When Steve Sheppard arrived at Washington State University in 1996, he had a donation already lined up without any solicitation: 100 beehives.
“I got a phone call from a beekeeper, Eric Olson, that I’d never heard of,” said Sheppard, who leads the WSU Department of Entomology. “It was a great welcome to the university and a big jumpstart to our field research on bees.”
Olson, a commercial beekeeper, donated the hives for just that reason.
“I wanted to entice Steve to get into applied research,” Olson said. “We needed help right away, so I thought I would do everything I could.”
Olson and his wife Sue own Olson’s Honey, an operation based in Yakima that had more than 17,500 hives at its peak last summer. They pollinate fields all over Washington, Oregon, and California.
The initial 100 hives he gave to Sheppard and WSU were Olson’s first donation to WSU, and he’s continued his support ever since.
“That saved us about a year in getting our program started,” Sheppard said. “We didn’t have to build our own hives and wait around. He loaded the hives on our trucks with a forklift himself.”
The relationship between Olson, 71, and WSU will continue even after Olson sells his company and transitions into retirement later this year.
“It’s an irreversible partnership,” Olson said. “They need dollars to make a difference with their research.”
Olson started beekeeping in 1978, when he bought 10 honey bee packages, or startup hives, to help pollinate his orchard. Later that year, he purchased another 150 hives, which allowed him to rent out his hives.
“It just kept getting bigger and bigger,” Olson said. “I thought my wife would kill me if we got any more, so for four years I didn’t tell her how many hives we had.”
Olson, who retired from the Air Force in 1987, and his wife Sue survived mite infestations that devastated the honey bee population in the U.S. throughout the late 1980s and 1990s. But even after 30 years of experience, Olson learned in 2010 that it’s impossible to know everything about bees.
That winter, he lost more than 9,000 hives. Sixty-five percent of his entire business was dead, and he was devastated.
“That was the worst experience of my life,” Olson said. “I knew we needed to try something different.”
Until then, Olson’s Honey had always wintered their bees in California. They’d routinely experienced losses, but nothing like the devastation that year.
Experimenting with his hives
Olson had a friend and fellow beekeeper, Tom Hamilton, who had been telling him to try indoor storage for all of his bees. Hamilton used potato sheds in his Idaho business, which don’t exist in Yakima.
“But we do have atmosphere-controlled fruit sheds,” Olson said. “I was scared to death that first year, but our losses dropped to practically nothing.”
He worked with WSU researchers throughout the planning and implementing of the indoor storage, and they may have stumbled on an exciting discovery.
“It seems like the increase in CO2 may be killing the Varroa destructor mites,” Olson said. “If it turns out we can kill the mite without using synthetic pesticides, that would be fantastic.”“My first call after I made the decision was to Steve Sheppard,” Olson said. “They had some data on indoor storage, but the climate-controlled aspect was a great new wrinkle.”
In the climate-controlled storage units, Olson can control how much carbon dioxide is in the bees’ environment. Raising the CO2 level seems to put the bees into a deeper hibernation, with another benefit.
More research needed
Now Olson is working with Sheppard and other WSU entomologists to raise money for a new bee research building that would contain an indoor storage facility with climate controls. Researchers hope to use the facility to confirm the varroa mite-CO2 hypothesis and make other discoveries that can protect the U.S. honey bee population into the future.
For Olson, he’s excited to help the university and run his 150-acre cherry and pear orchard. But the bee business has become too much work, even though it’s difficult for him to let go.
“I enter retirement with trepidation,” he said. “I’ll have to teach myself how to have free time, it’s something I’ve never had before.”
Learn more about WSU indoor wintering research here.