TWIN FALLS — Being surrounded by a swarm of 10,000 bees whose queen has just been relocated would cause heart palpitations for the bravest of laypeople. But for biologist and farmer Kirk Tubbs, it’s magical.
“There’s just something about watching those bees fly and the sound of their wings and watching them come in (to their new hive),” said Tubbs, who owns and operates Tubbs Berry Farm with his wife, Heidi, and offers regular hiving demonstrations for the public.
The demonstrations feature placing a queen bee into a new hive and then shaking her subjects out of their shoebox-sized home to find her. On a warm day, it’s a flurry of flying insects around the farmer. Within half an hour, the bees have settled and begin their life’s work: defending and feeding the queen and her offspring.
“When the bees start flying about, it really surprises people that the bees couldn’t care less about us,” Tubbs said.
As a boy, Tubbs was fascinated by his grandmother’s honey bees, but he didn’t learn much about them until he had his own farm. When the Tubbs family planted their raspberry patch, they were disappointed by the poorly pollinated berries. White cells on berries mean that the berry’s flower wasn’t fully pollinated.
“If it’s not pollinated, it’s not as sweet and the flavor is not as intense,” said Tubbs, whose family is known for their raspberries and jams.
Bees are the world’s primary pollinators, but changes in agricultural practices, climate change and the explosive population of the bee-killing varroa destructor mite have led to serious declines in bee population, according to a report from the Center of Biological Diversity.
A 2017 study from the center analyzed more than 4,000 species of bees native to North America and Hawaii and concluded that more than 50% of native bee species for which sufficient data is available are declining, while 24% are in serious peril.
The organization identifies agricultural intensification, which includes habitat destruction and pesticide use as well as climate change and urbanization as primary drivers for the decline.
But it was seeing the consequences first hand that inspired the couple to invest in bees. The poor pollination of their raspberries was Kirk’s “excuse” to get bees, jokes Heidi Tubbs.
“We got the bees, and I’ve just loved them,” Kirk Tubbs confirmed.
When the Tubbs started keeping bees, there were no places nearby to get them or beekeeping supplies. They started carrying extra materials as a service that has now grown into a well-known business in the bee community.
For more than a decade they’ve also hosted Bee Day, when hundreds of new and veteran beekeepers from surrounding states eagerly come to the Tubbs’ farm to pick up preordered packages of bees. The twelfth annual Bee Day will be April 23 from noon to 6 p.m. and April 24 from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The couple estimates that this year they’ll have more than a thousand attendees, who will attend workshops, observe bees up close, enjoy games for the kids, including the ducky raceway, and savor raspberry honey pulled pork. A detailed list of events can be found on their website.
Clearly, the couple’s interest goes far beyond the sale. They go the extra mile to assist beekeepers to be successful and responsible with their bees as well as help the general public to be bee activists.
The free workshops and activities for the whole family teach bee owners and the public about these hardworking critters essential to our food supply. A special joy for the Tubbs is watching people’s fear of bees give way to fascination. They see it over and over again on Bee Day and during teaching opportunities throughout the year. Kirk built a small enclosure with large windows for his bee observation area so that the public could view the pollinators at work without fear of being stung.
“A lot of people are afraid of bees,” Heidi Tubbs said. “Usually it’s because they’ve been stung, but it’s not usually a bee that stung them, it’s a wasp. As people learn how cool bees are, then they aren’t afraid of them anymore. We want to help give people positive experiences with bees. Knowledge is power as you understand how bees operate, what they do, then that helps you do things that are better for them.”
A simple action most people can take to help the bee population is to grow flowering plants to feed the bees. However, buying bees out of the kindness of one’s heart and not taking care of the hive is destructive — it can even end up killing off multiple hives.
Bees carry mites, and if they don’t, they soon will, says Kirk. If care isn’t taken to protect bees against mites, such as the devastating varroa mite, most of the hive will become susceptible to viruses and die off. Those that remain will try to enter a nearby colony and spread the mites and viruses to them. Honey bees can fly up to 5 miles from their hive, so the risk of infection can be exponential.
Workshops and lectures from professional and hobby beekeepers in the area will teach attendees how to protect their hives and be responsible beekeepers. They can also view bees under microscopes, observe the inside of a hive partitioned off by glass, and even take home a drone bee for a pet. Drones don’t have stingers.
“They’re a very low commitment pet,” Kirk Tubbs said.
But knowledge and games aren’t the only attraction of the event. People can delight their taste buds with raspberry honey pulled pork. “If you don’t like bees, just come out for the food,” Kirk Tubbs said.
Volunteers are needed for the event. The public is encouraged to help out even if they know little about bees. Signups can be found on the Tubbs Berry Farm’s website.