Earth Week welcomes honeybee speakers to UWO

Christian Basken, Assistant News Editor

UW Madison lecturer and author of “Where Honeybees Thrive” Heather Swan and members of the Nicaragua Bee Project came to UW Oshkosh on Thursday, April 19 to speak about sustainability issues centered around bees during Earth Week.

The Nicaragua Bee Project is a non-profit organization that was founded in 2014. The focus of the project is to train individuals on beekeeping, work with rural, low-income families, provide beekeeping starter kits and to bring volunteer beekeepers to Nicaragua.

The project consists of a team of volunteers who travel to Nicaragua three times a year. In July, the team visits new community site requests. In November, the team conducts training classes, and in February, team members will deliver bee colonies to new beekeepers and inspect existing beekeepers. The team currently consists of six individuals, two of whom spoke at the event: President Marty Havlovic and Executive Director Dr. Michael Bauer.

Swan said she wanted to bring awareness to the issue surrounding honeybees and the planet in her book. In her book, Swan mentions strategies for how people can make certain changes that would help the bees as well as hearing from beekeepers dealing with on-the-ground issues of keeping bees alive.

“All pollinators and all insects are actually suffering right now because all kinds of things: climate change, habitat reduction and pesticide use,” Swan said. “The story about honeybees is really the story about all of our insects and the importance of our ecosystem.”

Anne Dickey, administrator at the Sustainability Institute for Regional Transformations and coordinator for the event, said Swan takes critical thinking to a new level in her approach.

“I think that bees and the colony collapse disorder are in the news a lot,” Dickey said. “Heather Swan’s approach is to give a broader perspective on bees and beekeeping and bringing international perspective but also bringing artistic perspective in a reflective way. We are used to analyzing problems in our culture in a very technical way, and it’s easy to lose sight of the meaning and the value that we can all draw from the natural world to sustain our souls as well as our bodies.”

Swan said people can make more of a difference than they think.

“In the book, I really try to focus on how we need to be more careful and more thoughtful as humans because we’re so powerful as humans,” Swan said. “The human has more control over the climate and the natural world than we have ever had historically, and we have to think about that and how we proceed so we can give a healthy planet to our grandchildren.”

Executive director for the Nicaragua Bee Project Michael Bauer explained how bees show environmental red flags.

“The bees are really an indicator species, they are the canaries that we send down into mines to tell us when things aren’t going well,” Bauer said. “When we see those indicator species not doing well, it begs the question ‘Well, why are they not doing well, and if they continue to not do well, what else is going to follow behind?’”

Bauer said bees contribute to more than half of the planet’s food supply.

“It’s estimated that about 40 percent of all the food we eat, and it’s actually closer to 70 percent when you take into account even things like alfalfa, cattle and sheep that we need to raise, at some point is dependent on a pollinator like bees,” Bauer said.

Swan said people should pay more attention to bees because they are capable of more than just pollinating food.

“Honeybees have this extraordinary sense of smell, and they have been used by people to detect all sorts of things like bombs, explosives materials, disease,” Swan said. “The honeybee is put into a little harness and there’s a camera at the side of this chamber where the bee is kept, and there’s usually four or five bees in a chamber, and the bees are trained when they detect a smell they will get a reward for it. They then release the bee back into nature, so it actually doesn’t harm the bees at all; they are only in the harnesses for a short period of time. It’s marvelous to think how this insect is capable of so many things, and for us to sort of just discard it and think that we can replace it with a robobee is just missing the miracle. Bees are an amazing creature.”

President of the Nicaragua Bee Project Martin Havlovic said beekeeping provides the people living in Nicaragua with the basic needs that they do not have access to.

“Beekeeping is very basic and simple,” Havlovic said. “You have low overhead, it’s about $300 for a beekeeping starting kit, you don’t need to own land in Nicaragua to do it, and anybody can do beekeeping, male, female, teenagers, adults. It’s a good way to double your income, and you don’t really have a lot of capital investment or overhead. If you can provide a source of income, revenue for people in Nicaragua, they can survive and it allows them to send their kids to school and provide medicine when needed, and it just makes for a healthier world.”

UWO student Dakota Cunningham said she felt called to action while listening to Swan speak.

“When [Swan] said that this generation is very innovative, I thought that was important for students to start thinking about their futures and how they want to affect our environment and help sustainability,” Cunningham said.

Bauer said there are many things that students can do to help support the cause.

“Students can help by being aware that there are things under the surface that are a real red flag,” Bauer said. “As minor of things as running to Fleet Farm and buying a jug of pesticide to throw on their lawn, that has an impact and it’s going to end up in a river some place and wash downstream. It doesn’t seem like it would make that big of a difference, but if everyone did that, then it does make a big difference.”