Here’s What Can be Done About the Honeybee Crisis

When we think of bees, we tend to picture vindictive little insects who are poised to sting us with their sharp, needle-like tails.  It’s easy to forget that nature’s pollinators are what keep our food supply alive and vibrant – transferring pollen and nectar from one blossoming plant to another.  Without them, there would be universal famine on every single continent.

Since 2006, more than three-million honeybees alone have perished within the United States due to a variety of ecological and biophysical factors.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that these “buzzworthy” go-getters are responsible for providing at least one in three mouthfuls of food consumed by Americans.  Pollen-dependent crops include apples, tomatoes, oranges, carrots, strawberries, blueberries, cotton, soybeans, coffee, almonds, and alfalfa – the latter of which is critical when feeding livestock.

In 2015, approximately 42% of U.S. beekeepers saw their colonies die off.  Over in Europe, the problem is even more pronounced:  9% of the continent’s bee species are facing extinction – prompting European scientists to scramble for new solutions and cutting-edge technology.

According to Deena Shanker of Bloomberg Media Business,  there are three main causes believed to be extinguishing the life spans of honeybees, bumblebees, and their various brethren.

1.)  NEONICOTINOID PESTICIDES

These are pesticides known to be toxic to bees.  In 2013, U.S. Congressman Earl Blumenauer of Oregon’s 3rd District (which covers Portland and its eastbound communities) proposed legislation to ban their use in the United States – as much of Europe has done – only to see his bill die in committee.  According to the conservation-based Xerces Society, plants that absorb synthetic pesticides and insectisides end up producing nectar and pollen that becomes toxic to bees.

neonicotinoid

Pic by Greensefa via Flickr.

Blumenauer’s Save America’s Pollinators Act was mostly symbolic, as the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives seemed to have no desire to explore it, at the time.  But, with neonicotinoids slated to be up for USDA review as 2018 approaches, he nonetheless hoped it would spur continued dialogue on the need to take action.

2.) HABITAT LOSS FROM DEFORESTATION AND REMOVAL OF FLORA

The bees have seen their natural environments upended and eroded.  Dr. Keith Delaplane – an entomologist at the University of Georgia – points to subterranean bee nests finding their underground havens destroyed by irresponsible human activities above the dirt or grass, such as excessive plowing and driving.  He also attributes the bee population decline to some of the bee-killing viruses or diseases that are inadvertently spread when people cross-breed bee species from different parts of the world.

Dr. Zachary Huang of the University of Michigan’s Department of Entomology recommends that beekeepers consider a shift to “urban beekeeping,” in which floral diversity and residential yards allow the pollinators to thrive.  Proper management of existing bee populations, he emphasizes, is ultimately what will prevent their extinction.  “Urban beekeeping” can be done by raising bee colonies in backyards, on rooftops, or even – to an informal degree – simply by ensuring that one’s outdoor landscaping is nectar-friendly.

Delaplane cites hedge rows and vegetable gardens as landscaping options that will keep regional bee populations lively and active.  Leaving large patches of ground undisturbed is essential; you can guess where the bees have created their subterranean nests by looking for perforated little holes upon the ground’s surface.  He’s additionally a big proponent of buying your honey from local producers (as a way of giving beekeepers incentive to remain in operation) as well as investing in “bee-friendly” flowers or plants to garnish the areas near one’s shrubbery.

3.) VARROA MITES

Without a doubt, the varroa mite is the single most devastating species that threatens the existence of bees.  According to Huang, the varroa mite is a tick-like parasite that drains the blood from bees.  Imagine a full-grown human body getting pelted with “snowstorms” of multiple leeches against your skin – until all of the blood is eventually sucked dry from your veins and muscles.

The Catch-22, of course, is that the pesticides traditionally used to kill crop-destroying insects (the varroa mites included) are, likewise, toxic to the bees themselves.  Additionally, there’s evidence to suggest that many neonicotinoids actually SPUR the varroa mite population, rather than decimating it.  The pathogens found in many insecticides and miticides likely weaken the bees’ abilities to “self-groom” themselves (a way of biologically divesting themselves of varroa mite infestations).

varroa mite

Varroa mite. Pic by Gilles San Martin via Flickr.

So how do we balance the use of pesticides that harm bees with the necessity of controlling varroa mite scourges?  I’ll address that in a moment.  But first, let’s discuss some of the things that we, as individuals, can do about it while we wait for Congress to act.

HOW CAN WE MAKE A DIFFERENCE?

