May has arrived! After months of frosty stillness, our beautiful state is bursting with sounds, smells and colors. Spring has sprung, and it is time to get out there and enjoy it! For many of us, that means getting our hands into the dirt and beginning the season-long process of growing things. For me, this also means getting used to all of the little critters that are part and parcel of that process. Including, but definitely not limited to, one commonly misunderstood insect—the bee.
I dream of becoming a hobby beekeeper and actively seek out plants that will draw my fuzzy yellow friends to my garden and deck. I don’t just like bees; I LOVE them. However, this was not always the case. I was once absolutely terrified of bees. My road to friendship with my buzzing companions started when I learned the difference between bees and wasps.
Bees are fuzzy pollen collectors that die shortly after stinging a person, due to the stinger becoming embedded in our skin. Wasps, on the other hand, are definitely NOT fuzzy, and can sting people as many times as they like. Perhaps that is why they are so aggressive—they’ve got nothing to lose by dealing out some nasty stings. Since stinging a person usually is the last thing a bee will do, they don’t like to sting, and only do so out of defense. I can identify with that.
A grower can have the best location, the best soil, the best fertilization, the best pest control, the best fungus control, the best irrigation and the best cultivators... but if there are no honey bees to take pollen from point A to point B, there will be no saleable, marketable crop.” -Southeast Farm Press
My affection toward honeybees deepened as I learned about the myriad of important and wonderful things that they do that make our food grow. Honeybees are one of the most underappreciated and essential participants in our food system. Their contribution is not limited to the production of delicious and beautiful honey. In fact, one out of every three bites of food we eat is the direct result of the actions of bees. The estimated added value honeybees bring to the U.S. agricultural economy is $15 billion annually. To give you an idea of how much we ought to appreciate the work of our bee friends, here’s a list of foods that are almost entirely reliant on bees for pollination: almonds, apples, asparagus, avocados, blueberries, broccoli, cashews, celery, cherries, cranberries, cucumbers, lemons, limes, mangoes, onions, oranges, watermelons, soybeans, kiwi, peaches and strawberries.
If that list isn’t enough to inspire awe and devotion, bees also increase the productivity of crops such as alfalfa and clover, which are commonly used as animal feed. In this way, bees also contribute to the production of food products like meat and our state staple, dairy. That’s right Wisconsinites, bees = cheese.
How do they do it? Bees are valuable and incredibly effective pollinators. A pollinator is an animal such as a bird, bee, bat, butterfly, moth or even a beetle that moves pollen in and between flowers. Pollination leads to fertilization, which in turn allows plants to produce seeds and fruits. Without fertilization, a seed does not form and a plant has no reason to expend the energy to build a fruit.
Bees are particularly effective pollinators because they spend most of their lives collecting pollen, a protein source for their developing offspring. Also, individual bees tend to focus on one kind of flower at a time, which means that it is much more likely that pollen will be transferred between flowers of the same species (a big plus when it comes to effective fertilization). Honeybees are commonly used in large-scale agricultural operations because their nests/colonies can be picked up and moved without greatly disrupting the life cycle of the bees. Some beekeepers literally pack up their hives and cart them across the country to ensure adequate pollination of major crops. Honeybees are also very repetitious. They will visit flowers multiple times, which ensures complete pollination. As a result (as long as the pollen is viable and the flower healthy) fertilization takes place and maximum fruit, vegetable, nut or seed production results.
The domesticated honeybee isn’t the only pollinator that agriculture relies on—wild honeybees also play a significant role.Some are even more effective at collecting and transferring pollen than honey bees. Bumblebees, blue orchard bees, Osmia and many other varieties of bee are excellent pollinators. Many have evolved in tandem with native crops, and are able to work in more adverse conditions than domesticated bees. However, their colonies are either very small (bumblebee colonies, for example, are made up of just several hundred individual bees; an average honeybee hive contains 50,000+ bees) or made up of single individual female bees (such as the Blue Orchard bee and Osmia). These colonies cannot be carted across the country, and are not suited for as many crops.
Native bee populations have evolved to be a part of our landscape, but honeybees are imports. Colonists at Jamestown and Williamsburg introduced the domesticated European honeybee to North America about 400 years ago. Few bees native to the continent produced enough honey to make harvesting it worth the trouble, so colonists brought in more productive bees from their home continent. Since that time, the honeybee has spread from sea to shining sea.
Beekeepers used to pay farmers for the privilege of stationing their beehives on land with blooming crops. However, when large swaths of natural habitat across the United States were lost to suburban development and increased agriculture post-World War II, the opposite became true. Wild bees populations were decimated by the loss of habitat in tandem with the widespread use of new pesticides. Domesticated honeybees became essential to successful harvests. Farmers now needed beekeepers to bring bees to their flowering fields in order to achieve pollination and fertilization, since the native bee populations could no longer do that work. Today, migratory beekeepers continue this practice, following the trail of flowers back and forth across the country.
