Tuesday, July 16, 2013

My Love Affair with Bees (and Other Pollinators)

When I was in grade school, we lived in a typical St. Louis bungalow.  It had a wide front porch and a small back yard.  A wire fence separated our yard from the neighbor's yard.  On it grew an abundant vine of sweet pea with huge purplish-pink blossoms.  Giant bumble bees grazed the blossoms throughout the summer.

My youngest brother, John, was still a baby sustained by jars of Gerber baby food.  I would take the smallest jars -- the squat ones -- and herd a bee into the jar and then screw on the lid.   I was capturing the largest bee in the smallest jar.  I do not recall why I did it, or why I chose that method.  I do recall several people suggesting I was daft or careless or fearless.

I'd have one captured bee at a time.  But, I had them all summer long.

I now have a garden that blooms from late February to late September.  I pay attention to my pollinators, which include bees, flies, wasps, and perhaps bats.  I protect them from injury, unless a clueless group of wasps builds a mud nest on my back deck.

I've been stung by a bee only twice, once as a kid walking in blooming clover and once as an adult walking on the beach in Santa Monica.  In both cases, I stepped on the bee.  It felt like the fires of hell.

My college roommate recently established a hive of bees in her back yard.  During a recent visit, I watched her sit with her back to a tree on a little pillow watching the bees at work.  She had many bee stories to tell and a new set of tools -- a bee keeping suit with a "fencing veil," goat skin vented leather gloves, a capping scratcher, an uncapping knife, a queen catcher, a smoker, and a hand crank honey extractor.

Several years ago, I read Barabara Kingsolver's, The Poisonwood Bible, a 1998 book short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize.  It tells the story of Reverend Price, his wife, and three daughters.  He forces them to move to the Congo, so he -- full of pride -- can convert the local inhabitants to Christianity.  Kingsolver -- a native Appalachian who grew up on an alfalfa farm and who earned a master's degree in ecology and evolutionary biology -- writes lovingly about the people, plants, and animals of the Congo.

One chapter describes the Reverend's efforts to grow a garden with seeds brought from the U.S.   The plants grow quickly, then spindly, straining towards the sunlight.  But none of them bear fruits or vegetables. The Reverend spends days trying to solve the puzzle.  One day, Leah, his daughter, finds him looking closely at an insect.  He has realized that without honeybees to pollinate the plants, they will not produce.  The scene harkens back to Mrs. Price's exclamation that: "We brought all the wrong things."

Albert Einstein has been quoted as saying:  "If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live."

Bees do much for us.  They pollinate 71 of the 100 crops that provide 90 percent of human food, including almonds, strawberries, soybeans, blueberries, sunflowers, rapeseed, apples, cherries, watermelons, and onions.  The plants they pollinate generate crops valued annually at over $200 billion world-wide; 22 billion Euros in Europe; and $20-30 billion in the U.S.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture states that one-third of all food and beverages rely on pollination, mostly by bees.

In 2006, beekeepers saw a sudden increase in annual bee mortality, primarily among worker bees. Mortality jumped from 5 to 10 percent each season to 30 percent in 2007 and then, in 2012, close to 50 percent. People are calling the population drop "alarming," with populations at a 50-year low and decreasing.

One research project paired entomologists and military scientists, who worked under the defense machinery of the U.S. Homeland Security Department.   That may tell us something about the significance of the kill-off.
 
The cause of "colony collapse disorder" remains in question.  Theories include:
  • the introduction in 2005 of a class of systemic pesticides called neonicotinoids; 
  • the varroa mite destructor acting in concert with gut parasite Nosema and the Israeli Acute Paralysis virus; 
  • lack of genetic diversity affecting thermoregulation, disease resistance, and worker productivity; 
  • the stress of commercial-use travel; 
  • drought; and
  • mono-culture plantings that reduce forage supplies for bees, thereby compromising bee nutrition.  

Stricken worker bees "fly off in every direction from the hive, then die alone and dispersed," making bee autopsies difficult.

Researchers have found residues of over 100 chemicals, herbicides, fungicides,and insecticides in the pollen and wax retrieved from hives.  The role of any one contaminant remains elusive.

Even so, on December 1, 2014, the European Union will impose a 2-year ban on the use of  three types of neonicotinoids on flowering crops attractive to bees.  Home gardeners will also forgo their use.  Growers may use them on crops, like winter wheat, which pose a smaller risk to bees.  The EU hopes to use this time to study the problem intensely and give the bees some respite.

In the U.S., a coalition of beekeepers, environmental groups, and consumer groups, sued the E.P.A. in March 2013 arguing that it had exceeded its authority by conditionally approving some neonicotinoids.  The agency began an accelerated review of the chemicals' impact on bees.  In 2007, it created an action plan you can review here.

In May 2013, the E.P.A. and the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a report found here.  They blame the colony collapse mostly on chemical resistant mites, lack of genetic diversity, and poor nutrition.  They plan to continue research into the risks created by pesticide use, improve reporting about bee deaths, and enhance collaboration among interested groups.

In yesterday's posting, found here, I mentioned bees as one example of how we are all connected.  Zac Browning, a fourth-generation commercial beekeeper who operates 20,000 commercial hives, remarked in May 2013: " We're on the brink.  I don't know if we've crossed that threshold yet, but we're getting there fast."


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