The Xerces Society’s Jessa Kay Cruz recommends single-petal and non-hybridized plants as the best landscaping options for keeping nature’s pollinators healthy.  Jennifer Holland of National Geographic favors native plants (especially wildflowers in a variety of vivid colors) specific to each season, so that there’s something blooming outdoors for a majority of the year.  Milkweed, she says, provides nourishment for other pollinators – including the caterpillar and monarch butterfly.  Along with maintaining bare patches of untilled soil to support the underground bee colonies, Holland advises people to border native flowers around their fruit and vegetable gardens.

Gardener’s Supply Company has developed a chart to help growers select which plants are the most nutrient-rich in attracting bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies.  A reliable way to attract more bees to your vegetation is by planting shrubbery and trees that are rich in pollen.  These vital insects also gravitate toward wood piles or ultraviolet color.  To avoid plants that have been grown with synthetic versions of pesticides, insectides, or herbicides – visit the website “Beyond Pesticides,” which informs gardeners as to which alternatives are the least harmful.

Another reason behind the premature deaths of many bees is much simpler:  they don’t get enough water to remain healthy and fertile.  One simple thing that individual homeowners can do is to create artificial water sources.  These “Do-It-Yourself” water stations require only a replaceable container (i.e. a birdbath, pie tin, bucket, pet bowl, etc.) filled with water.  Immersed within the shallow water itself should be rocks or marbles – this will provide “refueling islands” upon which the bees can rest.

For those who don’t actually want to take up the physical practice of beekeeping, there’s the option of “hive adoption.  You can pay an annual fee to your state/regional beekeeping association – or your local beekeeper, directly – and, in exchange for your financial support, they can provide you with honey from your adopted hive (along with novelty items and possible in-person visits to see your “adopted” bee colony in person).

In the last two years, President Obama has introduced a White House initiative to mitigate winter hive losses:  the Pollinator Health Task Force is committed to the research of the 4,000 species of bees in North America alone that could face endangerment.

It’s a great start…but not nearly enough.  Other research has shown that summer and winter hive losses have been about equal, in recent years.  This underscores the necessity of better overall hive management; whenever beekeepers allow some of their hives to succumb to frigid climates, the bee-destroying mites tend to thrive.

The Pollinator Partnership is a conservation society aimed at creating public awareness initiatives; its efforts have included research grants, planting guides, editorials, publications, and landscape restoration.  In a more institutional setting, the St. Louis Zoo’s Center for Native Pollinator Conservation spearheads an international collaboration designed to shape public policies that promote horticultural biodiversity, species research, and community gardening.   

Janet Andrews, of the Backyard Bees coalition in California’s Orange County, founded her organization as a way of facilitating honeybee relocation and sales of locally-grown natural products.  Backyard Bees also strives to educate schoolchildren in the importance of pollinators and how we can protect them.  The efforts of Andrews should be viewed as a precursor to the spread of “ecological farming” – a field already practiced widely throughout Europe.  GreenPeace advocates the global rise of “ecological farming” methods, integrating the use of chemical-free agriculture, permaculture, soil analyses, and biocontrol techniques.

And then there are those nasty varroa mites.  Despite how it may seem to be a chicken-or-egg conundrum, there is meaningful research on how to eradicate the varroa mite while keeping the bees themselves alive.  The most notable example comes from German parasitologists who have developed a “varroa gate” that beekeepers can use to safeguard their colonies.  It’s a plastic strip embedded with acaricide; beekeepers would insulate their hives with this buffer, and when the bees pass through it they will be “cleansed” of mite infections.   

As you can see, there is no one single cause for the dwindling bee population – which means there’s no one single solution, but rather, a need for an integrated model of solutions working together in tandem (much like when tackling the problem of water sustainability).  

Our U.S. Congress has only scratched the surface of what needs to be done.  A wide-scale transition to “ecological farming” won’t be instantaneous or seamless.  In addition to more sustainable outdoor farming methods, greenhouses and indoor hydroponics must become the agricultural wave of the future.  By raising a diversity of crops regionally – even during the cold months – Americans can boost our own food supply while lessening our dependency on foreign-grown crop imports.

Superior Fresh, based outside of Northfield, Wisconsin, is one example of such innovation.  The facility harvests salmon and rainbow trout using aquaponics.  Then, that water used gets nitrified and filtered for reuse to grow leafy green vegetables inside of its greenhouses.

Now, imagine this being done for a wider array of crops that couldn’t otherwise be grown in certain climates throughout the country – citrus fruits, berries, and nut trees, to name a few possibilities.

