Bringing Back the Bees

comments (4) May 21st, 2009

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Abeja Abeja, member
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Have your dreams of growing bucket loads of your own juicy fruits and vegetables ever been dashed during seasons in which your plants and trees bore almost no fruit? If you’ve watered, weeded and fertilized but still can’t get those coveted fruit and veggies to grow, your garden may be missing one key ingredient: bees.

Of all the things needed to bring nutritious food to our table or to grow a healthy and productive home garden, perhaps the most overlooked is the bee. From apples to zucchini, bees make much of our produce possible. In fact, one third of the food we eat is made possible by bee pollination. Also, many native and some ornamental plants that provide food and habitat for wildlife or embellish our gardens depend on bees to pollinate them and enable them to reproduce. But some native bees, of which there are approximately 4,000 species in the US alone, have seen their populations reduced because of habitat loss, diseases and pesticide exposure. This decline in native bees may have significant effects for ecosystems and for farmers and home gardeners who grow the crops these bees pollinate. And yet it is a non-native bee that seems to be facing the biggest threat of all.

Honey bees, which were introduced into the U.S. from Europe in the 17th century, pollinate about 130 crops and provide about $15 billion in added value to American agriculture every year. The honey bees have been affected for years by a variety of problems: parasitic mites, viruses, fungi and pesticides. In 2006, beekeepers began encountering a new phenomenon that has been dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), in which entire bee colonies are wiped out nearly overnight. What makes CCD different from other bee diseases is that the bees are dying away from the hives, and few or no dead bees are to be found nearby. The hives look normal, with the brood undisturbed and honey and pollen stored within, but the adults disappear, never to return.

CCD has aggravated the difficult plight of the honey bees. CCD and other bee diseases caused the loss of more than 30 percent of managed honey bee colonies in the United States, both in 2006 and 2007. Scientists haven’t yet been able to pinpoint the cause of CCD, but some suspect it may be caused by a combination of factors that weaken the honey bees’ immune systems. Not only are bees affected by parasites, viruses and other pathogens, but they also are exposed to toxic pesticides in the fields they pollinate. They may suffer transportation-induced stress as well, since many beekeepers must transport their honey bees by truck over long distances to pollinate various crops. And the limited variety of nectar and pollen sources in the farm fields, which often grow a single type of crop, may be causing nutritional deficiencies in the bees. These deficiencies may be aggravated by the scarcity of natural habitat for the honey bees to forage during their off time, which forces beekeepers to supplement their diet with corn syrup. Some or all of these factors may be implicated in CCD, but whatever the cause, it’s clear that the many health threats facing honey bees must be addressed to reverse their decline.

With $15 billion in crop value and one third of our domestic food supply on the line, protecting native bees and honey bees should be one of the priorities of our agricultural policy, but surprisingly and alarmingly, precautions aren’t being taken at the federal level. Congress could help by providing more funding for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) bee research laboratories to study bee health and address this crisis. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could require more in-depth studies of risks to bees and other pollinators before it approves pesticides for use. Regionally, farmers can create a healthier environment for bees by reducing pesticide use in favor of effective Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques and preserving natural areas around their fields to provide habitat and more nutritious sources of pollen for bees. USDA can encourage this through conservation programs that provide incentives to farmers to implement these practices. And finally, beekeepers need our help. If their hives disappear due to CCD, they need help starting a new one, just as other food producers are compensated if they lose their livestock. USDA needs to find a way to help beekeepers.

Finally, all of us can create a healthier, more inviting environment for bees right in our own back yards by growing plant varieties such as sunflowers, goldenrods and rosemary that provide pollen and nectar that attracts bees, avoiding unnecessary use of pesticides, and using low risk forms of pest control. Not only will we enjoy a healthier, more beautiful and productive garden, but we will be helping protect the humble insects that help grow our food.

Dr. Gabriela Chavarria
Director, Science Center
Natural Resources Defense Council
[email protected]

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Comments (4)

Ossining writes: Sorry Mohonk but those are carpenter bees. They have solid black bottoms while bumble bees have "hairy" bottoms.
Posted: 10:18 am on July 6th
LVNMPermie writes: Not mentioned in the article, a prime suspect in colony collapse disorder is neonicotinoid pesticides, notably clothianadin, manufactured by Bayer, the aspirin people.

Clothianadin is already banned in several European countries for this reason.
Posted: 8:17 am on July 6th
gingercat writes: Thank you for posting this info. I think it's so important for us gardeners to get the bees into our gardens.
Every year I plant a large variety of sunflowers along with marigolds in my veggie garden. The benefit for me is a high yield of fresh veggies.
I also try my best to use all oraganic methods for of pests and deseases my vegetable plants may encounter.
Posted: 7:22 pm on June 1st
mohonk writes: good article but those are pictures of bumble bees...not honey bees
Posted: 8:41 am on May 29th
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