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In one corner of the garden, Scott Debnam pushed the bellows of a bee smoker to quiet the pollinators.

The bees were moving into their new home at the University of Montana, a set of yellow and blue boxes hidden behind the greenery that would turn into a lush garden of strawberry, rhubarb and veggies come summer.

The bees were calm, and if they liked their home, they'd stay, Debnam said. He figured the hive would hold some 160,000 bees at any given time.

"They'll make wax, and they'll make honey, and they'll make babies, and they'll fill that whole thing up," he said of the rows of screens.

That day, Rick Molenda had pulled a truck full of 9 million bees into Polson from California on a trip he makes each year, and Jerry Bromenshenk, of Missoula, had driven packages of bees down to the Garden City to distribute to local beekeepers, including UM and its new hive.

In 2006, beekeepers sounded an alarm that rippled around the world. Some reported rates of bee deaths as high as 30 percent to 90 percent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The public's awareness of the plight of honeybees has surged since then, but it hasn't diminished the threats to bees – or the question about whether the depletion of pollinators is an indication of greater environmental problems.

In Montana, much is at stake. Bees not only help produce food – one in three mouthfuls, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture – they're an economic driver.

Bee researcher and retired UM professor Bromenshenk, who sees much progress improving the health of bees, said their value far surpasses their income from honey, which places them at roughly No. 10 in the agricultural industry.

Take into account the rental money beekeepers earn for pollination and added value for crop quality, he said, and the figures push honeybees closer to the top of the list of valuable commodities.

"Honeybees' true value in this state is probably No. 3, right behind pork and cattle," Bromenshenk said.

***

The number of amateur beekeepers in the state is a mystery because hobbyists aren't required to register in Montana, said Bromenshenk, who considers the lack of registry "a travesty."

Nonetheless, anecdotal evidence points to a strong growth in interest, here and nationwide.

Molenda, of Western Bee Supplies in Polson, started bringing bees back from California some 20 years ago; the mild winters mean the bees stay strong there. Back then, he'd bring back 150 packages of bees.

These days, he cuts off orders at 600, with all packages pre-sold.

"It's nice to see people getting excited. Western Montana is full of hobbyist beekeepers," Molenda said.

He's had buyers from as far away as Sidney and central Washington, too.

Western Bee Supplies ships products around the world, and Molenda said demand for wooden products, such as screens and boxes, has more than doubled since 2006. He estimates the wooden sector alone has grown 130 percent to 150 percent in a decade.

"We're the largest manufacturer of woodware in the country, if not the world. People don't know that, but it's true," he said.

Beekeeping clubs are also growing. Based in Missoula, the Big Sky Beekeepers started in 2011 with six members, and it has since reached 90, said Charlie DeVoe, club president.

Last year, just eight or 10 people turned up to meetings, but attendance is on the upswing as well.

"Our last few meetings, we've been having 45-plus," DeVoe said.

He believes the uptick is due to more interest in bees as well as the club's active demonstrations and hands-on approach. 

The trend holds true outside Montana, too. Tim May, vice president of the American Beekeeping Federation, said five years ago, just 15 or 20 people showed up to monthly beekeeping meetings in Chicago, and now, some 100 to 120 turn out.

"There's a lot of local bee clubs, too," May said.

***

The threats to bees appear to remain high, though. 

Just last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released results of its first "honey bee colony loss survey," which reported an 18 percent loss from January 2015 through March 2015.

The Guardian reported the loss hit a new high of 44 percent from April 2015 through March 2016 – "the highest annual loss on record."

Threats include the varroa mite, a parasite that kills bees, as well as pesticides, according to bee advocates and researchers. But the largest threat to the health of the honeybee comes from farmland turning into pavement, according to Bromenshenk.

"The biggest issue facing bees in the U.S. is good quality plentiful safe forage," he said.

In Montana, he said, native vegetation and open space still exist, but it's harder and harder to find in California or the Corn Belt.

Bees prefer a diverse diet, he said, and their immune systems need it, just like people's do. Bromenshenk officially retired as a UM professor in 2012, but he has continued his research on bees through the university and independently through Bee Alert Technology.

"Even when there's wall-to-wall corn, they're trying to find something else. And if they were in an area that had a little riparian zone, they just forget about the corn," he said.

In the past, small farmers in the midwest didn't spray, and they left room for wildflowers to grow between crops and the forest, said May, with the American Beekeeping Federation.

These days, big corporations will plant every inch of land up to the pavement with corn and soybeans, he said. And he said pesticides, including neonicotinoids applied to seeds, are harmful as well.

"When the plant comes up, the whole plant is pretty much toxic," he said.

It might not immediately kill the bees, but it affects their nervous and neurological systems, he said.

Bromenshenk has been studying how the pesticide coating is applied, and he said the past three years have shown "dramatic improvement" for bees.

This month, though, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that pressure from conservationists and backyard gardeners is turning the tide on the use of neonics.

"This year, in its annual state of the industry survey, Greenhouse Grower magazine reported that 73 percent of growers serving home improvement chains and 58 percent serving independent garden centers said they will drop the insecticides by 2016," the story said.

***

Montana has some 200,000 colonies in the state, and it's a major honey producer and pollination resource for the nation, Bromenshenk said. Most commercial production takes place in eastern Montana, and western Montana sees more hobbyists.

The Montana Department of Agriculture counts some 200 registered beekeepers in the state, including 86 classified as commercial.

With a popular online course offered in beekeeping, the state also is home to an educational resource, with Bromenshenk, Debnam and Phillip Welch as instructors.

The UM School of Extended and Lifelong Learning offers the "Master Beekeeping Certificate," and the program's Holly Kulish said it's served nearly 400 students since 2013, including beekeepers in 40 of the 50 states, and ones in Africa, Europe and South American.

"It's pretty amazing to bring them in the class, too, because they bring a different perspective," she said of the international students.

Going forward, Bromenshenk is focused on improving the health of bees. He'd like to see state and federal officials encourage planting of vegetation that's good for bees in barrow pits, on roadsides, and on military bases such as Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls.

The everyday person can help bees, too, DeVoe said.

"Plant flowers," he said.

Plant lavender, sage, red clover, foxglove and bee balm.

Or see the bright side to an invasive plant.

"The bees like knapweed even though people try to kill the heck out of it," DeVoe said.

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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.