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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…

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