kw: book reviews, nonfiction, honey bees, environmentalism, ecology
This image will make many people edgy, not because the bee is dying, but because it's too close. I am deathly afraid of bees, I guess because I have a low tolerance for pain, plus a single sting when I was in grade school caused allergy symptoms. I could never be a beekeeper.
I used to live next door to one, though. His "honey house", where they spun the honey from the hive supers, was on the next piece of land. I went in there with him once, and felt a bit creepy the whole time. Bees were crawling all over the walls. He assured me, they are pretty calm when there is a lot of honey nearby and they are, as they were, away from the hive.
That place had a regular clientele of older people who came regularly to get stings on their arthritic hands. They claim it helps a lot. One came in while I was there, and got several stings on each hand, one per sore knuckle, at about $2 per sting. The keeper just grabbed a bee from the wall and held it so it stung where the old fellow pointed, one bee after another after another. I found it fascinating and almost forgot my creepiness.
He is out of business now. This was in South Dakota, and northern plains bees get trucked all over the country to pollinate crops, more so than most. They also suffer the greatest losses from bee diseases (they live stressful little lives) and have been particularly hard hit by CCD, Colony Collapse Disorder. My friend and his son lost so many hives over the winter of 2006 that they simply folded the operation. He still has some 12,000 acres of grassland that he ranches, or rather his son does, now that he has retired (he's a few years older than I am). So far there isn't a cow collapse disorder epidemic.
CCD is the subject of Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis, by Rowan Jacobsen. In conscious imitation of Silent Spring, which the author cites a time or two, the book digs into the history and possible causes of CCD, and urges action so that its title not become an "I told you so" prophecy.
Honey bees and humans have coevolved over thousands of years. This article from Villanova U reports on beekeeping in Israel 3,000 years ago. It is likely that bees have been kept since thousands of years before that. They were probably the first livestock animal species. But traditional practices have been all-but-forgotten since the Industrial Revolution applied advanced machinery powered by fossil fuels to every facet of production, including agriculture…especially agriculture.
The monocrop is now the norm, whether we're talking about a monocultural suburb (most still are), a field of wheat or maize the size of Manhattan Island, or an almond orchard in California that reaches to both horizons. Wild bees can't fly more than a couple of miles without starving to death, and they prefer to fly a half mile or less from a hive to the farthest blossom. Those huge grain fields don't need pollinators, but the almonds do. So do the fields and orchards that grow every fruit, nut, legume or vegetable. Nearly every one is pollinated by honey bees.
These days, many of those bees are trucked into the fields and orchards, becaue the local bees just can't keep up. We're in several vicious circles at one time. One of them is: just before blooming, spray for insect pests (This kills wild pollinators also); truck in bees during flowering time; get the bees outta there before you have to start spraying for the pests that attack the fruit (not that it matters, half of them have died already, and most will die in a few weeks); pay a ton of money to the beekeeper (who may or may not be able to then afford new bees). Why are so many bees dying?
Most of Fruitless Fall is detective work into the proposed causes of CCD. The symptoms are stark. Just about when the hives ought to be the busiest, the bees disappear, over a few weeks' time. They don't die near the hives, like mite-infested bees do. They seem to get out there and get lost, and never make it back. The possible culprits include mites (of a different kind perhaps), new bacterial or virus infections, new systemic pesticides (a chief cause of confused behavior), and the stress of spending a quarter of their time on long-distance trucks. It seems clear to me that the culprit behind CCD is "all of the above."
Things come even more clearly into focus when the author recounts the experiences of a few beekeepers who have been willing to "learn from the bees." One allowed evolution to do its work, by refraining from using miticides, and by breeding into his Vermont bees strains from Russia that cope better with mites and some diseases. He considers the mites his friends; they kill the weaker bees and flag trouble spots. He lost a lot of bees, but the stronger ones built back up, and now he has a valley full of bees with excellent resistance to mites and quite a number of other pests, plus they are hardy, being raised in the New England climate.
Another investigated the effect of hive cell size on colony health. Bee strains known to be mite resistant are a little smaller. Commercial honey frames have pre-manufactured wax cell bases with the cell size set, to which the bees conform. This investigator produced some frames with a smaller base width, causing the bees to make smaller cells, and lo-n-behold, they began doing a better job of getting rid of mites. There were side effects, however, such as poorer mid-season performance.
Wild bee colonies make honeycomb with different cell sizes, smaller near the bottom and larger near the top. So another couple of beekeepers tried making a top-bar frame (just some wax along the top). The bees could make "wild" style combs. These hives thrived like none other. It turns out that bees produce different sized workers for different parts of the growing season, and a particular size for overwintering. Commercial one-size-fits-all frames have been forcing the bees to produce the wrong sizes most of the time. Chalk up one more stressor.
Of course, wild-style comb can't be trucked around the country. It is too fragile. So what are beekeepers going to do? We just might be saved by the recent trend toward localism. It may be a bit harder to take care of a field that is frequently crossed by a non-crop swatch. But wildflowers that bloom successively over the whole growing season will feed the bees in off-seasons. Crop blooming typically only lasts a couple of weeks, or less. Beekeepers have been feeding corn syrup to bees to keep them alive between different crop flowering times!
Bee yards used to be pretty unkempt places. Let's return to that. Those "weeds" are helpers! Today, in the California almond growing areas, you'll find acres of alternating rows of two kinds of almonds, because they have to cross-pollinate. But they have to have bees to pollinate at all. So beehives are trucked in and distributed between rows, in huge numbers. It doesn't sound economical, but this would help: remove a third of the trees in strips and let weeds grow, like in shelter belts. Even plant flowering weeds that bloom when your crops don't Take a clue from areas where small farms abound with plenty of shelter belts: they don't need much in the way of trucked-in pollinators, if any.
When I first heard about CCD nearly two years ago, I began watching the flowers in my yard, and particularly my apple tree. There aren't many honey bees in the area. My apple tree was pollinated by at least thirty species of bee and a few kinds of wasps, plus some flies, mostly about half the length of "houseflies". I have lots of apples every year, and the past two were no exception. In my suburb, with its frequent patches of forest, there are plenty of alternative pollinators. I also saw many different kinds of bees on all the flowers, even dandelions.
The author laments that studies are only produced where there is money to be made (or lost). When will those who fund "studies" realize that there is a crying (and expensive) need to understand the genuine value of "unfarmed" patches of land. They are probably the key to the productivity of many farms! And for honey bees, here is the bottom line: they do better when they can stay put, they do better when they aren't dosed with poisons, and they do better when they live on weedy patches between fields. Sure, beekeepers may be earning more for pollination services than for the honey, but that could change again if farmers get smart and let some wilder places grow to boost the numbers of natural pollinators. These are a few of the ideas we'll need to turn the situation around before the honey bee goes extinct.