If ever there was evidence of our connection with other living things, it’s the honeybee and the threat its recent disappearing act may pose to the human food supply.
A good portion of the human diet relies on honeybees’ work — crops now potentially in jeopardy because tens of billions of bees are dying in a bizarre phenomenon dubbed “Colony Collapse Disorder.” Scientists don’t know the cause, or how to stop it.
One of nature’s most flexible, hard-working insects, honeybees pollinate about 100 flowering food crops including apples, nuts, asparagus, citrus fruits and cantaloupe — as well as animal-feed crops, such as clover that’s fed to dairy cows.
“There is no way, at the moment, to pollinate most of these crops by hand or any other mechanism,” says Dr. Eric Mullen, agricultural extension officer at the University of California, Davis.
Apiculturists have testified before Congress about the syndrome, while government and academic labs dig for answers. CCD has received prominent attention in the national press, and the Web is abuzz with speculation that the bees are dying because of cell phone signals.
Sudden and widespread bee deaths were first reported last November, and add up to a quarter of the U.S. bee population. Large commercial beekeepers are hurt worst, some losing 70 percent of their hives. Scientists are puzzled by how the dead adult bees vanish from the hives, leaving behind the queen and baby bees. They also note that while bees instinctually rob honey from other hives, healthy bees are avoiding CCD-affected hives — suggesting that those hives may be contaminated somehow.
“To my knowledge, nobody has ever seen this particular set of symptoms or circumstances before,” says Troy Fore, president of the American Beekeeping Federation. Academics point to poor nutrition, pathogens and new pesticides, or combinations of pesticides, as potential causes.
Bees were in peril before CCD. The number of managed bee colonies has dropped to 2 million from 6 million during the past 50 years. Monoculture farming and heavy chemical use is one culprit, say experts. Global trade, bringing exotic microbes to the United States, is another. And while it’s now common for beekeepers to move their hives across the country and around the world to help farmers pollinate crops, some experts say this practice interrupts bees’ diet and involves too much jostling of the bees themselves.
“All those things are very, very hard on honeybees,” Mullen says. “But before this, they’ve always recovered.”
While scientists study CCD, experts say there’s a lot you can do right now to help honeybees.
1. Buy local honey, and eat more of it.
Americans consume just one pound of honey a year, and two-thirds of that is imported. But locally produced honey (found in supermarkets and farmers markets) requires less transportation fuel, and supports nearby beekeepers. That, in turn, helps the honey bee.
“One of the best ways to help keep bees available for agricultural pollination is to keep beekeeping viable,” says Mark Beran, president of the Boulder County Beekeepers. “And the best way to help your local beekeepers is to buy honey.”
Honey gathered from local plants may be healthier, too. Beekeepers say small amounts of pollen may boost your immune response to allergens.
“When you go buy honey, ask the beekeeper: ‘Do you use antibiotics?’ ” says California beekeeper Serge LaBesque. “‘Do you use chemical treatments in your hives to maintain them?’ Beekeepers who are using those artificial means of maintaining hives are interfering with the process of natural selection.”
Bees don’t mind giving up their honey, by the way. Nectar gathering is instinctive, and honeybees hoard far more than they eat.
2. Eat organic and garden without pesticides.
It’s no secret that buying organic protects humans from harmful pesticides. It also protects bees.
“Almost any kind of pesticide will affect bees,” says Fore. That includes commercial agricultural chemicals — as well as backyard garden chemicals. Fore notes that common garden pesticides such as Sevin kill bees. “Some chemicals that are sold for gardeners might not have a bee warning label,” Fore explains.
Get informed about gardening organically in your backyard. And if you must use synthetic chemical pesticides, apply them at dusk when honeybees aren’t working, Fore says.
3. Raise bees.
Hobbyist beekeeping won’t stop CCD. But it will increase the honeybee population.
“It grows for most people into a passion,” LaBesque says. “Beekeeping is a fascinating activity. The bees, you just fall in love with them.”
Getting started is easy. Take a class at your local extension office, read a book, or join a beekeeping association.
4. Write to lawmakers.
“Just let your state and federal legislators know you are concerned about what’s happening to the bees,” says Gage. “You don’t have to know what to do about it. Just ask them to look into it.”
Labesque goes one step further: “Now is the best time to really put pressure on politicians,” he says, “to reinstate laws we used to have that prevented importing bees into the country and transporting them across state borders.”
5. Plant a bee garden.
Urbanization puts pressure on bee habitat, but gardeners can reverse that. Of course bees like flowering fruit plants, but they’re also particularly attracted to red apple ice plant; English Ivy; Hummingbird Mint; and borage, research shows. Bee experts also recommend leaving part of your garden ‘wild.’ Even though you might not like dandelions, bees don’t discriminate between weeds and cultivated flowers.
For further information:
Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group at Penn State University
Honeybees in Crisis Podcast
Guide to Bee-Friendly Gardens