While researching the non-sustainability of popular foods among the health-conscious, including almonds and avocados, I noticed how frequently bees and pollination topics popped up. We all know the importance of pollination for growing fruits and vegetables. We've also seen many headlines about the loss of bees in the last couple of decades. Suddenly though, so much became clear to me.
The importance of bees in the food economy is significant. Honeybees pollinate between $15 and $18 billion in crops in the U.S. each year. We could survive without them, but we might need to learn how to do without things like coffee, avocados, almonds, and citrus. While they wouldn't disappear, they wouldn't be sustainable without bees, and they would become prohibitively expensive.
The problem is that bees are disappearing at an alarming rate. Colony collapse has been a problem for decades. The cause of entire bee colonies dying overnight is still unknown. People can speculate that it is caused by a virus, parasites, or a combination of factors that include stress and global warming.
What's Killing the Bees?
Bees have many other problems to contend with, many of which are created by humans.
- Parasites are a top killer of bees. Tracheal mites were first noticed in North American bee colonies in the early 1900s no longer pose a threat to bees due to natural selection and breeding. However, the varroa mite, a native of Asia, has made its way to our shores and is highly destructive, so much so that its scientific name is Varroa destructor. This mite can bring disease into the hive causing deformed wings or the death of larvae. It can completely wipe out a bee colony.
- Pesticides often wind up in the pollen of plants collected by bees and brought back to the hive. These chemicals move through the colony and have the ability to affect all the bees. Neonicotinoids are a new class of insecticides chemically related to nicotine. The name literally means "new nicotine-like insecticides." These were banned by the Obama Administration and remain a political football. Research shows that once neonicotinoids are used on a tree, they are found in the tree for years to come. Roundup is not as toxic to bees as the neonicotinoids; however, it is believed to negatively impact the growth of bee larvae, bees' navigational skills, and their foraging behavior.
- Poor nutrition also plagues bees. Bees are foragers who visit flowers and drink their nectar. They transport it back to the colony and turn it into honey. They also collect pollen, a source of protein for their offspring, from the flowers. The lack of diversity in farm crops in many regions of the country combined with less prairie land has resulted in less pollen or nectar, which in turn causes bees to be stressed and malnourished.
- Global warming is affecting so much in the world. For bees, the droughts that limit access to water can be life-threatening. The pollen and nectar that bees forage do not contain much water so, the bees need a water source. Like other creatures, bees can die if they don't have enough water.
Additionally, drastic temperature changes in the winter months can impact an entire bee colony. Local farmer and beekeeper Jill Franke explained that the worker bees stay close to the queen in the winter months to keep her warm. If temperatures rise, the worker bees may leave the hive to forage, leaving the queen unprotected. When the temperatures drop again, the queen may freeze to death, causing the pack to die off eventually.
- Murder hornets recently made their way from Asia to the United States in the past year. It is estimated that one Asian giant hornet can kill up to 20 honeybees in a single minute, while a small group can destroy a hive of 30,000 honeybees in 90 minutes.
How Can You Help the Bees?
Since humans rely so heavily on bees as a part of our food system and are primarily to blame for the problems facing bee colonies, we have to ask ourselves what we can do to help.
- First and foremost, don't call an exterminator if there is a beehive on your property. Instead, call a beekeeper who can remove the hive without killing the bees and rehome them in a safe location. The American Beekeeper Federation maintains a website to help you locate a beekeeper near you.
- You can easily plant native flowers and reduce the size of your lawn, so locally foraging bees have access to a wide range of flowering plants. Coneflowers tend to be a favorite of bees in any location. Also, providing a water source near the flowers is essential. A small birdbath with stones for perching will ensure that bees get the clean water necessary to stay healthy.
- It might not be your favorite thing to do but leave the dandelions alone. This is hard for many people because we want to have beautiful front lawns, and we don't want our neighbors to be angry at us. However, pollinators love those yellow flowers.
- Eliminate the use of chemicals as fertilizer and weed killer. If you dig up the dandelions, that's not as bad as spraying your whole lawn with chemicals to prevent the weeds in the first place.
- Finally, buy local and organic produce. Here at the Business of Food, we already promote this, but saving the bees is another reason. When you purchase produce from a local farmer, they also feed the bees with their diverse farm crops. If they are rotating crops and using cover crops, their need for pesticides is lessened. Many won't use pesticides at all. No pesticides and diverse crops equal happy bee colonies. And exceptional honey.
It's also helpful to understand the physical differences between bees and wasps. The internet can be a great help with that. You can also look up indigenous pollinator plants when you get ready to plant your garden.