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Our disappearing bees
Honeybees came over on the Mayflower - just like many of our descendants - and were introduced to Jamestown and Williamsburg to provide honey for the colonists.
Back then, there were few honeybees native to the continent that produced enough honey to harvest. Since then, honeybees have spread across our continent, thanks to friendly farmers and beekeepers.
Still, native bee species have suffered. Modern agriculture, with its credo of planting "fencerow to fencerow" leaves little native plants (read weeds) that the wild bees need. Widespread use of pesticides has also reduced bee populations. These poisons have put all of the 4,500 species of native bees, including honeybees, at risk.
In the old days, beekeepers used to pay farmers to allow bees to pollinate blooming crops. Now, with the decline in native bees, farmers are forced to pay beekeepers for their pollination services. Today, migratory beekeeping is big business, and those busy little honeybees work their stingers off pollinating a lot of our food. "Every third bite we consume in our diet is dependent on a honeybee to pollinate that food," according to Zac Browning, vice president of the American Beekeeping Federation.
In 2005, fees for pollination spiked from about $48 per colony up to $140, due to a shortage of bees. Migratory beekeepers found that a third of their bees had mysteriously disappeared during the winter. Seemingly healthy bees were abandoning their hives en masse, leaving unhatched eggs, full stores of honey and beloved queens. Researchers call the mass disappearance "colony collapse disorder," or CCD.
This year, beekeepers reported a total loss of about 36.1 percent of their honeybee colonies, according to the Apiary Inspectors of America. Why are the bees disappearing?
Scientists studying CCD suggest it may be a combination of factors, including:
- Climate change. Penn State researchers noted that infected colonies suffered from "extraordinary stress" before they mysteriously vanished. The stress could have been related to the changing climate. Northeastern beekeepers fault a late cold snap, while California beekeepers fault drought conditions that reduced nectar and pollen production. Spring blooms may have come too early, while the bees woke too late for the pollen and nectar.
Professor Eric Mussen of the University of California at Davis told the San Francisco Chronicle that "in many situations the bees were weakened by not being able to get a nice mix of nutrients that they needed from the pollens. Under those circumstances you can take all the other (causes), and combine them together and down go the bees."
- Pesticide exposure. The insecticide Penncap-M is popular as a defense against corn root worm, the larval form of a beetle that attacks the roots of corn plants.
Some pesticides have been banned in Europe out of concern for bee populations. One is called Imidacloprid, and is a nicotine-based pesticide that causes disorientation and failure of the honeybee immune system. It is widely sold in the U.S. as a seed treatment called Gaucho, as an insecticide spray called "Admire," and as a flea bath called "Advantage."
- Genetically modified crops like Bt corn are widely planted across the U.S. and honeybee hives near Bt corn report higher instances of CCD. The Bt bacterium that is spliced into the corn genes has a disorienting effect on corn pests that may similarly affect bees. This unnatural genome also weakens the lining of bee intestines making them vulnerable to parasites, according to German researchers.
- Starvation. European researchers have also linked CCD to feeding high fructose corn syrup to bees. Man-made corn syrup is a poor nutritional replacement to natural honey. This may weaken bee immune systems, and make them vulnerable to mites and fungus. Corn syrup is often made from genetically-modified corn.
- Mites and fungus. Many researchers have documented a connection between Varroa destructor mite infestation and CCD. These nasty mites transmit a virus to bees that deform their wings, and suppress their immune systems. Varroa have been considered as a possible cause of CCD, though researchers found that not all dying colonies contained these mites.
An ancient bee foe - the fungus called Nosema ceranae - has also been credited with CCD. A high rate of infection was found in Pennsylvanian colonies, as well as some in Merced Valley, Calif.
Want to help our busy bee buds? Here are some tips from National Resources Defense Council:
- Bee native: Use local and native plants in your yard and garden. These plants thrive easily and are well suited for local bee populations, providing pollen and nectar for bees to eat.
- Bee diverse: Plant-diversity ensures that your garden attracts many different varieties of bees and gives them a range of colors, shapes and flowering times to attract different species of bees.
- Bee open to pollen: Genetically engineered pollen-free plants trick bees into thinking they'll find food, and then leave them hungry.
- Bee pesticide wary: There are many natural methods to control pests in your garden. If you must use pesticides, spray at night when bees aren't flying.
- Bee a hive builder: Creating a wood nest is a good way to help bees. Start by taking a non-pressure-treated block of wood and drilling holes 3/32 inch to 5/16 inch in diameter and about 5 inches deep. Then wait for the bees.
- Buy organic! Organic farming methods help preserve bee habitat.
Shawn Dell Joyce is a sustainable artist and writer who lives in a green home in the Mid-Hudson region of New York.
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