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Beer City? Nope. Bee City, USA

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8/16/2012 - Beer City? Nope. Bee City, USA
by Mackenzie Lunsford - Asheville Citizen Times

Warning: Puns ahead.

The local buzz is bees. That's because, in a sweet moment on June 26, Asheville City Council unanimously passed a resolution to designate our city Bee City USA -- and that's not a typo.

Even though the proponents of the Bee City movement (a program spearheaded by local beekeeper Phyllis Stiles and the Center for Honeybee Research) showed up to City Council meeting in apiary garb, the resolution's aim is a serious one. It includes focusing the city's landscaping budget on planting bee-friendly plants and works to promote educational programs about bees and their importance to agriculture and ecological diversity. Also on the agenda? Eliminating pesticides that are harmful to bees.

Why is any of that a big deal?

Three words: colony collapse disorder.

You may have already heard about the disorder that's decimating honeybee populations across the country. But even those who have heard about the issue may not know why it's important, said Laurey Masterton, a local beekeeper and owner of Laurey's Catering and Gourmet in downtown Asheville. Masterton is writing a honey-themed cookbook called "The Fresh Honey Cookbook: 84 Recipes From a Beekeeper's Kitchen," to be released late next fall.

"Honeybees are fragile. They're teeny-tiny little things," Masterton said. Yet those bees have a very big job -- and it's not all about honey.

Bees pollinate a third of everything we eat, said Masterton. And, it turns out, what's good for honeybees is good for us and our environment.

"When I saw the beekeepers were looking to (pass this resolution), immediately I thought, 'Wow, we're about to make our whole ecosystem healthier,'" said Gordon Smith, a City Council member who's also a major champion of local food systems. "We're about to directly address the problem of the pollinators, which many people don't even know is a problem. I think if you walk down the street and say, 'Did you hear about the honeybees?' People would be like, 'I really don't even like bees.'"

But the folks at the National Center for Honeybee Research love bees, which is why they're currently working hard to discover the root of the bee colony collapse problem. They're also working to create awareness of the health and local economic benefits of local honey. These days, it's not unusual to come across honey supplemented with corn syrup in the grocery store -- yes, really. That just doesn't fly in Bee City USA, where apiary-to-table is becoming as important as farm-to-table.

"It comes back to the local economy and the importance of knowing your farmer and knowing your beekeeper and buying directly from that person," Masterton said. "It matters because you can trust what's in the honey and who you're buying it from."

Masterton pointed to the necklace she wears, a vial containing one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey, equivalent to one honeybee's life's work, she said. "In the United States, we eat about one pound and a third of honey per person per year, which is the work of 625 bees' lives," she said. "Bee City, it's a designation that we need to treasure. It's not just a simple matter of people voting."

"It's the health of our ecosystem," said Smith, as he chatted with Masterton at a recent lunch at her restaurant.

"It's our lives," Masterton said. "And we're on the forefront of that. New York City has beehives on tops of buildings, which is very smart. I'd love to see beehives in downtown Asheville."

"Let's do it," Smith said.

Talk about a sweet deal.

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