Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Let's Talk About Bees

Buttersafe, January 4, 2011
Our bee problem is quite the topic of conversation these days--at social gatherings, in meetings, over coffee. Everyone agrees we should save the bees, though many of us think of them in the abstract as little buzzing yellow flying things, maybe as cartoon characters, or as creatures that exist to help us.

I could say, and have—for example at Christmas dinner when apologizing for my not-quite-stellar pumpkin bread—that last summer the CSA grower from whom I get my produce planted five hundred pumpkin plants and only got three pumpkins (so I had to buy canned, rather than processing my own). No pollination, he thought. And just the other day an acquaintance mentioned that friends who live in a tony suburb north of Chicago had, also last summer, had their own pollination troubles in their vegetable garden. Why? she wondered.


Documentaries have been made, articles written, research monies spent. After several years of speculation and intense research, experts think colony collapse disorder in honeybees is caused by a mite and a fungus that attack weakened bees. And, this just out, the recent decline of bumble bees has been in part caused by a fungus, and possible inbreeding among weakened populations trying to survive in fragmented habitat.

OK. Now that’s solved we can all go back to watching nature programs on TV and fooling around with social media and cease worrying about if we’ll get our Washington apples, California almonds and Florida oranges this year. Because someone will fix it. Right?

Surely “they,” the ones who work at keeping our food system going, will come up with technological fixes. Perhaps they’ll develop special medicines, or genetically engineer mite and fungus resistant bees, or put nutrients in the high fructose corn syrup honeybees get fed when being trucked across the country. Or perhaps we imagine engineering will somehow come to the rescue? Perhaps we’ll develop minuscule robot pollinators, based on military drone technology? Pollination could be like a video game! We are Homo sapiens sapiens! Our indisputable cultural pattern is to implement clever add-on, Rube Goldberg fixes, further complicating an already complicated system.

Interlude
One sunny morning last spring, as I was messing about in the yard, I observed a bumblebee, a queen, emerge from some woody, leafy debris and stumble a bit before setting off for perhaps a first flight of the season. It’s an annual rite. Plenty of bees live in my backyard. Last spring little mason bees pollinated the raspberries. In late June, I often strolled over to the messy wildish area by the garage to watch the bumble bees sticking their little heads all the way inside the tubular beebalm flowers and the honeybees getting after the nepeta, while plenty of other pollinators flitted about as well. Beekeeping is illegal in my town. What I am is a bee facilitator.

We could, instead, pay attention to what bees require to stay healthy, which, unremarkably, is what all other species, wild and domesticated, need to stay healthy: unfragmented, un-chemically-poisoned habitat with plenty of food sources and a chance to live according to their nature.

Beekeepers know this. So do conservationists. We all know this, we really do. 

And at least parts of the USDA know too. The 2008 Farm Bill provides help to rural landowners who wish to create pesticide-free pollinator habitat. You can go to the USDA website here, and get a PDF of the guidelines. I just sent an attachment to my CSA grower. The USDA Colony Collapse Disorder Progress Report (June 2010) says, “The emerging evidence of pesticide exposure to pollinators and potential interactive effects indicates the need to further study pesticides for their potential interactions with CCD. Studies have also confirmed suspected links between CCD and poor colony health, inadequate diet, and long-distance transportation.”

Whatever. We’ll continue to use honeybees as tiny cogs in the industrial farming machine. We’ll ignore their physiology and life cycle. We’ll truck them across the country to different climates, feed them high fructose corn syrup, and expect them to pollinate pesticide-sprayed crops during seasons when their life cycle may be inclining them to rest. We’ll keep using commercially-raised bumblebees to pollinate greenhouse vegetables and then get surprised when the viruses that sicken them escape to wild populations, causing precipitous declines of certain species, such as the rusty-patched bumblebee, once common in the Midwest.

Bees, after all, are collateral damage in the process of creative destruction. When people think of bees, few think of wild bees, such as the mason bees who lay their eggs in holes in wood, or the shy solitary bees who burrow underground to lay their eggs. Their habitat gets destroyed by clearing fencerows and other “unproductive” areas, or by development where the first thing to do is bring in the bulldozers and scrape the topsoil.

