Vicki Munroe has a bee in her bonnet. What put it there was an article she read in 2008 about the mysterious disappearance of bees – both honey and bumble – that seems to be taking place all over the planet these days. Scientists call it “Colony Collapse Disorder.”
“You open a hive, there's honey, food, but no bees,” Munroe said. “Nobody knows for sure what's causing it. Lots of things may be contributing to it. We had big losses in 2012 due to drought. Varroa mites are another possibility. These are insects the size of a head of a pin. They attach themselves to the bees and suck out their bodily fluids. This weakens them and makes them susceptible to disease. Then there’re the pesticides. When they do autopsies on bees, they'll find 20 different pesticides in their bodies.”
Why is this a big deal? To put it starkly, civilization as we know it may not be possible without them. Bees pollinate an estimated $15 billion worth of produce each year in this country alone.
"That's about a third of what we eat in fruits, nuts, and vegetables," Munroe said. "If the bees die off we won't have any food. They also give us honey, wax, and propolis.”
Propolis? That’s a resinous mixture the bees collect from tree buds, sap flows, and other botanical sources, which they use as a sealant for unwanted open spaces in their hives. Propolis may have potentially beneficial uses for human beings, ranging from the treatment of skin burns to the prevention of cancer.
Once she understood the situation, Munroe decided to get involved. She started by installing three beehives in her backyard.
"My goal was just to take care of them,” she said. “I'm passionate about it. The honey was secondary."
She also wanted to do something to alert the general public about the dangers bees – and humans – are facing. One thing led to another, and on St. Patrick’s Day, 2009, she opened To Bee or Not to Bee, a shop catering to the backyard beekeeper. It's located in a Quonset hut behind the family equipment rental business at 39th and Fox.
“This used to be the paint booth where we painted all our construction equipment,” she said. “We sell beekeeping supplies. In the spring we sell bee packages containing 30,000 bees, a can of food (sugar syrup), and a smaller cage with a queen bee in it.”
The shop also serves a larger purpose. “I see it as an information highway for everything bee related,” she said. “Education is my main focus. We try to be a clearinghouse for speakers, mentors, and clubs along the Front Range. My objective is to keep the bees alive.”
Even if you don’t keep a hive in your back yard, Munroe thinks there are things you can do to help the bees survive.
“Plant flowers in your yard that the bees like; dandelions, thistle, lavender, Russian sage," she said. "We should be planting flowers along the highways to support the pollinators instead of spraying pesticides to control the weeds. Don't use pesticides of any kind, and don't ever spray a swarm. If you've got bees, call us and we'll come get them. You don't need to be afraid of bees. If you don't threaten them, they'll leave you alone.”
It may be a niche business with a limited clientele, but five years into it, To Bee or Not To Bee is managing to stay afloat. "I'm not into it for the profit,” Munroe said. “I'd rather spend my life on earth doing something like this. Each one should try to do a little bit."
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Don Morreale is assembling a collection of his Examiner stories entitled "Cowboys, Yogis, and One-legged Ski Bums." Look for it this Spring.