UWRF student organization, Hudson business are part of effort to help honeybees

Posted April 6, 2016

The global honeybee population has been declining for a few years, but in western Wisconsin organizations like the UW-River Falls Bee Club and the business Plantables have set out to do something about it.

Bee Club is a student organization that focuses on raising honeybees. Though UWRF is seen largely as an agricultural school, it does not offer a beekeeping major, so the Bee Club affords students a fun way to explore the industry.

Bee Club had been around campus for a number of years before Miranda Martin, a field biology major, joined. Now in her second year of membership she is the president of club. She said that when she got involved last year, the membership and activity of the club seem to have been dwindling for some time. Martin and a few other new members took it upon themselves to revive the student organization, and Bee Club now has about seven members who are active and committed to the group year round.

The main thing members spend time doing is working with honey. Brad and Kim Mogen, professors in the biology department, are the advisors to Bee Club and host students in the organization to help harvest their home beehives.

“We go out there for the day, extract the honey, and learn the whole process,” Martin said. “We actually just got a donation to buy two hives also, so hopefully that will get a few more people involved.”

After they’ve helped collect the honey, they buy some of the product and package it into bottles for a sale on campus. This year they also were able to purchase and work with some beeswax, too, and made candles and lip balm to sell eventually.

Discussion of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is another intrinsic aspect of Bee Club. Martin said that because very little is known about how beehives function, a lot of the work Bee Club does to mitigate CCD is simply research on bee colonies. Bee populations are declining is part because of diseases permeating hives, and Martin has assisted the Mogens on honeybee immune system research. If CCD isn’t stopped, Martin conceded that vegetation and ecosystems would look very different.

“You’ve probably seen in the news that somewhere between 30-50 percent of all the food we eat comes from pollination,” Martin said. “And if you go to California, they import hundreds and thousands — I don’t know, maybe millions — of hives of bees, so it’s a huge business. There’s a lot of beekeepers that rely on this business and sometimes all it takes is setting out some water baths that bees can get a drink from or plant some pollinator friendly flowers, just something they can stop by while they’re out foraging, just to keep them going.”

Honeybees are not native to the Americas. Like many species, they were brought to the continent by European settlers. Bees are a very important part of the economy, as well as ecosystems. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Honeybee Health and Colony Collapse Disorder report from 2013, pollinators are responsible for about $15 billion increased crop value each year. Every third mouthful of food people eat is in some way affected by the health of pollinators like honeybees.

The report states, “commercial production of many specialty crops like almonds and other tree nuts, berries, fruits and vegetables depend on pollination by honeybees. These are the foods that give our diet diversity, flavor and nutrition.”

Unfortunately, honeybee populations have been declining drastically in recent years. Each winter since 2007, losses of managed honey bee colonies have been fluctuating between 22 percent and 33 percent annually. This far exceeds the historical rate of around 10 percent to 15 percent before the 1980s.

Lack of habitat and pollen-gathering opportunities for the insect is one of the biggest reasons the populations might be declining. For this reason, another local organization, founded by a former Hudson High School (HHS) teacher and a UWRF professor, is working to change that.

Karen Klyczek, a biology professor at UWRF, developed the idea for the Plantables LLC company with her husband, Jim Schreiber. They opened the business — a combination of their passions — in a downtown Hudson warehouse in 2014.

Schreiber is a former special education teacher at HHS and was concerned about the huge percentage of his students who were unemployed after graduation. The average unemployment rate for people with disabilities is over 90 percent nationally. Schreiber didn’t want his students to be part of that statistic, so he helped start Plantables, an equal opportunity employer, where people of all ability levels can get a real job.

“My love is working on social justice, her love is working on environmental activism, so we really combined our two loves and made this (Plantables) really what it is today,” he said.

The company is based on a production model of sustainability. The employees use recycled paper to create greeting cards with flower seeds embedded in them. When the recipient of a card is done with it, the idea is to plant the card in the ground, and it will sprout blooms to attract pollinators.

Another popular product is called a “bee bomb,” which is a small, dry clay ball embedded with many different types of seeds, which can be thrown into many types of soil and will sprout. Led by Klyczek, biology courses at UWRF conducted studies on the product in a variety of surfaces, such as sod, soil, and woodchips, to see how the sprouting would be affected by surface type.

The point of this is to attract pollinators, since so few flowers are seen in landscapes today, Schreiber said.

“One of the biggest problems is the lack of flowers we have, the pollen for the bees,” he said. “That’s why we decided to make them flower seeds. Everything is either just green trees or buildings or roads; there’s hardly any wild flowers anymore. Just plant, plant, plant. That’s what we need to be doing, too.”

Schreiber, like Martin, noted that CCD is something all citizens, not just biologists, should be concerned about.

“You know, we’re all here together,” he said. “That’s the most important thing. It’s basic. If we don’t take care of the earth, and the bees, and each other, we’re going to have big problems.”

Plantables is getting a lot of press coverage in the coming weeks Schreiber said, the goal being to inform many people will be about both the problem of CCD and unemployment among the disabled.

What started with five employees now has 17 part-time workers, of all ability levels, who are paid minimum wage. People with disabilities are often paid less than minimum wage, Schreiber said. He also said that the company is one of only a handful of companies that employ multi-ability employees, the next closest being a bakery in New York that he hopes to visit this summer. He would like to see more companies follow this model in the future.

“There needs to be opportunities for these kids,” he said. “I knew they were capable of doing real work, of contributing to their communities, so I created work for them. They’re real workers, too. It needs to be clear that this is not a non-profit. That’s not the model we were going for.”

He added: “More teachers need to do this when they’re done teaching… Seeing them be productive and be apart of something important like this is the best part… What we are doing here is really cool. We’re loving every minute of it.”