Bees, Pt. 2

Get Creative in the Garden with Bryn — By on December 2, 2008 12:40 PM


While we may primarily associate beekeeping with the production of honey and beeswax, most commercial beekeepers actually rent out their hives for “pollination services.” Pollination is a greater source of income than any of the bee-produced products for most commercial beekeepers. Roughly one third of our food is dependant on animal pollination (versus wind or rain-driven pollination). Our grains are typically wind pollinated, but nearly all of the fruits, vegetables and nuts that we eat are dependent on pollinators. With the way most farms are setup-with large tracts of mono-cultures (or single species plantings)-local pollinators are unable to successfully pollinate the plants. It’s a feast or famine situation-everything flowers in a short time span, then there is nothing to eat again. As a result, many beekeepers are migratory and “follow the bloom.” Honey bees in the United States pollinate over $14 billion worth of crops each year–approximately 130 agricultural crops. While many of these plants have multiple pollinators, a few, such as almonds, rely exclusively on bees. See this chart of bee-pollinated crop plants or this smaller chart that shows the percentages of several select crops that are due to bee pollination.

Most beekeepers keep the European, or Western, honeybee, Apis mellifera. A typical bee colony ranges from 15,000 to 30,000 bees. Large commercial beekeepers each keep up to 10,000 colonies. Of course, there are also people who keep bees as a secondary source of income or as a hobby.

In 2006, a Pennsylvanian beekeeper over wintering in Florida noticed his bees were disappearing. This became the first documented case of what came to be called Colony Collapse Disorder (although some argue that it is a problem that has been around for a long time, but has just recently become worse.) Within months, beekeepers in 24 states were reporting losses of between 20 to 80 percent of their bees. CCD has since spread to Europe. The signs of Colony Collapse Disorder are primarily that the majority of the bees leave the colony and don’t return. Sometimes, the queen, eggs and a few newly hatched bees are all that remain. No, or very few, dead bees are found in or near the hive. They are just gone. Another sign of Colony Collapse Disorder is that the food stores of the hive are not robbed by bees from another colony and there is a long delay before the hive is attacked by hive pests such as wax moth and small hive beetle. Although this second sign typically means that the nest has been infected by a disease or chemical, no signs of such have been found so far.

To date, the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder is unknown, although a number of theories have been proposed. One of the early media favorites, that cell phone electromagnetic radiation disorients the bees and they lose their way (originally published in The Independent,) has been largely discounted. Apparently, the supporting study cited by The Independent actually involved cordless phone handsets placed inside the hive, not cell phones (which use a different wavelength.) Also, Colony Collapse Disorder has been discovered in areas with little cell phone usage. Genetically modified crops have also been discounted as the cause of CCD (although I couldn’t find out why.)

Leading suspects for the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder include a virus, a parasitic mite or an agricultural pesticide. Many feel that with the way large-scale commercial beekeeping is done, it was a disaster waiting to happen. Most CCD researchers seem to feel that Colony Collapse Disorder is likely due to a combination of factors, which only adds to the complexity of the problem. The CCD Working Group has recently discovered that the only pathogen that was present in nearly all the CCD sample colonies, but not the non-CCD colony samples, was the Israeli acute paralysis virus (IAPV), a virus that can be transmitted by the Varroa mite (Science, Sept 6, 2007). (It should be noted that the study only determines a correlation between the presence of IAPV and CCD, not a causal relationship.) Initially it was believed that IAPV first appeared in the US with some imported Australian honeybees right before CCD appeared, but later it was determined that IAPV has been in the US since 2002.

Another recent source of concern is a new class of pesticides called neonicotinoids (based on nicotine.) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires that companies provide data on a pesticide’s possible impact on nontarget organisms before a pesticide can be registered for use. The data provided by Bayer (the manufacturer) on neonicotinoids, showed it did not harm bees at the levels to which they are likely to be exposed. However, France banned the use of the neonicotinoid imidacloprid in 2005 after some studies showed potential adverse effects on honeybees. This past summer Germany temporarily banned the neonicotoid clothianidin (pending further study) after a field application was immediately followed by a widespread bee die-off. Italy and Slovenia have also banned neonicotinoids. The Natural Resource Defense Council currently has a lawsuit against the EPA over the issue of neonicotinoid approval.

To keep up with the most recent news on Colony

Collapse Disorder, I’d recommend regularly checking the following sites:

Organic Consumers Association – collects news articles related to honeybee health & CCD

Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research & Extension Consortium (MAAREC) – contains a list of articles and resources related to CCD, including CCD Working Group findings

US Dept. of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service – the ARS is part of the CCD Working Group

The more I read about Colony Collapse Disorder, the more I am convinced that our current predominant methods of agriculture and commercial beekeeping have a lot to do with the problem. Most of our food is grown in large monoculture fields, where all competing plants (“weeds”) are suppressed. There is nothing to feed the local pollinators when the food crop is not in bloom and therefore there are no resident pollinators. As a result, farmers must hire the “pollination services” of commercial bee keepers if their crop is dependent on insect pollination. Commercial beekeepers travel around the country with their hives to wherever their services are currently needed.

All of this traveling subjects the bees to numerous stresses. The bees work a longer pollination season than they would if they remained in one location. To get them energized and ready to fly as soon as they arrive, beekeepers frequently supplement the diet of their bees with items such as high fructose corn syrup and imported flower pollen. They are also constantly being exposed to new surroundings to which they must adapt. Like any other species, from plants to humans and more, when bees become stressed, their immune system weakens.

