The fruits of honeybees' labors add to a wholesome human diet and augment our natural pharmacopeia.

The fruits of honeybees' labors add to a wholesome human diet and augment our natural pharmacopeia.

But the insects' own failing health is behind the recent proliferation of backyard hives, with beginning beekeepers determined to preserve the species and its critical role.

The tide of honeybee deaths has been steadily rising since the 1950s, experts say. A swarm of factors — parasites, viruses, chemical toxins, nutritional and genetic deficiencies, modern farming methods and even weather — seems to cause colony collapse disorder, which kills entire hives swiftly and unexpectedly.

Ailing bees can't pollinate plants that yield food for people and animals. Nor can they produce the sticky and sweet substances that support human health.

"There are so many medicinal properties that come from honey," says beekeeper Sarah Red-Laird, who taught "Healing With the Honeybee Hive" last fall at Ashland's North Mountain Nature Center.

The product of nectar cured with the bees' own gastric enzymes, honey is a proven sleep aid, cough suppressant and antibiotic when applied topically to wounds and burns, says Red-Laird. And it contains "all the goodness" of flowers, she adds.

Flower pollen is nutritious to humans as well as bees, modulating appetite and elevating one's mood. It's higher in amino acids, pound for pound, than animal proteins and also boasts vitamins C, D, E and the B complex.

Comprising tree and plant resins collected by bees, propolis "actually is magic," says Red-Laird, citing its inclusion in natural toothpastes to prevent gum disease. Full of essential oils, vitamins and minerals, this "bee glue" also has anti-bacterial, -viral, -fungal and -inflammatory properties and is the subject of research for treating cancer and HIV, she says.

"It's a great cold and flu remedy," says Red-Laird, explaining that it can be administered as a tincture or in capsules.

Taken internally, royal jelly — the fluid in which queen bees are raised — can help balance hormones and often is used topically to smooth wrinkles. Beeswax is another boon to beauty treatments.

"It's something you know is healthy," says Red-Laird.

But beekeepers' overeager harvesting of hives can damage their bees as much as any natural or man-made adversary. Leaving bees without honey to eat in winter likely makes them more susceptible to pathogens and other culprits in colony collapse disorder, says Red-Laird. Hobbyist beekeepers invariably are shocked to hear their bees died of benign neglect, she adds.

"It's important to baby your bees."

Red-Laird's nonprofit Bee Girl practically started itself last year when people began asking for help establishing hobby hives. Although the 33-year-old Ashland native kept bees while researching colony collapse disorder as an undergraduate at University of Montana, she says she didn't realize there was such interest in backyard beekeeping in the Rogue Valley.

"The hobbyist beekeepers don't really have anybody to help them," she says.

So rather than toil as a "worker bee" for commercial apiculture, Red-Laird decided to focus on education. Operating as a nonprofit makes Bee Girl eligible for grant funding, allowing Red-Laird to bring hives into local schools and work toward "save the bees" initiatives.

For more information about bees and beekeeping, see Bee Girl's website, www.beegirl.org, and the Oregon State Beekeepers Association website, www.orsba.org. The Southern Oregon Beekeepers Association meets at 7:30 p.m. the first Monday of the month at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, 569 Hanley Road, Central Point.

See more of this story in this month's Healthy Living magazine, available at the Ashland Food Co-op, Bloomsbury Books and Shop'n Kart, among other outlets.

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487, or email slemon@mailtribune.com.