Honeybees have gotten a bad rap because of wasps and yellow jackets, but Sarah Red-Laird of Ashland is doing her best to educate the nation that honeybees are helpful, benign creatures you can cozy up to — and they pollinate most of the food we need to be healthy.
The executive director of her BeeGirl nonprofit, Red-Laird finds herself in huge demand — flying off constantly to speak and give classes all over the U.S. — in a society that has grown aware of the creature’s keystone role in the biosphere.
“They are charismatic mini-fauna. People like and care about them,” Red-Laird said. “People are concerned about any die-offs because we now understand their connection to our food.”
At her 40-hive bee village on rural East Nevada Street in Ashland, Red-Laird, 35, ticks off the list of conferences, schools and classes she has visited, all across the nation, using a glassed-in hive that she takes with her to illustrate the work and home of the honeybee.
Locally, she teaches her Kids and Bees classes in Medford, Ashland and Grants Pass, as well as her Farming for Bees class. The aim of these classes and lectures is to educate the next generation (children), then to bring the general public up to speed on bee conservation, providing forage (flowers) and preventing loss of habitat. Finally, she teaches people how to become beekeepers.
Our society is going through a major consciousness-raising about honeybees, she says, adding that when she attends meetings of area pear growers, most know the importance of pollinators and use “holistic management” that includes honeybees.
“Bees pollinate one in three bites of food we eat,” she said, “and that is the part with the most color and it’s where we get most of our nutrition.”
Red-Laird fell in love with bees as a child in Ashland, hanging around a beekeeper who lived near her aunt. She developed a bond and trust with them, amazing other children, she notes, by letting them walk on her skin.
“I always had an affinity for them and really liked them. I knew they would be my life.”
After graduating from Ashland High School in 1997, Red-Laird got her associate degree at Central Oregon Community College in outdoor recreation leadership, then her bachelor’s in research conservation at University of Montana in 2010. On graduation, she was hired by the school to conduct research in the field.
“Honeybees are the canary in the coal mine, reflecting a failing (corporate) agricultural system,” she said. Fortunately, she adds the once-burgeoning problem of Colony Collapse Disorder, starting in 2006, has receded “but we still have massive bee kills.” Many of these are associated with over-use of pesticides, insecticides and fungicides.
When people find honeybee hives in nature, they frequently call Red-Laird, wanting something done with them, but she says, “Let them be. It’s not necessary to fear honeybees. Yellow jackets and wasps have given honeybees a bad name. They are aggressive and can bite. But honeybees are not interested in you.”
Bees and many farm animals were prohibited in cities in the 1950s, but Red-Laird worked with the city of Ashland in 2013 to reverse the ban on bees and allow a process for hive permits — only three are allowed on an acre or less and five on larger plots of land. Ashland’s beekeeping application page, http://www.ashland.or.us/Page.asp?NavID=15974, shows 14 hives now operating.
She recently set up the first hives at the big organic garden of Southern Oregon’s new Center for Sustainability.
Red-Laird is the U.S. Ambassador of the International Bee Research Association’s BEEWORLD project, the Kids and Bees Director for the American Beekeeping Federation, a 2014 Oregon delegate to the American Beekeeping Federation, a mentor in the Oregon State Master Beekeepers Program, the regional representative for the Southern Oregon Beekeepers Association and the Oregon outreach coordinator for the Bee Friendly Farming Initiative.