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The honey bee population worldwide is in crisis. And this winter’s polar vortex killed far more honey bees than usual in the Chicago area. But as WGN’s Steve Sanders reports, there are many passionate people who sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to save honey bees.

”So this up here is where they were getting in.” This time last year, Bob Kusel and his wife were sharing their bedroom in north suburban Skokie with thousands of honeybees. ”And I kept hearing buzzing. So as I opened up the wall I found more and more and more bees. And they estimated that we had between 60 and 80,000! It ended up being about a 4 foot by 8 foot high area of hive. It did give whole new meaning to honey I’m home.” Most people would have called an exterminator. But, as a wildlife photographer, Bob called a mover who specializes in the live removal of honeybees. “They’re absolutely beautiful and there’s just so much to learn about them. I brush up against them all the time when I’m photographing them and they could care less.”

Anne Stevens is the volunteer beekeeper at the Chicago Botanic Garden. “You can see how gentle they are really.” They started with two hives. Now, they have eight. And Anne says the little pollinating machines are making a difference all over the Botanic Garden. “Plus they educate people. The garden had over a million people come through last year and so many people are interested in the bees and happy to see em.” Anne knew nothing about beekeeping when she started hearing about bee colony collapse disorder, and the potentially devastating impact it may have on worldwide food supplies. That’s when she knew she had to do something.

“Most of us beekeepers and you’re right I’m not a scientist, but we are concerned with the pesticides. In Europe they have banned the neonicotinoids and they made a comeback after that.” There are so many things going after the bees,” says Allen Lawrance, who is the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum’s insect expert. “Poor practices, pesticides, feeding them sugar water instead of honey. Pests, diseases, so many things! It’s a nice warm day so the bees are really active.” The Nature Museum’s green rof holds sixteen hives. And each one is home to between 3,000 and 10,000 honey bees.

“People should care because people like food. About ¾ of everything we eat benefits from pollination.” Chris Saad of west suburban Wayne is a major supplier of bees for backyard beekeepers in the Chicago area. He also manages some 160 bee hives. People don’t realize just their impact on agriculture. In the billions of dollars-just the food that we eat. One third is directly associated to pollinators and honeybees do about 80% of that pollinating. We can never produce as much honey as is being consumed.” Chris and his wife Bernie have turned bees into a year round business called Honey Trails honey. He says supporting local honey producers is one way everyone can help the bee population. o, if you go into the store and you see some honey bear or whatever and it’s like two bucks, I don’t care if it’s from China or whever, it’s not likely it’s really pure honey. Get to know the beekeeper ok, ‘cause hopefully the guy sellin’ it to you at the farmer market is the beekeeper, or is buying it directly from the beekeeper to resell.”

We asked Allen Lawrance about other small things people can do to save the bees. “If you make sure your plants are blooming throughout the season that will really help. If you don’t mow your lawn as much or you raise your mowers a few inches so that clover or dandelions can bloom, those are valuable nectar sources to honeybees.” Back in Skokie, Bob Kusel shows us one of his favorite bee photographs. “It very well could have been one of the Kusel bees.” And you can do what the Kusels did, live and let live. Skokie allows backyard beekeeping. And Bob says who knows, maybe one day his family will once again share their property with honey bees; though in the yard ths time, not their home. “It’s a funny thing about honeybees. The more you learn about them the more attached you get to them. And so ya I’ve learned to love ‘em and I would like nothing more than to have a backyard beehive here.” Steve Sanders, WGN News.

Producer Pam Grimes, and Photojournalists Mike D’Angelo and Marty Nutley contributed to this report.

You can share this story, and click links from this long list of reliable resources to learn more about what is happening to honey bees and what you can do to help. There’s also a PDF here of a new report from the Pesticide Research Institute warning gardeners that pesticides have been found in bee friendly plants sold at major garden centers across the US and Canada.

Gardeners Beware Report 2014