By Tali Haller
Exuding passion and enthusiasm, local activist Heather Wood is buzzing about her newly-created non-profit business, the Urban Evergreen Bee Sanctuary. The organization builds hives that maximize bee happiness and then distributes them (at low cost) to community members. “We’re essentially facilitating people’s ability to interact with, shelter, and give love to bees,” explained Wood. Their mission? To get hives to anyone who wants one, regardless of income. Their goal? To distribute at least 1,000 hives in the next few years.
Obtaining a hive is simple: call and order. There is minimal maintenance. (“The bees know how to feed themselves,” as Wood says.) Although actual bees aren’t part of the order, the organization can help you obtain a wild swarm. If you order now, you can expect a hive by spring, right in time for bee season, which is typically April to August.
The cost of a bee hive varies. However, Wood stresses that anyone who wants one will get one regardless of financial challenges. She’s found that $350 covers the total cost. But because that is too steep for some, she is asking for extra donations from people who can afford it. This brings joy to my heart. It’s great to see an organization that genuinely cares about the cause they’re serving. As I see it, they’re willing to find ways to leverage the financial aspect for the intangible gains of bee longevity.
“It’s not about the money or the honey,” said Wood. “It’s about providing shelter for the bees and learning from them. They’ve been here for millions of years and they provide valuable ecological services.” In fact, the economic value of bees’ pollination services are worth millions in low estimates and billions in high estimates. Clearly, they are worth protection.
Yes, it’s not about the honey. But beekeepers can still reap the benefits. According to Wood, someone could potentially get up to 50 pounds of honey. “People need to leave the honey for bees to have during the winter and take it in the spring,” she stresses. “That is really important. It’s one of the main things that separates natural beekeeping, what we’re doing, from conventional beekeeping.”
But what is the Urban Evergreen Bee Sanctuary doing differently? “We’re building hives that are completely different in structure than conventional bee hives,” said Wood.
The group’s hives are horizontal boxes with floating top bars, meaning they can be spaced appropriately (the honey comb is narrower at the front, and wider at the back). There are also windows in the side, so that you can have a peek at how the hive is doing without causing any disruption to the bees. In conventional beekeeping, you generally have to take apart the hive to look inside and see what’s going on. The design comes from Corwin Bell, founder of Backyard Hive in Eldorado Springs, Colorado. He calls it the “Golden Mean Hive.” If interested, you can purchase designs directly from him for $10 and make a hive on your own.
But the differences between Wood’s version of natural beekeeping and conventional beekeeping go beyond structure. There are also differences in treatment. According to Wood, in conventional beekeeping, bees are transported around to different farms, where they’re released to pollinate thousands of the same flower or crop. However, both the transportation and the limited variety of crop are bad for the bees, who are used to living in the same place for hundreds of years as a colony and having access to all types of flowers.
Conventional beekeeping also tries to keep bees from swarming (which is when a body of honeybees emigrates from a hive and flies off together, accompanied by a queen, to start a new colony). “But swarming is a natural and necessary process,” said Wood. “Conventional beekeepers stop swarming because they want to protect their investment. They don’t want their bees to get away,” Wood explained. “However, we need to let them swarm so that bees can stay genetically diverse and spread out.”
Wood wants to honor their timing and respect the “hive mentality.” “The colony is really like a body, each individual forgetting itself for the survival of the hive. They will literally feed each other before they feed themselves,” she said.
Although bee season is relatively short (under 5 months), there is no offseason for the workers. Year-round they will be making beehives. “We’re still working out all the kinks so we need as much help from the community as we can get,” said Wood.
Already, community donations, volunteerism, and interest is huge. Olympic Glass, located on the east side of Olympia, has agreed to give the Urban Evergreen Bee Sanctuary an incredible discount on 1,000 plexiglass windows for the bee hives. The Urban Evergreen Bee Sanctuary has also received a small grant from the Thurston County Community Sustaining Fund, which was the money that initially got them started.
“This project has been such a loving experience so far. Everywhere we turn people want to help,” Wood said with gratitude. However, to stay running, they need the community’s continued support.
“We would love more volunteers! They can make donations in money, time, or tools (we need everything from drills to screws, but we’re especially in need of bigger tools, such as routing tables). What’s more, volunteers with all sorts of skills are welcome – writers can craft grants, builders and people wanting to work with their hands can build hives, artists can create advertisements and help raise awareness.