Here in Wisconsin, beekeeping was a common household practice throughout the 19th century. Raising honeybees in Wisconsin’s climate was no easy task, and kept the industry confined to personal and local use at first. Technical advances over the course of the 1800s helped to lay the groundwork for eventual commercial production. The diversification of agricultural pursuits that occurred in the state after 1860 also helped Wisconsin bee populations flourish by providing rich, varied sources of pollen and nectar. By 1900, over 2.6 million pounds of honey were produced on Wisconsin farms. Today, according to the Wisconsin State Historical Society, our state ranks 14th in the United States in honey production. The Wisconsin honey industry boasts thousands of hobby beekeepers, in addition to 50 or so commercial operations.
“In the United States alone, more than 25 percent of the managed honey bee population has disappeared since 1990.” -Natural Resources Defense Council
“If the honeybee becomes extinct, mankind will follow within four years.” -Albert Einstein
Our native and honeybee colonies are dying off in droves. They are in big trouble, and so are we. One-third of the human diet comes from insect-pollinated plants, and bees are responsible for 80 percent of that pollination, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “So, if the collapse worsens, we could end up being stuck with grains and water,” says Kevin Hacket, the national program leader for the USDA’s bee and pollination program. “This is the biggest general threat to our food supply.”
The United States and Canada are home to at least 4,500 species of native bees. These species ranges from the sleek, iridescent Blue Mason bee to the adorably plump and bright yellow Bumblebee. All are atrisk. Loss of habitat is a large part of the problem, along with use of pesticides that inadvertently destroy bees along with other insect “pests.” There is also evidence of causal connection between local extinctions of “functionally linked plant and pollinator species.” In other words, as the native plants disappear, their pollinating agents, like bees, are disappearing along with them. This makes farmers even more reliant on the domesticated honeybees for crop production, since their native cousins are not here to help out anymore.
“My take on CCD is that it is one of the signs, the really unmistakable signs, that our food system is unsustainable.” -Michael Pollan
The domesticated honeybee is facing an uncertain future of its own. Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, has been making headlines since it was identified in 2006 and continues to threaten the existence of our bee populations. CCD is characterized by seemingly healthy bees abandoning their hives en masse, leaving behind a queen and her newly hatched offspring. Without the worker bees, the colony swiftly dies. Researchers estimate that nearly one-third of all honeybee colonies in the U.S. have vanished. These losses threaten the honey and agricultural industries that depend on pollination. Even worse is the latest news from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The UNEP reported in 2010 that the declines in managed bee colonies that have been observed in the U.S. and Europe over the past decade are now also being seen in China, Japan and Egypt. CCD is becoming a global phenomenon, with dire consequences for all of us. UNEP scientists who conducted the study warn that without profound changes to the way human beings manage the planet, the pollinators that we need to feed a growing global population are likely to continue to disappear. “The way humanity manages or mismanages its nature-based assets, including pollinators, will in part define our collective future in the 21st century,” says Achim Steiner, the UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director.
“A variety of factors are making these man-made colonies vulnerable to decline and collapse. We need to get smarter about how we manage these hives, but perhaps more importantly, we need to better manage the landscape beyond, in order to recover wild bee populations.” -Dr. Peter Neumann, Swiss Bee Research Centre
Scientists have not been able to pinpoint a precise cause of Colony Collapse Disorder. Instead, it seems that there is a “perfect storm” of factors that are causing bee populations to buckle and die out.
Pesticides have been identified as a key contributor to CCD. There are several ways pesticides can negatively affect bees. First, some pesticides will just straight up kill bees, along with other insects that have been identified as “pests.” The pesticide does not differentiate between one kind of insect and another, so bees are a kind of collateral damage. Even if a pesticide doesn’t outright kill a bee, exposure can compromise a bee’s immune system, leaving it more vulnerable to pests and diseases. Overuse of pesticides, by spraying them on fields that don’t really need them, or using so much that the bees can’t withstand the effects, can also lead to this particular scenario.
Systemic pesticides present a new kind of threat. These pesticides are applied to seeds, rather than spread on mature plants, and are present in all parts of the plant for the plant’s entire lifetime. That creates more opportunities for pesticides to kill harmless “non-target” insects like bees.
Specific kinds of pesticides that have been banned in other nations because they harm bees are still available and used within the US. This is particularly dangerous for native bee populations. While domestic populations can be moved if necessary, wild populations of pollinators are rooted in place and thus completely vulnerable. (On a side note, in 2005 Wisconsin’s farmers reported using 13 million pounds of pesticides eachyear, which works out to be a little over 2 pounds of pesticides for each man, woman and child in the state.)
Stress from monoculture crops also negatively affects bee health. Bees thrive on a diverse diet, much like people do. When they only have one kind of pollen to work with, it puts stress on their buzzing little bee bodies and on their hives.
Globalization has also been identified as a factor in CCD, as bee pests and diseases are being passed swiftly around the world thanks to the opening up of trade. The industrialized model of beekeeping can aid in the spreading of bee diseases by creating the ideal breeding conditions for some of the very pests and diseases that are responsible for many bee deaths. Moving the hive from farm to farm spreads diseases further. This is especially unfortunate as we are increasingly reliant on huge, mobile bee populations to make up the shortfall in local and native pollinators.
