield through three different ways. The increase in weather extremes — wet or dry, hot or cold — disturbing seasonal rhythms bees rely on for pollen collection and nectar production.

Additionally, Oliver said general warming caused by a fraction of a percent increase of CO2 in the atmosphere will require bees to seek out nutrition at higher elevations.

“As our climate warms, the ecosystems move further north and further uphill,” Oliver said. “We’re actually having to move our yards uphill from traditional areas where there are certain wild plants and pollen sources.

Oliver said he tells his son to enjoy Grass Valley’s oaks and ponderosa pines now “because the next generation won’t have it.” Oliver predicted those trees will be replaced by live oak, chaparral and gray pine.

The third issue with increased levels of CO2, Oliver said, is how it affects plant growth and nutrition levels.

Oliver said plants grow from a combination of CO2 and water. If the ratio is off, the result is not dissimilar to hormone-injected meat — more plant and less nutrition.

“Plants grow with carbon and hydrogen. The increased growth is in the form of carbohydrates. It doesn’t have a correspondent increase in protein and trace elements,” Oliver said. “Honeybees always worked as hard as they could. Now, they need to work twice as hard as they used to, to get the same nutrition.”

Oliver said increased levels of carbon change the ecological niche everyone lives in.

“Everything that feeds higher on the food chain is affected,” Oliver said.

Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with The Union. She can be reached at roneil@theunion.com.


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