Then there is our national lawn (discussed here, and here) blanketing millions of acres of what was once prime bee habitat, now a functional food desert for bees. Often, owing to monoculture and over watering, there’s a grub problem. It’s easiest to use an anti-grub product that includes imidacloprid, a neonicotinoid pesticide, though maybe we don’t read the ingredients, and we put it down, and the grubs go away—and the fact that the chemical is toxic to bees? Hadn’t thought about that. Don’t blame us. No one mentioned it. We just want green grass.

Somehow we end up back at industrial corn farming. Again. Always and forever, amen. Much seed corn is coated with clothianidin, another neonicotinoid pesticide (also used on other crops). “And?” you might ask. You must have heard. This too, is all over the Internet. You can Google it. When the corn grows and produces pollen full of clothianidin, bees flit from tassel to tassel, gathering pollen to take back to the hive. What happens? An Environmental Protection Agency fact sheet  from 2003 states that—besides the coated seed being toxic to songbirds and mammals, "Clothianidin has the potential for toxic chronic exposure to honey bees, as well as other nontarget pollinators, through the translocation of clothianidin residues in nectar and pollen. In honey bees, the effects of this toxic chronic exposure may include lethal and/or sub-lethal effects in the larvae and reproductive effects in the queen." These sub-lethal effects include weakened immune systems and neurological damage: worker bees lose their ability to communicate, to navigate, to forage--to do the work that supports the hive.

Interlude
The Chicago region where I live has more varied plants and more species of native bee-nurturing plants than surrounding rural areas in which the plants of note are corn and soy, and most fencerows, wild patches, prairie remnants, weed zones have been decimated. Urban areas have gardens, weedy vacant lots and neglected alleys, all more hospitable than so many of our simplified rural landscapes full of toxic plants.

Many urban areas are becoming known for their urban beekeepers and honey. It’s a trend. Beekeeping classes are packed, with waiting lists. A beekeeper at Garfield Park Conservatory once told me that Chicago honey has a specific taste owing to the amount of nepeta planted in local gardens.

You’d think the EPA would be concerned about the potential ramifications. Yet, last spring the EPA approved clothianidin for permanent use despite statements from its own scientists, despite the fact that things got so bad in France that the government banned it and its manufacturer, Bayer, is paying reparations to beekeepers.

We do understand, don’t we, what a lack of bees would entail? It’s been repeated often enough. You know the saying, that “for one bite of every three we should thank a bee.” Or perhaps we non-beekeeping Americans don’t really understand, yet. After all we don’t live in places like Sichuan province in China where, owing to a dearth of bees since the 1980s, workers laboriously hand-pollinate their pear trees (women being the preferred workers, according to a Chinese report ).

Interlude
You don’t have to learn beekeeping. Honeybees, the only type of bee that requires “keeping,” are only one type of bee, and they’re non-native at that. There are 4,000 other species of bees native to the U.S., including bumblebees and solitary bees. What they need are facilitators. You don’t need the USDA to tell you how to create bee habitat. Leave a piece of land alone for a while, and it will just happen. Like magic. It’s so easy that back when I started gardening with native plants, I wasn’t thinking about pollinators. They just started showing up, and of course not just bees—butterflies, solitary wasps, flower flies, birds…


Every single person who controls a bit of land has an opportunity—I’d say a responsibility—to become a bee facilitator. All you have to do is plant flowers that provide nectar and pollen, provide some habitat and refuse to use any insecticides. If you have a lawn, make it a clover lawn. You could create a pollinator preserve. You could plant appropriate flowers among your vegetables. You could have areas where the land is not turned or cultivated, but is left a little “messy” for the solitary bees.

