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What's Killing the Bees and What Can We Do About It?

I am a student of life and of history. By studying the past, we prepare for the future.

Honey Bee History in the U.S.?

The European Honey Bee is not a native of North America, but when the Europeans came to this continent, the Honey Bee was not far behind. There is a written record of Honey Bees being shipped to Jamestown in 1621. The bees were first brought here to make honey for the settlers, but soon after their arrival in the New World, a wild population was established, it thrived for most of the history of this country. Over time the bees' ability to pollinate crops became even more important than their ability to make honey.

Throughout most of US history, farmers have relied on wild bees, including feral honey bees and native bees, for pollination. But in the last few decades, modern, industrial farming has come to depend heavily upon beekeepers to provide bees for pollination of a large variety of crops, often trucking them hundreds or thousands of miles to do the job. It's not hard to imagine that this doesn't provide ideal living conditions for the bees.

Often cited as the epitome of managed-bee dependent crops, is the California almond crop. Almond trees have a very short bloom period, and they all tend to bloom at the same time, a time when wild bees are not normally active. Most of the managed honey bees in the entire country are brought to California in the early spring to pollinate almond trees.

Between 1972 and 2006 the wild honey bee declined to the point where they are now virtually nonexistent. The decimation of the wild honey bee population is generally blamed on two different species of mites; the Tracheal mite and the Varroa mite.

With the disappearance of the wild honey bee, farmers became even more dependent on captive honey bees for pollination. But those bee populations too, have been declining for decades. Honey bees were in trouble even before 2006, that was when beekeepers began to report an unusual phenomenon. Worker bees would leave the colony to forage and never return, leaving the queen and the young behind to die. No dead worker bees were found at the nest sites, they simply disappeared. Some beekeepers have lost as many as 80% of their hives. This has come to be known as Colony Collapse Disorder.

It seems as though solving the problem of Colony Collapse Disorder is going to be very difficult unless a specific cause can be found. Many experts feel that it is likely a combination of factors, rather than one single cause.

Colony Collapse Disorder Ten Years Later

In the ten years since the mass die-off of bees began, there has been plenty of progress in learning about Colony Collapse Disorder. However, it is a complex problem and there are still no simple answers.

In order to forage for food, bees have to travel long distances. They need to be able to navigate to their feeding grounds and find their way home. A single bee cannot live, and even if it could, it cannot support the hive. Things that damage the bee’s ability to function, but do not directly kill the bee, are “sub-lethal stressors.”

Modern agriculture has created a host of sub-lethal stressors that damage bees’ cognition. Diesel fumes and neonicotinoid pesticides disturb chemical communications in a bee’s brain, reducing foraging efficiency.

A wide range of pests, viruses and predators afflict domesticated bees.

In spite of intensive research into the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder no easy answer has been found. Sub-lethal stressors include:

  • Varroa mite
  • Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus
  • Nosema (a gut parasite)
  • Pesticide Poisoning
  • Bee Management Stress
  • Loss of Foraging Habitat
  • Poor Nutrition
  • Suppressed Immunity

Monsanto and the Honey Bee: Conspiracy Theory or the Future?

In September of 2011, giant biotech corporation, Monsanto bought a small company called Beeologics. It had been working on an anti-viral medication for bees called Remebee® it was designed to prevent infection by the ‘Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus,’ which is suspected to be a factor in CCD (colony collapse disorder).

According to the Beeologics website, the expertise of Beeologics is going to help Monsanto "further explore the use of biologicals." Judging by some of the buzz going on on the web, it seems that some people are suspicious of Monsanto.

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Based on their previous behavior related to their GMO soybeans and other seeds, perhaps Monsanto plans to insert genes into bees. They could make bees that are immune to their poisons. That way they could control the pollinators, claim them as their property, and sue people who's bees may crossbreed with their genetically modified bees. Of course, this is all speculation, Monsanto claims there are no such plans.

Clothianidin

Monsanto also manufactures a seed coating that is used with an insect neurotoxin called clothianidin. The coating is used to adhere clothianidin to seeds.

Clothianidin was developed by Bayer Corporation to kill rootworms in corn and other crops. Bayer’s own studies indicated that clothianidin was very poisonous to bees, but the company claimed that since it would be on the seed, under the ground, it could not affect flying insects.

In 2008, after beekeepers Germany reported a massive die-off of honey bees linked to clothianidin, the German Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection suspended its registration. Some French studies suggest that sub-lethal doses of clothianidin disrupt bees' foraging activity and causes them to become disoriented.

Studies conducted in 2012 have shown that pesticide dust stirred up during the planting process may contaminate adjacent land and remain there for years, where it may be drawn up into non-crop plants and ingested by bees or other insects.

Clothianidin is a neonicotinoid, it is chemically similar to nicotine. Nicotine has been used as a pesticide for over 200 years. Neonicotinoids have gotten a lot of press lately as a possible factor in causing CCD.

Plan Bee: Native Bees

Before the European bees were introduced, there were already several thousand native species of bees in North America. Native species are great pollinators. They are better adapted to the environment and are able to forage in harsher weather conditions and on a per-visit basis are actually more efficient pollinators than honey bees are.

Native bees are not social bees, they do not live in large colonies, so they are less vulnerable to diseases and pests, but there are not enough of them to provide all of the pollination needed for the type of industrial farming usually practiced today. Because they don't live in large hives, native bees are not easy to manipulate. You can't put them in a truck and transport them across the state.

Is it Possible for Native Bees to Take Over the Job?

Well, not exactly. UC Berkeley Professor Clare Kremen, studied native bees in Yolo County, in the Central Valley of California for 10 years. Her team looked at bees in a variety of farms. Some of the farms studied had plenty of natural bee habitat nearby, others were completely surrounded by agricultural land. Some were organic farms, others were industrial agricultural enterprises.

They studied the number and diversity of bee specimens that visited each farm. Her study found that 80% of organic farms near natural bee habitats were adequately pollinated by native bees. 50% of conventional farms near natural habitats were adequately pollinated by native bees. None of the conventional farms and very few of the organic farms in exclusively agricultural areas got significant pollination by native bees.

This indicates that if we expect native bees to do more of the work honey bees have been doing, farming practices will have to change. Some things that can be done are: allow cover crops to flower, put strips of flowering plants between fields, and leave areas of undisturbed soil. Leaving dead trees and creating hedgerows, making nesting boxes, planting more diverse crops and using fewer pesticides would also be beneficial for native bees.

Making Your Yard Hospitable to Bees

As citizens, there is only so much we can do to change the behavior of chemical companies or farming practices, but we can control what happens in our own yard. These are a few bee-friendly suggestions you can practice on your own property.

  • Avoid Pesticides: they are harmful to bees
  • Avoid Herbicides: let those flowering weeds grow, they provide food for bees
  • Provide water and mud: many species of bee use mud to build nests
  • Avoid mowing, or at least leave some unmowed areas for bees and the flowers they feed on.
  • Try clover instead of grass: bees love it
  • Leave undisturbed areas in your yard: bees need them for nesting
  • Plant more flowers: more flowers, more nectar
  • Use bright colors: they are attractive to bees
  • Allow native species to grow: native plants are the ones the native bees are best adapted to, leave some of those dandelions and thistles they provide food for bees when there's not much else around
  • Encourage plant diversity: different bees have different needs, plant diversity encourages bee diversity
  • Keep a succession of flowers in bloom: especially in spring and autumn bees may have a hard time finding food
  • Live and let live: if bees choose an inconvenient place to nest, try to work around it
Wild Bee on Lavender

Wild Bee on Lavender

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2012 Sherry Hewins

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