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Phipps Abuzz About Environmental Efforts, New Bee Colony

WESA/Nicole Fallert

At least 10,000 bees squirmed next to one another fulfilling their duties as housekeepers, nurses and foragers.

The brood surrounded their queen bee in an enclosure, hanging vertically in the SEED classroom at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden in Oakland.

“This is a four-frame, observational hive, it’s a small nucleus colony,” said Christina Neumann of Apoidea Apiary. She’s the beekeeper of the hive, which was unveiled at Phipps this week.

The insects behind the glass are dark gray, furry and about as long as a fingernail. Neumann considers the colony small, and said that an average bee hive contains about 40,000 specimens. She pointed out the bees grooming and attending the queen bee. Bees’ jobs change as they mature and grow stronger or weaker.

Credit WESA/Nicole Fallert
Beekeeper Christina Neumann stands next to the observational beehive in the SEED Classroom at Phipps.

Local bee populations have been threatened by pesticide use and air quality, according to Adam Garber, field director of Penn Environment Research and Policy Center.

He said that nationwide, 30 to 40 percent of bee colonies are dying every single year. The reason Pittsburgh’s bees are suffering is that bad air quality destroys bees’ ability to detect the pollen they need to survive, as a result the bees starve and die off.

An even greater consequence is the loss of plant life. Without pollinators, Garber said essential crops can fail, which can threaten human health.

“The message is that bees are a very important part of the landscape and by viewing them intimately in this way you are able to have a much broader glimpse at what is happening regionally … you looking at different scales of ecology,” Neumann said.

Credit WESA/Nicole Fallert
The SEED Classroom at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden is surrounded by native plant species.

Programming at the SEED classroom will employ the hive in order to educate students and community members about the role bees play in Pennsylvania’s environmental strength.

“It’s health to you, it’s health to me. Not only are these plants healthier, but they absorbs that Carbon Dioxide that’s adverse to our health,” said local beekeeper Fred Woolridge. “They’re changing it to oxygen and water.”

According to Phipps Executive Director Richard Piacentini, bees represent the ground-level of environmental need. Without these stinging, flying insects, human and plant life would suffer.

“We’re very focused on the idea of showing people how human health and environmental health are totally connected,” he said. “Bees provide a great opportunity to start that conversation because bees are very important to human health and over 90 percent of the foods that we eat are pollinated by bees.”

Visitors to the classroom not only see the bees, but also ecological use of water, light and fuel, Piacentini said. And the hive sets an example for efficient living.

The bees will feed on native plants at the conservatory and in nearby Schenley Park. Neumann said the hive will be monitored on a weekly basis and will be taken outside in the spring to make sure the hive does not become too large.

Credit WESA/Nicole Fallert
Phipps officials will study how native plant species nourish the bees.

Wooldridge said that beekeeping has evolved to accommodate the amount of pollution in the air today.

For Neumann, her research involves detecting whether or not the specific flowers at the conservatory provide reliable nourishment for the hive. 

Like the students who come visit the hive, she said she wants to let the bees explore the various plants in the area, “You don’t want to close them in you want to give them free reign of their environment”

Phipps conservatory will host a Family Bee Festival on Friday, Aug. 26. Information can be located at Phipps.conservatory.org.