by Stephanie Breeze - art by Jerry Venditti
Where would we be without the bee? There are about 20,000 species of bee but the one we know best is Apis mellifera; the Western (or European) honey bee. Apart from providing us with honey, the bee plays a pivotal role in pollinating flowers, vegetables and fruits. Its disappearance would be ecologically disastrous and so a marked decline in bee colonies in America and Europe has been a cause of international concern.
Over three decades, it became clear that all was not well in the world of bees. In the US, feral bees began to disappear and are now almost non-existent. But beekeepers also reported a drop in bee population numbers. This was attributed to the effects of pesticides, urbanization, known bee diseases and a reduction in the number of people actively keeping bee colonies. Seasonal and other fluctuations in bee numbers are well-documented, but it became clear that this phenomenon was more serious. The syndrome has since been dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).
The decline in bee numbers is not only linked to the mysterious CCD. Disturbances in the population profile are also seen: there are no adult bees to be seen in colonies that have collapsed. Colonies on the brink have too few worker bees to maintain the colony and those that exist are mainly young adults. It is likely that other factors may be contributing to the bee decline, with some studies pointing towards some infectious disease.
Researchers have identified a number of possible causes but with no definitive answers. The scale of the problem also remains unclear. A spectrum of possible culprits has been identified. Epidemics of viral and fungal diseases are one possibility. Suspicion has also fallen on the Israel Acute Paralysis Virus but not all cases of CCD can be linked to this bug. Malnutrition is being investigated, as are the effects of newly developed pesticides. There is some support for the idea that something is affecting the bees’ immune systems.
Bee keeping practices have also come under scrutiny. Problems with the antibiotics commercial beekeepers use have been considered, as has the corn syrup commonly fed as a supplement. Other man-made causes that have been looked at include the impact of global warming and climate change, the effects of electro-magnetic radiation and the growing of genetically modified crops. None of these has been strongly implicated in the bee’s shrinking fortunes. The practice of moving hives around the country has also been looked at; the theory being that this promotes the spread of disease and causes great stress on the bees.
The plummeting bee numbers have already made an impact. Commercial farmers (especially fruit farmers) depend on bees for pollination. In some cases, farmers bring in other species of pollinators, such as mason bees. However, none are as effective as the honey bee which has a special place in human culture and economies as well as in nature.
Jerry Venditti, environmental activist, internationally renowned artist, and contributor of the extraordinary art entitled “The Last Bee” on this edition’s cover, feels strongly about what is causing the decline and likens it to “the canary in the coal mines”.
The reference is analogous to a time when coal miners would bring caged canary birds down into the mine tunnels with them to warn of dangerous gases, such as carbon monoxide. The gases would kill the canary before killing the miners, thus providing a warning to exit the tunnels immediately.
Jerry is a signature member of the Artists for Conservation Foundation, an elite group of environmental artists whose vision is; “global artistic movement that inspires individuals and organizations to preserve and sustain our natural heritage by uniting the talent and passion of the world’s most gifted nature artists”.
Jerry explains that research indicates that the decline of the bee population since World War II has increased exponentially and the research points toward the wide spread commercial use of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, as a major contributor. The strong pesticide disorients the bee’s ability to find their way back home and he likens it to the insect version of Alzheimer’s.
“The tragic irony is we are killing the bees and hurting ourselves as well. Our survival is dependent on the health of our planet and its life force. Unless we face this fact, we will continue to contribute to our own demise, and the planet’s survival becomes dubious as well”, explains Jerry.
What Can Be Done?
First and foremost, don’t underestimate the power of your individual action. When many individuals take actions to effect change, mountains can move. While the sharp decline in the number of bees available for pollination is indeed a serious problem, you have the opportunity to make your garden a healthy haven for bees while providing an environment that cultivates increasing the number of these fury bodied little creatures. With conscious planning, your garden will draw bees and other pollinators to your plants.
Create a garden for bees:
Designate an area as your bee garden. Here you will grow plants that are known bee attractors. These should be local native plants. If you’re not sure which plants are native to your area, ask at your garden shop or extension office.
You’ll need a variety of flowering plants as you want the blooms available throughout the growing season. Keep in mind that bees are particularly drawn to blue, white, yellow and purple flowers with blossoms that are shallow. Consider the sunflower, black-eyed Susan, dragonhead, geranium, aster and bee balm. If you need a ground cover for you flower beds, consider clover. Bees love it!
Bees also love herbs like salvia, oregano, alfalfa, Echinacea, and thyme.
Fruits & vegetables:
If you have space for flowering fruit trees you’ll not only need bees for pollination, but you’ll give them added incentive to move into your area. In your garden, make sure you have a supply of vegetables growing that produce attractive blossoms. Cucumber, watermelon and zucchini are just a few bee favorites.
Say no to pesticides:
Do not use any kind of pesticide on your flowers or plants, even those that are organic. It’s futile to draw the bees to your garden only to have them die from pesticide exposure. There are a few non-toxic options such as garlic and corn gluten. These products will not kill your bees, but you’ll need to be diligent about spotting pests and picking them off by hand too.
Support local honey producers:
Unstable bee populations, the difficult task of keeping bees healthy, and commercialization of the honey industry have sharply deterred small bee keeping businesses and hobbyists. Seek out your local honey producers and buy from them.
Donate to bee research: There are several organizations that are dedicated to bee Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) research and to bringing the plight of the honey bee to the awareness of the public.
The presence of the local bee should never be taken for granted. There are an estimated 150 food crops varieties in the United States alone that are dependent on bees for pollination. Taking care of our bees is essential to our food supply and many believe essential to our survival. With a few conscious steps, you’ll soon have a productive and bee-loving garden and the satisfaction of knowing that you are helping to save the last remaining bees.
“You will probably more than once have seen her fluttering about the bushes, in a deserted corner of your garden, without realizing that you were carelessly watching the venerable ancestor to whom we probably owe most of our flowers and fruits. For it is actually estimated that more than a hundred thousand varieties of plants would disappear if the bees did not visit them and possibly even our civilization; for in these mysteries all things intertwine.”