Beyond that initial concept, if the federal government facilitates public-private partnerships for “co-ops” that utilize indoor agriculture, it will bring job prosperity to our country while alleviating food insecurity.  Currently, Canada has much of the market cornered in terms of exporting fresh produce grown from greenhouses or aquaponic systems.  Establishing this self-sufficient model throughout all fifty states would make American agriculture more competitive.

And, if scientists could develop machines or technology to fulfill the role of mass-pollination that’s presently carried out by bees, the decline of the overall bee population would be less of a threat to the stability of American food prices.

Are you liking these ideas?  Then write to your own U.S. Senators and U.S. Congresspersons.  Finding allies in the House and Senate to make these daydreams into a reality will be pivotal.

If you suspect that your own U.S. Senators and U.S. Representative might turn a deaf ear to such proposals, one way of getting around that is by targeting and writing to other key members of Congress even if you’re not one of their direct constituents.  However, since they’re under no obligation to read correspondence sent to them from outside of their constituencies – rather than contacting their D.C. offices, you can “get around” that lack of access writing to representatives other than your own by sending letters to their Political Action Committees (PACs) or fundraising campaigns.

 

On the Republican side, U.S. Congressman Jeff Denham of California’s 10th District (encompassing much of the San Joaquin Valley) is a co-chair of the House Pollination Protection Caucus (along with Democratic representative Alcee Hastings).  Over in eastern Nebraska, U.S. Congressman Jeff Fortenberry has also shown friendliness toward pro-pollinator legislation.

Along with Blumenauer, some of the House Democrats who have the strongest records in terms of pollination protection and agricultural sustainability include U.S. Representatives Chellie Pingree (southwestern Maine), Jim McGovern (central Massachusetts), Jared Huffman (northwestern coastal California), Peter DeFazio (southwestern Oregon), and Elizabeth Esty (northwestern Connecticut).

Other potential allies:  U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), who’ve joined Obama in publicly acknowledging the bee endangerment crisis; U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), who has sponsored the Pollinator Recovery Act of 2016; U.S. Congresswoman Suzan DelBene (representing the Washington state corridor northeast of Seattle), who used to be the ranking Democrat on the House Biotechnology, Horticulture & Research subcommittee; the actual chairman of that subcommittee, U.S. Congressman Rodney Davis (southwestern Illinois); and GOP representatives who’ve served on that subcommittee for the past several years, including U.S. Congressmen Ted Yoho (north-central Florida), Austin Scott (south-central Georgia), and Glenn Thompson (northwestern Pennsylvania).

U.S. Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham (who is running for Governor of New Mexico, next year) is the new ranking Democrat on the Biotechnology, Horticulture & Research Subcommittee; other new Democrats on that subcommittee include Representatives Al Lawson (representing the Jacksonville/Orlando areas of Florida), Jimmy Panetta (coastal California, around Monterey and Santa Cruz), Jim Costa (the central San Joaquin Valley), and Lisa Blunt-Rochester (Delaware at-large).  Newly-appointed Republican members of the subcommittee include Representatives Bob Gibbs (northeastern Ohio), David Rouzer (of North Carolina’s Wilmington-Raleigh suburbs), Don Bacon (Omaha and east-central Nebraska), Neal Dunn (Florida’s central panhandle), and Jodey Arrington (north-central Texas).

 

When writing to any member of Congress about this issue, remind them how saving the bee population is in their self-interest.  It will greatly boost their individual reputations when running for reelection in 2018 and 2020 – or even for those of them who could be mulling presidential campaigns.  We should also point out to them how mass food shortages or national inflation of food prices would devastate the local approval rating for every single member of Congress…no matter how “safe” their solidly-red or solidly-blue districts presently appear to be.

This isn’t a partisan issue.  As with water sustainability, everybody has a stake in this.  Wild flowers and plants need pollen to thrive.  These are the organisms that sprout from the ground to feed birds, fish, cattle, and livestock.  

Finalize any of your thoughts to congressional representatives by emphasizing how this approach would revolutionize agriculture in America – generating unprecedented job creation in building agricultural infrastructure, tending to the indoor crops themselves, and exporting these foods to other countries.  Ask them to imagine an America where melons, apples, citrus fruits, tomatoes, berries, nuts, and leafy green vegetables are available, on demand, at affordable prices regardless of which region of the U.S. a consumer happens to live in.

But it all starts with the bees.  If we truly want to “Make America Great Again,” then a collaborative approach to agricultural independence is vital.


Featured image by Silke Baron via Flickr.