This spring, despite what we all know about pesticides and habitat, companies quite aware of clothianidin’s toxicity will be supplying the coated seed, while farmers will be planting it. Internet activists will sign petitions against it. The EPA, unless somehow convinced otherwise, will approve it for use on more crops. “Consumers,” that derogatory term of art for the rest of us, worrying about jobs, debt, keeping afloat in this economy, will keep buying fractionated corn products in the guise of processed food and a surprising array of other products. Lawncare companies will be recommending products containing imidacloprid, and people will use them. We are all implicated. We all know that life on earth depends on these humble creatures, and their pollinating compatriots. We don’t have to like them—they are insects, and humans do have an aversion to the little creepy, crawly, flying creatures, especially now that we’re so good at chemical warfare against them. But it’s not really a question of “like.” This is not a Facebook moment.

Note: The Xerces Society has useful information about bees and habitat. Readers can spend whole days, as I just have, lost in cyberspace, reading about bee decline and neonicotinoid pesticides: Grist, The New York Times, Fortune,  SafeLawns.org, PANNA, The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, beekeepers’ forums and sites such as Bee Culture magazine (see beekeeper Tom Theobold's article here), USDA publications, the EPA website—then you could go international, to the UN International Pollinators Initiative, to FAO reports about pollinators in the Himalayas, China, the UK and other parts of Europe…

Related Posts:
Flowering Plants that Native Bees Love

Attracting Native Pollinator: The Xerces Society Guide
Pollinator Garden Resources on the Web
The Polyculture Lawn: A Primer
Time Off
Do Your Backyard Plants and Animals Display Phenophases?
How to Help Our Wild Native Bees

Cross posted: at Energy Bulletin

24 comments:

Judy E. said...

Thank you very much for this message, Adrian, and for doing all the research that went into it. I'll try to be more aware of and sensitive to the needs of bees and other pollinators. It seems like such an important yet simple thing to do!

Carole said...

Adrian, this is a wonderful article. You've really done your research and I wanted to thank you for sharing the message about creating habitats for bees and other pollinators.

Heather said...

Hi Adrian,
Great article. I was at a talk last night given by an Vera Krischik at the U of MN, an entomologist who is studying the effects on beneficial insects from the use of Imidacloprid and other systemic insecticides.
She discussed biorational insecticides that did not harm pollinators or beneficial insects such as Spinosad.
I am going to read up more on this, thanks again for a great post.
Heather

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Judy and Carole, Thanks for the good words. Once I started researching, it was hard to stop. There's so much information out there--yet how to help is so simple!

Thanks for the info, Heather. I'll definitely look up Spinosad--haven't heard of it before.

Don Plummer said...

Adrian:
Thanks for another well-researched post.

I didn't get any squash last year, even though I saw bumblebees among the flowers. I have read that the bumblebee population is down over 90% in some areas. Same causes as the honeybee decline? I wonder. I'm reading Carol Deppe's Resilient Gardner, and in it she tells how to hand-pollinate squash and pumpkin flowers. I may have to resort to doing it that way. At least the flowers and flower parts are large.

I have tried to make our yard bee- and pollinator-friendly. I should build a bumblebee shelter and drill some holes in a scrap block of wood for the mason bees.

We have an ash tree in our front yard that is threatened (like all ashes in this area) by the emerald ash borer. Trees can be watered once a year with an insecticidal root treatment that makes them borer-proof, but the insecticide in question is the same one that's implicated in CCD. My wife is talking about doing it (it has to be done in the spring), but although I would hate to lose the tree, I can't see pouring that poison out on the ground and harming the ecosystem I'm trying to create. What else might it harm, and not just the bees?

Crown said...

Adrian, it is refreshing to find people that want to do something other than just read and write.

You suggested to plant more pollen rich plants in our yards. Consider native and non-hybrids please. Though they have less petals, they have more pollen.

Consider raising mason bees, one of the easiest to do. Our site, http://www.crownbees.com helps you be successful.

Although it would be great rely only on native insects, our food supply needs managed bees due to their size of acreage. Your mason bees, in about 5-6 years, will be vital to local orchards.

Please start now.

Dave Hunter

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Don,

You raise good questions. I wonder about the bumblebee decline myself.

I also wonder if there is a particular issue with squash and pumpkin. There are so many variables. It could also be that the plants lack certain nutrients, as happens with tomato plants--not enough calcium, no fruit.

