How to help the busy bees that keep our food supply buzzing
June 3, 2013
I've been very concerned about the substantial loss of honeybees over the years. With the upcoming CMC workshop on backyard beekeeping, I thought it would be perfect for Eartha to discuss the ongoing issues with bees.
— Larry, Silverthorne
Without bees, our food supply would be quite boring. I'm not just talking about lack of honey (which alone would make baking and morning tea rather disappointing). Bees are essential pollinators of one-third of the food we eat! Beyond fruit and nuts, bees pollinate vegetables, seeds and fibers like cotton. Without our pollinators, food as we know it will be exhausted to a handful of crops that survive by wind pollination (i.e. corn).
Think about the job description of a bee. Not only do they make honey, wax and pollen, bees are economically important. It was estimated by the food industry that the service of bees alone exceeds $15 billion! There is no artificial substitute for pollination. Are you prepared to hand-pollinate each and every fruit, seed and nut for a day's meal?
Just this winter, honey bee colonies took a major hit with massive die-offs. Some beekeepers lost half or more of their hives, which have caused a host of complications for the bee industry. There are a number of speculations for these losses, but Randy Oliver, a commercial beekeeper and scientist, cautions to focus on the facts and solutions.
Almond farms have been popping up all over California with nearly 800,000 acres devoted to almond trees. To bloom two weeks in February, almonds depend on cross-fertilization and ultimately the work of honey bees. Honey bees are transported from all over the nation to pollinate the almonds. Oliver describes the ritual with hives placed in the orchards a week before almond flowers develop. Unfortunately, bees have to play the "waiting game," as there are no other forage possibilities before or after the almond blooms.
What develops from this story is that there are several factors impacting bee populations, stressing and weakening colonies on several levels. If you dissect this even further, you discover the negative impacts of monoculture (lack of diversity in flowering plants available to the bees), pesticide and insecticide exposure, increased mites in the hive (influenced by such things as crowding and weather), and drought, which dries up the pollen sources.
Pesticides are extremely toxic to the bees. In some studies, scientists have discovered as many as 40 different chemicals in pollen samples from nearby fields sprayed with pesticides. Many of these chemicals act like neurotoxins in the hive. These stresses weaken the bees' immune system and open up increased sensitivities to predators and parasites.
Bees thrive on forage. Bret Adee reported in Buzzkill that the "bee pasture in the Midwest is disappearing under the plow" due to corn monocultures that do nothing for the bee populations. Most experts suggest each colony of bees requires between five to 15 acres of "productive land" for adequate forage.
What can we do here in Summit County to protect the bees? Beth Conrey, president of the Colorado State Beekeepers Association, suggests every Colorado citizen can help the honey bees and other potential pollinators by doing three simple things:
1. Plant more flowers! Bees and other pollinators love flowers. Each is integral to the success of the other. Around here, most of the flowers that bees love are also drought tolerant. Consult your local nursery for advice on seeds and plants.
2. Quit using pesticides, especially insecticides and herbicides. Bees fly quite a long way from their hive and, as a result, are exposed to a lot of these products. Talk to your nursery about bee-friendly practices and products for your lawn and garden.
3. Do not hurt a swarm! Swarms are extremely important to Colorado's beekeeping community as they represent "survival stock" — the bees that have survived a Colorado winter. Go to http://www.coloradobeekeepers.org and click on "Swarm Hotline" to contact a beekeeper to pick up the swarm for free.
To learn more about bees and hives, join local beekeeper Larry Gilliland and other bee experts for Practical Beekeeping for Beginners on Thursday, May 30, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at CMC in Breckenridge. The introductory course will cover the fundamentals of beekeeping, including equipment, parts of the hive, apiary location, codes and regulations, and seasonal management. The cost of the class is $30.
Even if you don't plan on raising bees in your lifetime, the class will take a deeper look at why bees are important to mankind and ecological threats to our bees. Learn more at http://www.SummitGardenNetwork.org.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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