Add to this the fact that bees from all over the country (and sometimes even imported from out-of-country) are brought together to pollinate the same field. For example, over half the beehives in the US travel to California every February to pollinate the flowering almond trees. In 2005, demand for bees was so great that the USDA approved the importation of bees from Australia to help the almond growers. Of course these bees from all over also brought their local pests and diseases with them. While bees, like people, may have developed a resistance to their local illnesses, they are unlikely to have a resistance to everything they encounter at one of these mass gatherings. Just think, you are more likely to get sick from traveling through an airport than going to your local grocery store.

So what does this mean for us? If you search online for information on Colony Collapse Disorder, you will very likely come across a quote (probably falsely) attributed to Einstein that claims if the bees disappear, humans will die off within four years. Although I wouldn’t argue that we’d be in very big trouble regarding our food, I don’t think this is likely. Honeybees are not our only pollinators, nor are they even the most efficient (several of our native bees are better.) As stated earlier, our grains are wind pollinated. Some plants are pollinated when raindrops splash the pollen from the stamen to the pistil. A number of different animals contribute to pollination, chiefly bats, birds, moths, butterflies, many species of bees, and a variety of other insects. If honeybees disappeared, it would mean the end of large scale commercial production of pollinator-dependant crops. Alternate methods of pollinating crops have been tried, such as pollinating by hand or even setting up massive fans in the fields, but none have been found to be effective and feasible. Even with changes in agricultural techniques, crops such as almonds are specifically dependant on pollination by bees and would not exist without them. So, while it wouldn’t be a pleasant transition, I don’t believe that humans would die off if Colony Collapse Disorder wiped out the honeybee.

What can we, the non-farmer/non-beekeeper, do to help the situation? First support your local, small-scale, organic farmers (and beekeepers too). Do you really need additional reasons to buy your food from these sources? Small scale farms must, out of necessity, produce a diversity of crops. This means that various plants will be flowering over an extended period of time, providing a continuous food source for local pollinators. Buy organic. Although it hasn’t been researched, anecdotal evidence suggests that small-scale beehives located in organic fields have had fewer cases of CCD. With the effects of pesticides, herbicides, and GMO crops still being studied, it’s best to avoid them if you can. Even if herbicides are not directly causing bee deaths, the “weeds” they are killing frequently would have provided an additional food source for pollinators. Buy local to support your local bee populations and support genetic diversity among bees.

If you are interested in doing more and have some land around your house, consider planting a pollinator’s garden. Pick plants that have a variety of flower shapes, colors, and bloom times to attract a variety of pollinators and keep them fed throughout the growing season. Native plants are best because they will be most likely to appeal to your local pollinators and supply their needs. Obviously avoid pollenless cultivars of plants. There are a number of websites that can help you create a pollinator’s garden. Check out the Pollinator Partnership site (contains ecoregion specific planting guides), Berkley’s Urban Bee Gardens site, and the Xerces Society’s Pollinator Conservation Program, as starting places. You can also find directions to build, or places to buy, bee nesting blocks online. These will attract mason bees, a native bee that is very efficient at pollination.

If you are concerned about attracting bees to your yard because of concerns over bee stings, consider the following. Only female bees have stingers. Several honeybee species have barbed stingers and, while they can sting other insects without harming themselves, their stinger will stick in the skin of a mammal, pulling out of the bee and killing her when she tries to fly away. Queen honeybees, bumblebees and many of the solitary bees have smooth stingers and can sting repeatedly. Bees are not aggressive, but defensive. They will only sting something they perceive to be a threat. The best way to avoid being stung is to be aware of where bees are and what they are doing. Obviously don’t swat at or otherwise attack them. If you are gentle, you can even pet bumblebees! When they are busy in a flower, they will be so absorbed in what they are doing that they will ignore your touch. I’ve done this a number of times. They’re very fuzzy! If you, or someone in your house, have a severe allergic reaction to bee stings, please use your best judgment before attracting bees to your yard.

If you are concerned about planting a pollinator garden because of pollen allergies, consider the following. Most pollen allergies are due to wind pollinated plants, not plants that depend on pollinators. Plants that depend on wind pollination attempt to get as much pollen up into the air as possible, because it increases the chances that some of the pollen will land on a receptive plant of the appropriate species. A plant that depends on pollinators, conversely, wants its pollen to remain in the flower until the flower is visited by a pollinator, which will then likely be attracted to another plant of the same species. Therefore, you are much more likely to encounter wind dispersed pollen than animal dispersed pollen. Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) is an example of a plant that is falsely blamed for many fall allergies. However, goldenrod depends on insects for pollination-watch it and you will see a stand of goldenrod practically humming with bees. Typically the allergen culprit is ragweed (Ambrosia sp.), a plant with an inconspicuous, wind-pollinated flower that occurs at the same time as the showier goldenrod flower and grows in similar conditions.

If you wish to actively contribute to the study of your local bee populations, consider joining The Great Sunflower Project. They will send you seeds of the native US sunflower, Helianthus annuus, and in return ask that you, twice a month, observe your plant after it flowers and record how long it takes 5 bees to visit (or watch for 30 min., whichever comes first.) They provide guidance in growing your sunflowers and in identifying the bees, as well as general bee facts and resources.

Happy gardening!
Bryn Richard is a licensed landscape architect with a strong interest in sustainable design. She can be reached at Bryn@BlueTrillium.net and welcomes your questions and suggestions for further articles.

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