Colony collapse is threatening our bees and our food diversity.
Photo by Jack Dykinga
Imagine life without strawberries. Or sun-ripened tomatoes, spicy chili peppers, or almonds. Without bees and other pollinators, they would cease to exist.
Why? Every fruit, vegetable or nut that starts as a flower must be pollinated to produce. In North America, that’s about 30 percent of the food we consume, according to the University of Illinois.
Unfortunately, pollinators face serious obstacles. The number of honeybees, in particular, is declining rapidly. In 1940, the United States had 7.5 million hives, says Mark Smallwood, executive director of the Rodale Institute, which runs the Honeybee Conservancy. Today, that number is 2.5 million.
Colony collapse disorder causes 30 percent of hives to die each winter. The cause is a combination of pressures, Smallwood explains. The use of pesticides and genetically modified plants, the practices of monoculture and transporting hives cross-country, and diseases and parasites all contribute to weakening the honeybees’ immune system. Like us, they have a hard time recovering when seriously run down, he says.
Photo by Stephen Ausmus
We can help pollinators, and ensure our food diversity, simply by taking part in these activities:
Advocate and celebrate. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has designated June 17-23 as Pollinator Week to raise awareness of declining pollinator populations and encourage their protection. Events will be held across the country, and include tours of local habitats and gardens, talks by beekeepers and pollinator enthusiasts, and other recreational and educational activities.
Youngsters can enter Passion for Pollinators’ poetry and photography contests, which raise awareness of pollinator importance through art. The “Best Friends of the Pollinators Club” is open to children in grades K-12.
Aid scientists. Researchers need people to help count and track bee and butterfly populations in the field. Special skills or knowledge aren’t always required, and many programs encourage children to participate.
The Great Sunflower Project enlists volunteers to record data on bees and other pollinators that visit sunflowers and certain flowering plants. It’s the world’s largest citizen science project for pollinator conservation with thousands participating.
The Xerces Society asks people to send in photos of bumblebees to help scientists track at-risk species. An online map shows bee nesting sites identified by citizen scientists across the country.
Scientists also need help tracking butterflies. The Monarch Larva Monitoring Project asks volunteers to count monarch eggs and larvae on milkweed patches to help identify distribution patterns of the butterflies in North America.
Monarch Health involves capturing butterflies and swabbing their abdomens to collect parasite spores, which aren’t harmful to humans but limits the Monarch’s survival in the wild. Learning more about the parasites will help Monarch conservation efforts.
A Bounty of Bees
The sweat bee, Halictidae, gets its name from its attraction to salty sweat. There are many kinds of this bee, some of which are nocturnal.
Photo by Scott Bauer
The Squash bee, Peponapis, has a picky palette, feeding on squash and its relatives. It makes its nest underground and gets up early in the morning as squash flowers are opening.
Photo by Jim Cane
Mustached Mud Bee
The mustached mud bee, Anthophora abrupta, is also known as the chimney bee or miner bee that builds its nest on the ground. It uses its pheromone-soaked “mustache” to attract mates in the spring.
Photo by Scott Bauer
The Western bumblebee, Bombus occidentalis, pollinates a wide variety of plants and flowers. Commerically raised for crops, the species suffered big losses in the 1990s.
Photo by Stephen Ausmus
Hunt’s bumblebee, Bombus huntii, is native to the intermountain west. Easy to spot by the rust-colored patch on the thorax, it’s a general pollinator that could be used in greenhouses.
Photo by Leah Lewis
One of several bees commonly referred to as blueberry bees, Osmia ribifloris, is an effective pollinator of commercial blueberries and is one of several relatives of the blue orchard bee. Similar in appearance, the blue orchard bee is also a successful commercial pollinator that is now being evaluated for use in a wider range of crops.
Photo by Jack Dykinga
Alfalfa Leafcutting Bee
The alfalfa leafcutting bee or Megachile rotundata is widely used for pollination by alfalfa seed growers. A solitary bee, it originally came from southern Europe and southwestern Asia but was introduced to North America in the 1930s.
Photo by Peggy Greb
Plant a garden. Bees, butterflies and other pollinators need lots of pollen and nectar to thrive. “Bees love dandelions,” one of the season’s earliest bloomers, says Smallwood.
According to the Home Garden Seed Association, pollinators prefer clusters of flowers (versus individual plants) and gardens that bloom successively from spring to fall. Different-shaped flowers attract different kinds of pollinators. Many pollinator favorites are easy to grow from seed, including alyssum, parsley, dill, monarda, cosmos, sunflower and zinnia.
Most importantly, avoid using pesticides, which kill pollinator insects.
Buy local honey. Support beekeepers by buying honey produced within 50 miles of your home. You should know your beekeeper, just like your farmer, says Smallwood. Honey, he says, is “the perfect food.” It contains all the substances necessary to sustain life: enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and water. Eating a spoonful of local honey each day even can help relieve seasonal allergies.
Become a bee steward. The answer to the honeybee decline is backyard beekeepers, said Smallwood. This requires a surprisingly small time commitment, and Rodale Institute offers workshops to help beginning and experienced beekeepers, alike. If caring for a hive isn’t for you, you can fund a hive, which the Institute will host and maintain in your name.
Another program gaining momentum is Bee Gardeners Adding Pollinators, or BeeGAP, says Dave Hunter, owner of Crown Bees in Washington.
BeeGAP enlists gardeners to raise mason bees, which are solitary, gentle bees that don’t produce honey. (Hunter’s been stung twice in 20 years.) Gardeners purchase bees and nesting materials and provide a garden with ample pollen and a small patch of mud. As the bees propagate, gardeners share extra bees with friends and neighbors. They also can return bees for more nesting material or sell them back to Hunter, who uses them to pollinate famers’ orchards.
With honeybee populations declining, spring orchard crops are in jeopardy with too few pollinators to get the job done, says Hunter. Mason bees, with help from backyard gardeners, are a solution.
And an effective one. The pollinating efforts of one mason bee can produce 12 pounds of cherries, compared to 1/3 pound of cherries for one honeybee, Hunter says. “We need millions” of mason bees to fill the pollination gap.
The State of Honeybees
Honeybees pollinate more than 90 percent of flowering crops in North America including squash, melons, apples, nuts, asparagus, broccoli, cucumbers and more. In fact, they’re responsible for about a third of all food and drink we consume. But worker bees are dying off in record numbers, leaving us with the possibility of a food crisis.
Part of the problem could be the honeybee’s genome, which has half as many toxin and disease fighting genes as a fruit fly, according to research from the University of Illinois. But a new report from the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Agriculture shows a host of causes for the rapid decline in our bee population.
Here are a few factors:
There’s much more research to be done, but by working with beekeepers, farmers, scientists and the general public, we may soon be able to end colony collapse disorder and save not only our bees, but our crops as well.
- The Varroa mite, which is a major factor in colony collapse disorder, is becoming resistant to pesticides used by beekeepers.
- Bees are coming under attack of new viruses, some of which are contributing to colony collapse.
- Honeybees need more available food sources, and a greater diversity of nutrition.