Eradication Through Education — Ruthie Danielsen Wins Beekeeper of the Year
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By Aliya Hall A PBS Documentary in 2015 about colony class disorder in bees sparked Ruthie Danielsen’s interest in pollinators. After a few years of researching the issues plaguing bees, she decided that her retirement goal wasn’t going to be saving the bees — but understanding them.
“I’m very fond of all critters, and so I thought, ‘I’ll get my own hives and learn by doing rather than by what’s written or someone’s opinion,’” she said. “The motivation was to keep my brain working because it wasn’t easy to keep bees alive in Northwest Washington, and it was constant learning.”
Danielsen is a beekeeper in Whatcom County, Washington. She won the 2021 Beekeeper of the Year Award through the Washington State Beekeepers Association (WASBA) for her work in educating the public about the Asian Giant Hornet and acquiring the first Asian Giant Hornet nest in the U.S. for researchers.
“When we got the nomination for Ruthie, we knew it was a good one,” Martina Graves, executive director of WASBA, said. “She exemplifies the beekeeper of the year award because she’s looking out for us, always.”
WASBA is a nonprofit organization based out of Spokane and focuses on education. They provide educational material to local bee clubs, host the annual Pacific Northwest Beekeepers Conference in October, and award the Beekeeper of the Year Award.
This honor has been happening since 1987. Graves explained that WASBA wanted a way to recognize the work of local beekeepers making an impact and giving them the recognition they deserve. Members nominate beekeepers, and the WASBA board members vote on the nominees.
Danielsen had been following the Asian Giant Hornet since 2019, when it was mentioned during a Mt. Baker Beekeeper’s Association meeting, but no action was taken until the club’s current president, Ted McFall, had one of his hives decapitated by hornets.
“He’s been a beekeeper for generations,” Danielsen said. “He had something happen to his hive that he had never seen before, and he brought that to the club.”
The club reached out to Paul van Westendorp, an apiarist in Canada, to educate the club about the hornets in February 2020. Danielsen said that the presentation illustrated how little scientists knew about the Asian Giant Hornets but how devastating their behavior was.
“At the end of the presentation, everyone went home, and it was like, my personality — especially when you get a significant emotional event — was, ‘What are we going to do about it besides be horrified?’” she said.
The following day, Danielsen reached out to the Washington Department of Agriculture, and they provided material to start trapping queens as more hornet sightings happened in Washington. In the height of the pandemic, Danielsen said she made a lot of calls and written correspondence as well as met with people in parking lots to dispense traps.
After involving beekeepers, Danielsen knew the next step was involving the public. She received a pair of pinned hornets in a case that she could show people, so they knew what to look for.
“At that point in time, I took those hornets everywhere,” she said. “Bank, grocery store, anywhere you could go with masks, and we needed way more people looking for hornets.”
From there, the New York Times got involved and interviewed Danielsen, bringing the “murder hornets” to the national stage.
“People don’t like the name, but in reality, the name got us on the AP, and it got us on the nighttime talks shows,” she said. “It blew up. Yeah, it was scary, and people thought they murdered people, but it actually got more people aware, and more people reached out to us and started great communication.”
Danielsen said she responded to around 45 different requests for information all over the country. This push for public education also gave her the opportunity to work with a film crew shooting a documentary about the hornets.
“It was like, ‘this is another opportunity to educate,’” she said, adding that she hopes farmers and other groups involved in agriculture will understand the importance of protecting pollinators from these predators.
Due largely to Danielsen’s efforts, the Washington nest will be displayed in the Smithsonian Museum from July to December 2022. The entomologist is doing a display focusing on invasive species. Read more at https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/giant-murder-hornet-has-landed-at-the-natural-history-museum-180980431/.
At her own apiary, Danielsen currently has seven overwintered hives. She originally started with two, which quickly grew to four to 14. Quickly she learned that her overwintering max is six to seven hives, and with all of the work that comes in the spring, she’s looking to get back down to four hives.
She uses eight-frame hives that are three deep, which is four frames more than the normal 10-frame, 2-deep setup.
Danielsen said she was “humbled” to be chosen as the 2021 award recipient.
“When you think of ‘blank of the year,’ you think of someone with years of experience and is a master beekeeper — and I’m not,” she said. “I only know a little bit about a little bit, and I’m continuing to learn each year.”
ALIYA HALL is a writer and freelance journalist with a specialization in agriculture. She lives in Portland, Oregon, and can be reached at aliyabreehall.com.
Originally published in the Winter 2022/2023 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.