Ash trees are a problem. Here in Oak Park, the forestry department is taking them down to prevent ash borer spread. They've decided not to use insecticide: too expensive, I think.

It's a real dilemma, whether to treat for it or not.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Crown,

Thanks for stopping by. Definitely natives and non-hybrids!

Managed orchard mason bees sounds like a good idea.

Carol said...

Excellent! Superb!! post/essay! Very important and thank you so much!! We must all call our reps and demand that the EPA truly protect our environment! There social media could be helpful . . . if only folks would act!

Carole said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Carol,

Food Democracy Now has a petition you can sign and share with friends:

http://action.fooddemocracynow.org/sign/save_the_bees/

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Carole,
Thanks, I'll get in touch.

Amy @ Benefits of Honey said...

Great post, Adrian.

This is a well-researched blog posts. When I first heard about the Clothianidin-EPA incident, I worried for the future of natural pollination and the bees.

I first learned of the demise of bees through a honey bees extinction infographic.

Thomas said...

Adrian,

Another wonderful post. You really are on a roll lately. You've not only stepped up your writing (the interludes are an especially nice touch), but you've sharpened your voice and point of view in these articles. Just when I thought the blog killed the essay, your post demonstrates otherwise. I look forward to your posts. Thomas

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Thomas,

Thanks for the good words. I look forward to reading about your adventures in your new garden.

DennisP said...

Just ran across your blog from the mention of it by J.M.Greer, the Archdruid. You are spot on about bees. Last 5 years I've been developing several prairie gardens along with a growing vegetable garden, partly to encourage pollinators. I think I experienced an interesting aspect of the bees last year.

Had planted 9 squash plants in 2009 and harvested 42 squash (acorn, butternut, scarlet Kabocha). In 2010 I again planted the 9 squash plants, but I also planted along the garden fence a whole bunch of dry beans, and harvested 135 squash. I'm thinking there was an increased number of pollinators (not just bees) responsible for the increased harvest. We'll do it again this year, I promise!

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Dennis,

Thanks for stopping by. Your squash story is inspiring. The only thing about beans: plant them in a slightly different spot every year to help avoid disease; but you probably know this.

Dave Coulter said...

I miss pumpkins already!

maria said...

thank you for bringing all this up for people to consider. please know that there are many theories about colony collapse, and much of the evidence is pointing right now to certain pesticides (clothiandin is one example) and to GMO crops. bees are the canary in the coal mines for the agricultural world and they are suffering severely. there is also a theory that cell phone tower transmissions and high intensity wire emissions are having a powerful adverse affect by messing up the bees ability to navigate, therefore reducing their ability to travel and collect nectar and pollen,their sources of nourishment . creating bee habitat is a wonderful idea, and working to stop pesticide usage is critical for the future health of ourselves and the planet. check out Pesticide Action Network, a great non-profit trying to work toward a healthier world for us all.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Dave, hopefully we won't have to miss them.

Maria, thank you for your comments.

Gloria said...

Pumpkins and other squash have their own squash bee. They (there are two slightly different squash bees http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/pollinator-of-the-month/squash_bees.shtml)are ground nesters and if they are in your garden you will find the males sleeping in closing blossoms.
If you don't destroy the nest over the winter each spring there should be more. Tilling will get them and no open ground will send them elsewhere to nest.
Great information well written. The message is very clear.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Gloria,

Thank you very much for that information about squash bees. I love that image of the males sleeping in the blossoms.

Brian Smith said...

Hello. Yesterday, doing my research about pesticides and herbicides I found one great website, with Open Access materials in this field. They are some books about Herbicides - Theory and Application, Pesticides and Fungicides. This is link which will connect you with these 6 books http://www.intechopen.com/subject/biological-sciences/agriculture/ . They are free to download. Some important aspects regarding the multisided impacts of herbicides on the living world are highlighted in this books. I am sure that the readers will find a lot of helpful information, even if they are only slightly interested in the topic. I found this very useful ! Cheers!

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Brian, Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for the information.