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Bees work to produce honey on a frame from a bee box on the Isle of Palms. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Honey bees pollinate flowers, produce honey and help with agricultural production, but their numbers have been dwindling for decades.

Parasites, pesticides and farming practices have all been pointed out as possible culprits.

In an effort to reverse the trend and educate the public about the importance of the pollinating insects to the planet's ecology, The Bee Cause Project was launched to stir up some buzz.

The Savannah-based nonprofit, whose co-founder lives on the Isle of Palms, has set up demonstration hives in 350 schools and four countries.

About 30 of the sites are in Greater Charleston, including multiple schools, a grocery store, urban hospital farm, plantation and children's home. Other locations can be found across the Palmetto State in places like Clemson University, Greenville, Columbia and Pawleys Island.

Launched in 2011 by introducing observational hives into a couple of educational settings as a way to spread the word about the declining number of bees, The Bee Cause Project quickly tasted success.

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Tami Enright, co-founder of the Bee Cause Project, checks honey bee boxes on the Isle of Palms. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

"It just blew up overnight," said Tami Enright, who co-founded the project with Ted Dennard, president of Savannah Bee Co., which operates 10 stores nationwide, including one on King Street in downtown Charleston and another in Myrtle Beach. A third will open soon in the Grand Strand.

Dennard, a bee enthusiast, had set up an observational hive in his Savannah-area store several years ago and he noticed how popular it was with customers. That's when he and Enright, a friend, had "an aha moment" to take hives into schools and other places.

"It was like the back-of-a-napkin kind of thing," Enright remembered. "He was the funder and backer, and I was the frontrunner to make it happen."

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The Bee Cause Project supports the honey bee population. Warren L. Wise/Staff

A gardener trying to grow her own fruit, she noticed her trees weren't producing. So she went to a training session to learn how to grow things better.

"That's when I had a moment of clarity," she said. "It's not just soil and water and sunlight, but I learned you also have to have the pollinators for the majority of what I was growing."

After that she set up a couple of bee boxes. 

The bitter cold spell in January threatened to kill her bees, but they are conditioned to survive. They cluster on the center of the hive around the queen and recirculate from the core to the outside by shivering to keep the temperature of the hive between 81 and 93 degrees Fahrenheit until the brooding season begins in the spring.

Beekeepers have generally accepted about 18 percent of losses during the winter over the past five years, but last winter's brutal chill killed off about 20.1 percent of all colonies in the U.S., according to The Bee Informed Partnership. In the Palmetto State, beekeepers reported about 25 percent losses.

Bee cause

The importance of honey bees can't be stressed enough, said the leader of the state's trade group.

"Without the honey bee, we would be hurting," said Steve McNeely of York, president of the S.C. Beekeepers Association.

About 35 percent of America's crops rely to some extent on bees, according to a report by the Genetic Literacy Project. Other crops are wind-pollinated, self-pollinated, are propagated asexually or develop without the need for fertilization. It is estimated that honey bees add about 9 percent to the value of crops worldwide.

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Tami Enright, co-founder of the Bee Cause Project, uses a tool to loosen a frame in a box of bees so she can check to see how much honey they produced at the Isle of Palms location. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

McNeely, a self-employed paint contractor who started his side bee business called Lil Buddy Honey 10 years ago, didn't do so well on his first outing.

"They all died that winter because I didn't know what I was doing," he said.

He looked to York County, which offered a beekeeping class, for help.

He learned to take measures like feeding honey bees sugar syrup to get them started and help them make it through the winter.

"It's best to let them do their own thing for the most part," he said.

McNeely, using figures from Clemson University, estimates there are between 50,000 and 60,000 hives in South Carolina now.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture puts the number in the Palmetto State among commercial growers with five or more hives at 17,500. That means there are a lot of backyard bee producers across the state, such as Enright.

Across the U.S. in early 2017, the federal agriculture agency put the number of honey beehives for operations with five or more colonies at 2.62 million, down about 4,000 from the previous year. That number does not include backyard bee enthusiasts with their own hives.

Bee line

Tom Knaust of West Ashley is among those trying to educate the public on the importance of bees.

Before moving to Charleston in 2013, he served as an apprentice for one year with a commercial bee keeper in Asheville, N.C. With his move, came nine colonies to the Lowcountry. He now oversees about five times as many.

Knaust ran into Enright at the annual Charleston Honey and Bee Expo and later became a paid contractor for The Bee Cause Project.

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An observational honey bee hive is on display in the produce section of Whole Foods Market in Mount Pleasant. It's part of The Bee Cause Project to raise awareness about the importance of bees and honey production. Warren L. Wise/Staff

He now has 42 hives through his business, Queen & Comb Apiaries, and manages a dozen or so observational hives.

Knaust also serves as the host to hives that people have contracted with him to manage. They put the hive at their house and get a share of the honey every year.

He also sells starter colonies, produces honey and does consultations through his business, including giving talks at schools, nursing homes or other places.

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Bees work to produce honey on a frame from a bee box on the Isle of Palms. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

A honey bee box can have eight to 10 frames inside. About twice a year, the frames are removed to collect the honey the bees have produced. Enright estimates she collects between three to five gallons per season.

"I usually leave more than I take," she said. "I don't like to take it all from the bees."

It's important that the honey bee boxes be placed next to a small, clean water source. 

Raising awareness

Knaust looks at his mission as "pretty critical."

"The most important thing I am doing is raising awareness about honey bees in general for education and teaching them how their food is grown," Knaust said. "Bees are an excellent platform for educating people on how we grow our food."

He said 95 percent of the colonies in the U.S. are managed by 5 percent of the beekeepers. Each year, large commercial operators transport thousands of hives to places such as California to pollinate almonds or to Florida for the citrus crop. It is estimated about 20 percent of the bees die because of transit or after becoming dependent on one crop.

On the plus side, Knaust said beekeepers know how to diminish die-offs, a major problem since 2007 as 30 percent to 70 percent of European hives in North America are lost to a problem dubbed colony collapse disorder, believed to be the result to some pesticides or a pesky virus. 

To help hives multiply when the bees build up in the spring, keepers split up the hives and make more colonies.

"We have all gotten pretty good at replenishing losses, but the losses have gotten pretty high," Knaust said.

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Tami Enright of the Isle of Palms is co-founder of the Bee Cause Project. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Kay Greiman of Isle of Palms moved to the Lowcountry nine years ago from the Midwest and does her part to help with bee pollination.

"I had been landscaping and always interested in bees and pollination," she said. "I kind of fell in love with them."

When she bought the house just off the ocean, she had a lemon tree and was self-pollinating it with a paint brush. Then she heard about a local beekeepers group in 2011. She set up bee boxes and her lemon tree has thrived since.

"I like it very much," she said of her beekeeping pastime. "Sometimes I get to go to the classrooms at local schools and give them a little talk."

The Bee Cause Project offers grants to schools to set up observational hives. The application period starts Sept. 1.

"It starts the conversation," Enright said. "It's building stewardship for the next generation, so that it's second nature for us to care about where food is coming from. When you have to feed it or take care of it, it helps kids learn how to keep it up."

Reach Warren L. Wise at 843-937-5524. Follow him on Twitter @warrenlancewise.