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What’s All the Buzz About Honey Bees? Is There a Solution Right in Our Own Backyards?

Posted in Food Safety on July 9, 2018

When we think of bees, many of us picture bumble bees or honey bees. Or maybe some of us conjure up yellow jackets, which are not really bees at all, but wasps. (Besides, no one likes yellow jackets or wasps. They are just jerks with wings).

In the kingdom that is nature, bees are an integral and even vital part of the ecosystem.  A great number of crops rely on bee pollination, such as almonds, cauliflower, lettuce, blueberries, apples, onions, garlic, pears, and many more. News about the potential demise of the honey bee appears on the news and social media, but is the situation as dire as they would have us believe? Let’s examine what is happening to our very busy honey bees.

Pollination Power

The process of pollination is really quite elegant as well as efficient. When bees are busy hopping from flower to flower, some of the pollen adheres to the hairs of the bees’ bodies, and when our friends flit around to other plants, some of that pollen rubs off onto the tip of the pistil of the next plant, thereby allowing fertilization. Voila: a seed is born!

As for our prodigious honey bees, the overwhelming majority of the hives are commercially prepared and shipped to farms. Over two-thirds of these honey bee colonies travel the US each year, making them like colorful little gypsies. In addition to crop pollination, honey bees are also well known for producing beeswax and, of course, honey.

The Remarkable Honey Bee

The honey bee is a remarkable and efficient creature, capable of pollinating hundreds of acres of crops. However, the honey bee does not know how to pollinate a tomato or an eggplant flower. As with virtually every living species on earth, they are programmed to be specific to a certain task, but pollination does not extend to every type of plant. Pumpkin, squash, and cranberries are more efficiently pollinated by native bees. In fact, the honey bee is not native to North America. Honey bees were introduced to the New World in the early 17th century.

The Buzz About Colony Collapse Disorder

The term Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) originated in 2006 following beekeeper reports that they were experiencing high colony losses: adult honeybees simply disappearing from the hives. Queen bees and her brood were discovered in their hives with plenty of food but the rest of the bees failed to adequately attend to her. This was eventually attributed to overexposure to pesticides and the subsequent pathological damage it caused. A particular class of pesticides called neonicotinoids affects the central nervous system in bees as well as other insects, causing paralysis and death. To make matters more complicated, the pesticide can proliferate in surrounding wildflower areas near crops because of water solubility. Other chemical pesticides are sprayed on crops, and they also have a deleterious effect upon a wide variety of bees.

But all the dire predictions about the almost certain demise of honey bees are premature and often misleading.  Commercial beekeepers replace the expired hives for a relatively inexpensive price, and there are just as many of these commercially-produced bees now as there were in 2006. There are more than 4,000 species of wild bees in the United States, but the concern has been over the honey bee in terms of its loss of habitat and the constant threat of pesticides. They are not going away anytime soon. Again, the honeybees are not native and are shipped across the country to pollinate specific crops, and about half of the estimated 2.7 million colonies in the US have collapsed at least once in the last decade. If, as popular sentiment would have it, the demise of the honey bees is a morbid harbinger of a coming food apocalypse, then it would stand to reason that the wild bees would meet a similar fate.

Using Native Bee Species Could Calm Our Fears

In contrast, we have been ignoring our own native species of bee, which number approximately 4,000. They are also known as solitary bees, and while we know a great deal about the factors that cause CCD in honey bees, we also know that the wild, solitary bees are greatly affected by the toxicity of pesticides and loss of habitat. Research continues to focus on the popular honey bee, and not nearly as much on the factors that are destroying our wild bees. The honey bees are the lucky ones: they have a support staff of beekeepers and researchers giving them all kinds of assistance as well as an appeal to public sentiment and sympathy. The native bees “fly solo”.

Enter the mason bees: super-duper pollinators that are up to 100 times more effective than honey bees. Dave Hunter owns Crown Bees that sells backyard mason bee incubator kits. According to Hunter, only 400 mason bees are needed to pollinate an acre, as opposed to 30,000 honey bees. He adds that the mason bees are the “future of our food supply”, and that “Crown Bees is a bee company, but we’re actually a food company masquerading as a bee company”.  Here’s how it works: the nesting holes are filled with bee cocoons, and when the bees hatch and release, the bees then return to lay more eggs, continuing the cycle. You can keep the cocoons, or sell them back to Crown.

Bees and Humans Can Co-Exist

Human beings have this inordinate tendency to disrupt the natural process. We like our lawns to be free of weeds and have no bare spots. We pave over anything “unsightly”. These are places where the native bees may have made their homes, or found food. The bees, including the honey bees and the wild bees, are losing their native habitat and dealing with pesticides. We need to begin including the bees in agriculture, city parks, and even our own yards.

Aimee Code is a Pesticide Program Coordinator of the Xerces Society that emphasizes the conservation of native bees. “Our native bees, so vitally important in our ecosystems, are more sensitive to pesticides. Any person who has even a postage stamp yard can stop using pesticides, put in more native plants, and leave some wild areas for bees to nest in the ground. It is that easy to help make a difference.”

 

By:  Kerry Bazany, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)