Rooting for the Bees

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The Virginia Department of Agriculture reported this week that between October and April nearly 1/3 of the managed bee colonies in the state died.  Unfortunately we contributed to that statistic, as our lone surviving hive died in February or March.

This kind of die-off is happening all over the country and a host of explanations have been suggested.  Pesticides are almost certainly responsible in some way, although the details are still unclear.

I’ve seen a lot of references to the supposed disaster that will follow if all the honeybees die off, including claims that we are so dependent upon them as pollinators that if they die we humans will die off too.  But that won’t happen.  Sure it would mean the end of some things, like commercial almond and cranberry production, but sustainable diversified farms like ours would carry on largely as normal.  Nature provides plenty of other pollinators for our vegetables and fruit trees. After all, the honeybee is not native to North America, having been brought over from Europe by the early colonists.

But having said that, the loss of honeybees would be a great tragedy.  They are beautiful creatures, and aside from being great pollinators they also give us honey, arguably nature’s perfect food.

Nature has a way of adjusting to respond to threats and environmental change.  Species do go extinct–far too often these days.  But often they find a way to overcome threats and emerge even more resilient.  Let’s hope that’s what happens with the honeybees.  Without them, the world will be much less beautiful.

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22 comments on “Rooting for the Bees

  1. Jeff says:

    I’m sure Monsanto is working on a solution.

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  2. Bees, silly me. Up until just a couple years ago, I was under the impression that bees were the only pollinators. I listened to a podcast put out by a blogger friend in Maine about pollinators and was surprised to find there are a multitude of pollinators besides bees. Life would certainly change as we know it if bees were to disappear but I don’t think the entire food chain would crash. There are plants such as corn that don’t need pollinators to be pollinated. They just need a breeze to shake that pollen from the tassel to the ear silks.

    I’m with you in that the world would survive but any species that goes extinct at the hand of man is a sad thing to think about. Extinction happens even in the natural and some times man goes too far the other way to keep it from happening. I’m not sure where middle ground is on this issue but I do know that many heated conversations have been spawned from the conflict between modern civilization progress and preservation of a species.

    Have a great rooting for the bees day.

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    • Bill says:

      The other pollinators I was referring to are the many types of native bees. Honeybees are just one of many types of bees that are pollinators (around here at least).

      Any time an entire species goes extinct, we’ve suffered a loss. But the bigger issue goes beyond the lost species. The fact that something has happened that would extinguish an entire species suggests something is seriously wrong with the ecosystem as a whole. It indicates a larger problem. So for example if the honeybee becomes extinct nature will likely provide other pollinators, but the extinction of the honeybee will indicate some problem that threatens greater and continued damage.

      Hopefully we’ll identify what’s killing the bees and put a stop to it. Or hopefully the bees will develop a resistance to it. Let’s hope it doesn’t end in Monsanto patenting a new roundup-ready honeybee.

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    • Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

      Hi Dave, it’s not that corn requires bees for pollination (’cause you’re right, it doesn’t) but, when there’s a dearth of flowers in Mid Summer, bees will harvest pollen from corn to feed their brood. Please see my previous comment to Bill on why this is a problem for pollinators, and perhaps even other species, as well…

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  3. avwalters says:

    I’m rooting for the bees! Next spring, we’ll be starting in as novice beekeepers–we have just the spot. My grandfather kept bees, and my whole life I’ve wanted to. When the bee situation turned to crisis (in 2007) I vowed that someday, I’d do my part. There are the obvious hazards, mites, GMOs, neonics, and then there’s the local hazard–bears.

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    • Bill says:

      We’ll try again next year. Beekeeping used to be one of the easiest things to do on the farm. All it really required was to add supers when needed and extract honey once or twice a year. Now, on the other hand, it’s become very hard to keep them alive and seems to require more skill than I have right now. Keeping bees is very important these days so I’m happy you’re going to do it. I’d like to see lots more people start keeping them.

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  4. valbjerke says:

    Certainly there are more pollinators than bees – but none as efficient or prolific. It would definitely change the food system as we know it. Oddly – that might be a good thing in part – it’s been suggested that aside from pesticides etc. that bees are unable to combat mites and so on because they’re no longer healthy enough to ward off these attacks. The reason – and I tend to agree, is because the mono culture model dictates most bees spend their entire lives feeding off of one type of pollen only – and therefore are malnourished. I can see the correlation – if we ate nothing but potatoes for a year, I’m certain something in our systems would seriously run amok.

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    • Bill says:

      Yes, and I didn’t mean we’d manage without bees. I meant we’d manage to get by without honeybees, by relying on the native bee pollinators. I’m in full agreement that something is happening that weakens the bees (if it doesn’t kill them immediately) making the hives less resilient. It’s becoming a very serious problem in some industries (like the almond business). The large commercial beekeepers feed their hives HFCS, which certainly seems to be part of the problem.

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  5. df says:

    A very sobering but hopeful post, Bill. You make good points, and I must give a shout out for honeybees too!

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  6. shoreacres says:

    I remember my mom telling me that her grandparents kept bees. And that farm that I go to and love so much? They have a whole row of hives. I’m seeing more and more as I drive around the country — of course, part of it’s just being awareness. It’s only been in the last few years that I knew what those square white boxes were.

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    • Bill says:

      It’s good to see so many people taking up beekeeping. It’s becoming popular for city folk to do it too. It’s especially important these days in light of what’s happening.

      Hopefully all those boxes you’re seeing contain healthy colonies. We have three set up on our farm and people often ask me about the bees and our honey. But unfortunately while they once had bees and honey in them, they’re all empty now.

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  7. jubilare says:

    My flowers are covered with bumble and carpenter bees, and sweat bees and various other pollinators. I do see the occasional honeybee on my thyme or my clover, but not nearly as many as I used to see.

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  8. associatedluke says:

    My grandfather was a bee keeper. He had hives die off in the early 90s due to the mites. And now they’re just gone. Empty hives, no bodies. My kids run around barefoot all summer and have never stepped on a bee. I think that’s a sad indictment. Not because I want my kids to be hurt, but because there’s simply no bees left to step on.

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    • Bill says:

      I’ve stepped on them when I was a kid. We spent our summers barefoot too. But a barefoot kid playing in clover isn’t nearly as likely to step on a bee now. As you say, it’s sad.

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  9. What a great and an important article!! 🙂

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  10. Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

    Bill, a certain type of Pesticides called Neonicotinoids (already banned in Europe) are being attributed as the cause of Colony Collapse Syndrome in honey bee colonies and, here in Ontario, have created an ongoing battle over the last few years.
    The fact that honey bees are such a closely managed species, is the only reason the cause and effect have finally started to be “scientifically”, Officially recognised here at all…
    So then, what about all the insects that aren’t monitored as carefully as honey bees? Every Fall, Monarch Butterflies gather in Point Pelee, Ontario – the southern-most point in Canada – before migrating south to Mexico for the Winter; and every year for decades, with thousands of butterflies covering the trees, their numbers have been recorded; that is until September of 2013, when the annual count was cancelled due to insufficient numbers. In a normal year, it takes eight generations of insects to make their way this far north and I, personally, saw only FOUR Monarchs in total all Summer.
    These neurotoxins are systemic, and therefore present in every cell which grows from the seed on which they’ve been applied: root, stem, leaf, pollen and seed. They are not exclusive in the species they affect.
    (Sorry, Monsanto can’t be blamed for this one… Roundup is an herbicide, not an insecticide.)

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