By Eric Peterson | Mar 18, 2019
Industry: Consumer & Lifestyle
"If you Google me, it's kind of confusing," laughs Bell. "People think there's more than one of me."
Before he got into backyard beehives, Bell developed computer games rooted in mindfulness and meditation, like The Journey to the Wild Divine, which uses finger sensors and biofeedback instead of a Nintendo controller. "Wired wrote it up as 'Myst for mystics,'" says Bell. "The Dalai Lama played it."
The plight of honeybees caught his attention in the early 2000s. The fact that many feral colonies thrived in the wild as beekeepers saw widespread die-offs in their boxy Langstroth hives set off an alarm. "I knew something was amiss," he says. "Back in the day, beekeepers didn't realize the value of these wild bees. They're survivor genetics."
Bell adopted his first swarm and started building hives, then learned that the beekeeping status quo was to capture wild swarms and kill the queens. "That really upset me, so I was on a mission to catch every swarm I could," he says. "I came to realize it's not a box they're looking for. They're looking for a cavity where they create a nest."
He sought to mimic nature with his hives. "Langstroth hives are so engineered," he says, likening them to honey factories that house unnaturally large colonies.
Without using any chemicals or smoke, Bell saw his hives survive as the bee population nosedive continued due to a confluence of factors including pesticides, varroa mites, and climate change.
He sold plans for his original BackYardHive online for $10 to people to build themselves. He's since partnered with a network of carpenters to build the kits and hives as well.
In 2008, he came up with a second model in the Golden Mean Hive, which was somewhat serendipitous. "I just grabbed whatever boards I had handy," says Bell. "The bees just went crazy in it."
A subsequent measurement revealed it that the golden ratio -- approximately 1.62 -- defined the design, and its 40-liter volume matched the average tree hive.
"It encourages swarming, which is not what you want to say at a beekeeper meeting," says Bell. "Beekeepers want to repress swarming because they lose their livestock."
Next came the Cathedral Hive, which allows resident bees to ascend to the warmest part of the hive during cold weather, just like wild bees. "It's one of the few insects that can maintain their house," says Bell. "Ther build their house and maintain the temperature." After several years of R&D, the product hit the market in 2015; an updated design, Cathedral Hive Northern Lights, came out in 2018.
The denizens of Bell's hives mate with other bees in the bioregion. Beekeepers, conversely, "are using bees that are bred, not open mated," he says. That short-circuits a key trait of a queen bee: "She basically holds the genetics of the bioregion like a chalice. It's called extreme polygamy."
Most beekeepers get their swarms from almond farms in Florida that are matched with a separately incubated queen. "She has this little pamphlet on how to live in this bioregion," says Bell. "As soon as she goes out and mates, she brings all these different pages of information into an encyclopedia."
Thousands of hives at homes on the Front Range catalyzes this phenomenon. "That becomes a genetic storehouse," says Bell. "We're spreading out the responsibility to myriad people rather than relying on one big beekeeper."
And that strategy dovetails into bee ecology. "It's not one bee -- it's a superorganism," says Bell. "We went from a gene lake to a gene pool to a five-gallon gene bucket." His goal of BackYardHive is to "get that diversity back into the woods."
Industrial-scale beekeepers "can't retool fast enough if you tell them to stop doing it," he adds. "They can't stop or their bees will die."
BackYardHive's customers just want to help the bees, but there's a fringe benefit: honey. A hive can produce 10 pounds a year. "Pull out two of three of those and you're set -- and your neighbors," says Bell.
When he's not coming up with his next hive design, Bell works in bee research on the Front Range who regularly meets with visiting experts and organizes workshops.
And while he's engaged, Bell says he doesn't want to focus on activism. "It gets me angry and upset," he says. "I don't want to be the guy."
Challenges: "The challenge right now is climate change," says Bell. "We've conquered the mite problem. That's not what's killing the bees."
He tracked weather events when the temperature dropped 40 degrees Fahrenheit in 24 hours and found it jumped exponentially in 2017 (from four or five a year to 19), in the process decimating numerous beekeepers' colonies. "Almost everybody on the Front Range, Kansas City, Montana, it just hammered them," says Bell. "A good strong hive can handle two or three of those, but 19 is impossible."
"It's totally breathable, but if it gets wet, it squeezes so tight that no water gets through it," says Bell.
Opportunities: Bell sees education as the key to the future of bees. One BackYardHive product that can help catalyze outreach is the Honeycomb Display, complete with a serving dish. "Most people haven't seen a honeycomb," he says. "They get out in front of a lot of people."
Needs: More "bee guardians" and legislation that protects bees. "We need to mobilize people," says Bell.