You’ve likely heard about the plight of the honeybees, but if you’re like me (at least the “me” before all the painstaking research I just did), you may be a little confused about the issue – hope I can help make a little sense of this sticky situation. Bee colonies are collapsing due to something called Colony Collapse Disorder (whoever came up with that name is clearly not a scientist; it is just too coherent). A recent court ruling planted the seed that prompted me to propagate this post. I promise that is the end of all wordplay; I’ll bee good going forward.
Why does it matter if bee colonies collapse?
All over the world, bees grab pollen from the earth’s 250,000 flowering plants and transport it to pollinate one-third of the food we eat. This includes a vast array of fruits and vegetables, nuts, spices, coffee and chocolate. The other two-thirds of our food includes our staples, like rice, wheat and maize – and those crops are pollinated by wind. I don’t know about you, but I can do without maize, but coffee and chocolate – no way.
Most of the beef and dairy industries in the U.S. are also dependent on bees to pollinate the legumes, like alfalfa and clover, which are used to make feed.
While the majority of pollination is done by wild bees, it is supported by small and commercial beekeeping. Commercial beekeeping is essential for crops like the California almond, which is entirely dependent on the honey bee to pollinate its more than 800,000 acres in a short window of time – and it takes about 1.6 million colonies of bees to handle this, annually! Here’s a quick video of bees at work at an almond orchard – love how he sums up their workday hours like they’re clocking in and out!: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YhmCR-lt40Y
Why are colonies collapsing?
Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) happens when worker bees abruptly disappear, leaving the queen bee and larvae to starve to death, effectively collapsing the colony.
Intense farming (of agricultural crops and of bees) has instigated several possible causes:
- Habitat loss: Natural flowering plants have been eradicated to make room for farmland, which, for the most part, has been stripped to support mono-culture planting. This leaves no flowery food available for bees when crops are not blooming. In other words, their habitat and food sources have been decimated.
- Factory bee-farming/poor nutrition: Bees work tirelessly to create enough honey to keep their colonies healthy and fed through winter. The honey they produce and the nectar provided by plants during pollination provide the nutrients their bodies have evolved to thrive on. These busy bees are completely unaware the honey of their labor will be stolen by beekeepers (honey producers) and replaced with high fructose corn syrup or another cheap substitute. Scientists know very little about the micronutrients in pollen—so replicating this natural wonder is difficult. This poor diet leaves bees vulnerable to disease and starvation.
- Travel Job Stresses: In the U.S., many commercial beekeepers make about half of their annual income (the other half from selling honey) by renting their hives to farmers to pollinate crops across the nation. To give you an idea of the magnitude, California’s almond orchards require visits from about 1.6 million hives each February; about 1.2 million of them will arrive from other states, requiring between 3,050 and 6,100 truckloads of bees (depending on the size of truck). This year, several trucks have crashed, releasing swarms of angry bees that will most likely die for lack of habitat. Those that make it spread disease to other commercial bees once they arrive, and the escapees mingle with wild bees, sharing bacteria, fungi and parasites, like the varroa mite, which has killed off many large colonies. The travel job is also hard on them – once they have done their job, and the bloom is over, there is nothing to eat. On the road, they cannot forage or defecate.
- Last but certainly not least – chemicals: Fungicides, herbicides, and pesticides, which are used to maintain most commercial agriculture, have been proven harmful and in some cases, deadly to them. The agrochemical industry and, not surprisingly, the leaders of the seed industry, is made up of six corporations: BASF, Bayer, Dow, DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta. They all manufacture pesticides, including neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids are applied directly to seeds – rather than sprayed – and it is absorbed by roots and then distributed into the stem, leaves, nectar, and pollen. These poisons contain a neurotoxin affecting bees’ ability to communicate and orientate, leading to paralysis and then death. The U.S. Geological Society recently found that the chemical is now present in more than half of the streams it tested! But that’s for another blog.
For this one, I’ve actually got some positive news to share! In a surprising turn of events, the Ninth Court of Appeals in San Francisco has overturned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s flawed decision to approve the use of the neonicotinoid insecticide sulfoxaflor. Circuit Judge Mary Schroeder wrote: “Because the EPA’s decision to unconditionally register sulfoxaflor was based on flawed and limited data, we conclude that the unconditional approval was not supported by substantial evidence. We therefore vacate the EPA’s registration of sulfoxaflor … given the precariousness of bee populations, leaving the EPA’s registration of sulfoxaflor in place risks more potential environmental harm than vacating it.””
Due to this ruling (brought upon from a suit filed by Earthjustice), the EPA cannot re-register sulfoxaflor as an approved pesticide unless it can prove the chemical will not have a detrimental impact on bees – since there is substantial evidence published proving its deadly effects – the EPA will need to find itself some pseudo-scientists if it wants to pursue this.
This is not unheard of, as the big money and lobbying behind the agrochemical industry is a force to be reckoned with, but thankfully, the bees can hold their own in an economic stand-off: Earthjustice estimates that “…the annual value of pollination services worldwide are estimated at over $125 billion. In the United States, pollination contributes $20 – $30 billion in agricultural production annually. And in California alone, almond crops – entirely dependent on bees for pollination – are valued at over $3 billion.”
Speaking of nuts, is anyone else confused about why some of these agrochemical companies with hands in both the chemical industry and the agriculture industry are so pumped to poison the bees that provide such a vital service to them? That, again, is a whole ‘nother blog. But for a sneak peek into this madness, take a look here.
In 2014, President Barack Obama ordered a task force to create a “strategy to promote the health of honey bees and other pollinators.” The task force report mentions the importance of “minimizing pollinator exposure to pesticides.” With all the buzz (gotta give me just the one!) around this issue, more than 30 nurseries, landscapers and retailers, including Home Depot, Lowe’s, Whole Foods and BJ’s Wholesale Club, have stopped selling bee-killing pesticides.
In closing, I’d like to share that a month before the task force report was published in May of 2015, President Obama had an opportunity to remind some kids about the importance of these little wild things during a reading at the White House lawn – check it out here (and ‘you’re welcome’ for the face the video is frozen to at the start!).
Alternatives to pesticides:
- Milky Spore, $40 to $45 for a bag covering 7,000 square feet. (For comparison, one common neonicotinoid, imidacloprid, sold for about $20 at True Value for a bag that covers 5,000 square feet.)
- Insecticidal soap from Bonide, Woodstream’s Safer, Espoma and Scotts, about $8 a quart.
- Bonide Neem Oil, derived from neem seed, about $10 for a trigger spray or almost $20 for a pint of concentrate.
- Bonide’s Garden Naturals Tomato & Vegetable insect spray, in various bottles and forms from about $10 to $25.
Bee-friendly gardening: http://thehoneybeeconservancy.org/act-today/plant-a-bee-garden/. Go native and go long (every season provides an opportunity to support your pollinators). To get info on native pollinator plants in your area, Google “pollinator friendly plants flowers [insert your state or city]” Leave some wild flowers (aka weeds) alone. A manicured grass lawn is not natural, therefore, it does not support nature.
Provide habitat for bees: leave a pile of sand or loose soil alone. Or, keep some old wood around – drill some holes in it – or pile up a few pieces providing spaces in between. Provide a source of pesticide-free water (a dripping faucet, mud puddle, or birdbath attracts (also attracts other pollinators like butterflies). Mud is an important nesting material for some bee species.
Check out this great document: providing a quick intro into the biology of bees and providing some great tools to help plant bee-friendly lawns, garden and even how to use paper straws and a milk container to make a bee nest http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5306468.pdf
Support local beekeepers.
Loads of sources used for this one.