Air pollution may be interfering with the ability of bees to find flowering plans, and thus food. Scents that could travel more than 800 meters in the 1800s now reach less than 200 meters from a plant, according to the UNEP’s findings.
Climate change is another factor negatively affecting the life of bees. As climates warm, flowers are blooming earlier. By the time pollinators have come out of hibernation, their food source is gone.
Loss of habitat and native bee populations are also impacting our domesticated bees. Many beekeepers have been driven out of business by CCD, which means there are fewer people cultivating healthy bee populations. And native bees are not there to help with the work of pollination, placing additional stress on the work of domesticated bees.
“Sometimes we just don’t make the connection between food and pollination. We shouldn’t think of bees as just being beneficial to crops. They also pollinate food sources for songbirds and other animals. Without the honeybee, our world would become a less interesting place.” -Karin Wishner, Ohio part-time urban bee keeper
The threats facing our buzzing little pollinators are very real, present and dangerous for all of us. The UNEP’s report suggests that as many as 20,000 flowering plant species upon which bees depend could go extinct, if bee conservation efforts fail. And I certainly don’t want to live on a diet of grains and water. Thankfully, there are steps we can take, as individuals and communities, to help protect our native and domesticated bee species.
#1: Get In the Know... and Share Your Knowledge
Slow Food USA has a wonderful set of bee resources on their website, www.slowfoodusa.org. Watch “The Vanishing of the Bees” and spread the word about how important and awesome these friendly pollinators are. Throw a “Yeah Bees!” party featuring a variety of foods that bees made possible. Maybe there are some other folks out there who might have a little more empathy towards the plight of the bees if they only knew how great they really are.
#2: Write the EPA and the USDA
Tell them that you care about what is happening to our native and domestic bee populations, and that they should be dedicating resources to figure out how to stop CCD.
“Although the USDA has allotted $20 million over the next 5 years for research, that amount pales in comparison with the potential loss of even a fraction of the $15 billion worth of crops that bees pollinate every year.” -Natural Resources Defense Council
#3: Buy Organic/Pesticide Free, and Reduce Pesticide Use at Home
Diminishing our use of pesticides will decrease the likelihood of collateral bee casualties. Many organic farmers use integrated pest management techniques to manage threats to their crops, which can also be used by many of us at home. By promoting beneficial insects to prey on pests, distracting pests’ habitats and using the least-toxic products when necessary, IPM methods can provide effective pest control while reducing risks to pollinators.
#4: Eat Some Wisconsin Honey
You will be supporting a local beekeeper and providing them with the financial resources to continue to cultivate healthy honeybee populations. Plus, you get a delicious and sustainable treat!
#5: Grow a Pollinator’s Dream Garden
Plant a bee-friendly habitat with flowering plants that produce high quality pollen and nectar, like sunflowers, poppies, berries, onions, gourds and most herbs. Flowering plants that bloom early in the spring and late into the fall are especially helpful. Native plants are also encouraged. Many local gardening stores will have suggestions for plants that are attractive to bees—feel free to ask!
#6: Become a Beekeeper
“As the details of the mysterious honeybee filled the empty beekeeping section of my brain, I felt lucky and giddy, as if someone had shown me a secret door.” -Novella Carpenter
“An advantage to having bees in the city is that they are not exposed to the variety of pesticides that are sometimes used in rural areas. The old neighborhoods of the city provide a wide range of nutrients. Bees are healthier when they consume pollen and nectar from varied sources” -Karin Wishner, Ohio part-time urban bee keeper
I promise, it’s not as intimidating as it might seem at first! Here’s the word from Jeanne Hansen, head of the Dane County Beekeepers’ Association: “Interest in beekeeping cuts across age, racial and gender boundaries. We see students to retired fellows, and even several families who come to meetings with children.
“The more people who get started with a hive or two of honeybees, the better for the environment, the crops and the available supply of honey,” she adds, “Many aspiring beekeepers are gardeners who want to increase their yields of fruits, berries and squashes.”
Andre Flys, a professional Canadian beekeeper, reports from Toronto that “expanding urban agriculture and looking after a small bee city can bring people together in a big urban area like Toronto. It gets a lot of communities together—they work together to produce food and it binds the people to get to know one another and their neighbors.” Plus, for Toronto to expand its food production beyond what it currently has, bees would be of great help.
“The bright taste of honey on the tongue spoke of the place, if a place can be known by the activity of bees and a flavor in the mouth”-Hank Hudepohl
The decline of our bee populations has been described as “death by a thousand cuts.” Each of us can be a part of the solution, one small measure at a time. As you get out, start tending your gardens, and enjoying this beautiful spring, I encourage you to plant just one thing for the bees. Maybe we can reverse the trend and renew our bee communities. Perhaps we can create life by a thousand flowers.