“If you can’t be an athlete, be an athletic supporter.”
–Principal McGee in Grease
Not everybody is cut out for beekeeping. We are disappointed in how many people are cut out for it who simply will never consider it, for one reason or another, but it is nevertheless a fact with which we are willing to come to terms.
However, bees need our help, and everyone is cut out to help.
There have been numerous writings, many frantic and worried, about colony collapse disorder over the past decade. Colony collapse disorder is a very real, very palpable threat to civilization as we know it, and that is not hyperbole. Take away our pollinators, and you take away many of the building blocks of the food chain as currently constituted – how large mammals such as ourselves can adapt to such a calamity is an open
However, we are not writing today with the purpose of spreading panic and hysteria; instead, we offer a solution. We are a hopeful, optimistic lot by nature, and we see opportunities to not only save the bees, but also to beautify the world around us in ways far too often forgotten since the dawn of the industrial revolution.
First, a little background – several potential culprits have been identified for the mass die-offs of bees which began accelerating during the first decade of the 21st century. The first to get attention was an old enemy of the honeybee, the varroa mite; beginning about fifteen years ago, commercial beekeepers noticed an increase in not just mites, but in mites resistant to the chemical treatments they typically apply to keep these pesky parasites in check. Evolutionary biologists,naturally, pointed out that of course resistant strains are
There are other reasons for the increase in mites, though, most notably the design of commercial beehives. Langstroth hives use preformed comb, requiring bees to build their comb to shapes humans have decided we want them to build, instead of in configurations the bees naturally want to utilize; it turns out, the bees are right, and we are wrong. There are numerous characteristics (size being the most obvious) which bees choose to produce in their offspring in order to respond to their environment, and many of the adaptations they make “on the fly” are dependent upon resizing and reshaping the brood comb in which their young are
Mites, though, are really a symptom and not the source of the problem. In nature, bees are more than capable of fending off mites through the clever application of oils found naturally in a variety of plants which do not affect the bees, but which are fatal to the parasites. Lavender, rosemary, creosote, western juniper, these are all plants around which you will frequently find a passel of buzzing bees, and most people never stop to give them a second thought. None of these plants, though, provide very much in the way of pollen and nectar – the bees are not there to feed, they are there to clean themselves and their hive.
So, no, mites are not the cause of colony collapse. Instead, they are increasing in number because the bee populations are weaker, more susceptible. And why?
There are two primary reasons, closely related, and both of which ordinary people can do something to help resolve, whether they keep bees or not.
First, bees have been weakened over the last century by the application of various pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers to a wide variety of domesticated plants, particularly large scale monocropped farm produce, and – more ubiquitously – suburban lawns. All pesticides are obviously dangerous to any insect population, of course, which is frequently the point. You put out ant poison because you want to kill ants. QED.
However… ants are the closest living relatives of the honeybee. What’s bad for the one is almost always bad for the other.
Beyond this basic fact, which suggests that even “organic” or “natural” pesticide solutions to infestation by ants, etc. are bad for bees, there is an even more insidious level to the story – unsatisfied with wide application of sprays and other application methods, farmers and gardeners began turning to modified crops
They are still a horrible crime against humanity, though, for a simple reason: they are killing our bees.
These crops almost exclusively make use of a class of chemicals known as neonicotinoids; they are fatal to most of the targeted pests for which they were invented. They are also fatal to bees in concentrations as low as one part per million. And they are found in most large scale farming operations in everything from alfalfa to zucchini.
They are also found in most of the pretty flowers you buy from the large hardware chains – if you think you are doing bees a favor by planting flowers you’ve bought at Lowe’s or Home Depot, think again. Even if
The second factor which is in human control is similar to the first – we are putting out all these non-bee friendly crops, including lawns, and this is decreasing the available food supply for our honeybees. In the 19th century (and the first half of the 20th as well) there were hardly any homes with what we would recognize today as a “lawn”. Wild grasses, wild flowers, wild everything was pretty much the rule of the day. Even without the invention of the “Victory Garden” in World War I, most people had a few flowers around, in addition to a vegetable plot, and a few herbs. It was universal. It was “just what people do” and it was healthy for the bees. Nobody called the non-modified vegetables “heirloom” back then; they were just “vegetables”.
Modern homes, though, are surrounded by large lawns soaked with fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides which choke out “weeds”. So-called weeds, though, do something grasses do not do: most of them flower. Every time you kill a dandelion, you starve a bee. The bees used to be able to feed on every patch of ground for miles around in any direction, as far as the eye could see, no matter where you were in this country. Now? They frequently have to fly for miles just to find anything from which they can collect pesticide free pollen and nectar.
The solution to both problems is pretty much the same – replace lawn space (in some cases, at least as much as your homeowner’s association will allow) with wildflowers, heirloom vegetable plots, and all-natural, non-modified flowers with no neonicotinoids. Plant as much lavender and rosemary as you can. Replace those boring expanses of grass with clover, or better still, with a blend of all the wildflowers that grow in your region, hopefully with enough variety that at least something is blooming at any given time for more than half the year.
This won’t just help the bees, of course. Yes, the bees will be thrilled… but so will people. We live in one of the more picturesque parts of College Station, Texas, in an older neighborhood where lots of people plant a few flowers and herbs, and there are still some vacant lots which have been overseeded with wildflowers, so we are not in one of the cookie cutter neighborhoods with sprawling St. Augustine grass in every
We have definite suggestions for what sorts of plants are best for the bees… but the list is so extensive that no one yard could possibly encompass them all. And this represents a great opportunity, all too often overlooked in an age of conformity, the chance to be truly individual and expressive. Instead of tending a lawn that looks just like everybody else’s, we can help out our busy bee friends by making our garden spaces beautiful and unique. Just a thought. And who knows, maybe if you make your personal spaces bee friendly, you might find you want to keep a hive yourself, for grins and honey.