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Hold on honey, what’s this buzz about bees? Part 3 of 3.

In the first post I covered why bees are important, outlined what’s been happening over the last few years and what might be causing it. Last time I addressed the false idea that pesticides are solely to blame, and discussed why bees are probably not headed for extinction. Now let’s talk about why they’re not headed for extinction – research, possible answers, and what you can do.

What’s Being Done?

bee on finger-1Lots. It seems like everyone is doing research on bees. “The initial government grant money was spent well, spent wisely, served its purpose,” entomologist Dr. Dewey Caron said. “We’re really now at a crossroads. Most of these large government grants will be the seed money. Now it’s time for industry, other funding, including the beekeepers to pick this up.” And the industry definitely seems to be stepping in. Even though Monsanto doesn’t manufacture insecticide, they do sell seeds with insecticide in the seed coating, and they’re clearly vested in agriculture as a whole. They’ve joined and created a number of honey bee coalitions and conferences, and hired Jerry Hayes from the Florida Department of Agriculture to head up Beeologics, an Israeli-based company Monsanto acquired in 2011 that researches and develops biological tools to provide targeted control of pests and diseases. Bayer Crop Science, who does manufacture insecticide, created a Bee Care Program dedicated to promoting bee health and technological solutions and has created two Bee Care Centers that bring together beekeepers, farmers, and researchers interested in bee health. Both Bayer and Monsanto are working with Project Apis m. to provide better forage for bees. The USDA has dedicated $4 million for honey bee habitats and has a number of research projects and programs, one of which provides incentives to encourage farmers to plant more bee-friendly plants on their acreage. Universities across the country have entomology departments dedicated to research on bees, including Oregon State University that also has a Master Beekeeping Program, and some universities (including OSU and Washington State University) are developing sentinel hives that aim to collect crucial data that could provide beekeepers with better guidance on managing bees. President Obama created a Pollinator Health Task Force that is developing a strategy to create new public-private partnerships and increase citizen engagement.  Oregon also created a task force on pollinator health that released a report last November, although it was criticized as not being strong enough. Additionally, programs have been started to increase pollen and nectar sources for bees, one such example is Operation Pollinator that started ten years ago.

There are private local projects as well. Local weather and geography plays an important role in if bees survive the winter or not. Tim Wessels and Glen Andresen at Bridgetown Bees are focusing on breeding better queen bees for the Portland urban environment. The urban backyard beekeepers face different challenges than rural beekeepers: fewer drones (male bees) and less communication about what neighbors might be spraying in their yards.  The team is in their third year of breeding queens that they hope will be hardier in terms of weather, resistance to mites and other factors. Last winter was particularly harsh here and only two out of more than a dozen queens survived. But the goqueen-1od news is that a harsh winter provides heavy selection pressure and the 12 to 15 queens going into this winter should have the characteristics they’re looking for. They’ve made some management changes this year that they hope will give those queens an upper hand, “We’ve enclosed them a little better, left more honey [in the hive], started earlier, and we’ve given them more bees per colony,” Wessels said. “If the hive has a critical mass of bees – for cluster[ing around the queen] – then they can generate enough heat. In much colder environments than Portland, if something is compromising that – like there are fewer bees, they just can’t keep up with the cold.”

Finally, it should be noted that statistics from the USDA, FAO and StatisticsCanada show that worldwide bee populations have actually increased since 2008, rather than decreased. In the US alone, we’ve seen a 13 percent increase in bee population since 2008.

Where’s the Answer?

All six beekeepers I talked to agreed that better communication between beekeepers and farmers could provide some answers to the problem. “Absolutely there should be better communication,” Wessels said, “but we’re stuck in this cycle – who’s going to go first.” He believes there should be stronger rules for pesticide applications, better enforcement when those applications aren’t done correctly.  Commercial beekeeper Mark Johnson believes the beekeepers have to take some of the responsibility, too. “We need to work more closely together instead of adversarialy,” he said. “At bee meetings they start pointing fingers at pesticides. I don’t know a single farmer that wants to spray pesticides – it costs money and time. I would say instead of yelling and screaming and pointing fingers – work more closely together.” Sarah Myers at Bayer says they’re making those recommendations to farmers. “Communicate your practices with local beekeepers,” she said.  “Tell your beekeeping neighbor, can you wait a few days, or cover the hives, move them, all these things simply by having a conversation can eliminate some of the problems.”

There’s another thought on where the answer is coming from.  At a recent Portland Urban Beekeepers meeting, the editor of Bee Culture Magazine predicted during a presentation that it will be a technology answer, and it will come from the very companies that many folks are blaming for the bee demise in the first place. Caron agrees. “I think it’s going to be a technology solution,” Caron said.  “That takes money. I don’t see a lot of that money coming from the public coffers. We need to avoid getting side-tracked by blaming that evil chemical giant. Who’s going to come up with that solution? It’s them! Bayer and Monsanto are going to come up with it.”

bee on berry flower2-1What Can You Do?

The big answer remains to be seen, but in the meantime there are a few things you, as a consumer and homeowner, can do to help mitigate the situation.  I got some good advice from the commercial beekeeper, Johnson. “Encourage those who are politically in power to increase research,” he said. “We have a lot of questions and I think our research is in the neophyte stage.” Wessels and Andresen had other suggestions. “For one, limit your use of pesticide for cosmetic purpose,” Wessels said. “Absolutely don’t use them for cosmetic purposes and when you do use them, do what the label says because that’s the law.” Many people don’t know that it is your legal responsibility to apply pesticides correctly. “Oftentimes the problems are caused by neonics used against the law. In an urban setting we don’t know if people two houses down are spraying their linden trees for aphids, and consumers often don’t peel back the sticky label.” They also recommend having something blooming in your yard year round and planting good pollen plants in groupings instead of single plants (there’s a list of good plants for Oregon on their website, and here’s a more comprehensive list.) You can also put out water – bees need water. “We’ve had three summers where we’ve had about two straight months without rain. A bird bath is great, but dump it out regularly.”  If you’re really adventurous, you can even start your own hive.

Johnson was skeptical about how much impact planting flowers in your yard will actually have, but he agreed it can’t hurt. “On my ten acres I could never plant enough flowers to feed a beehive. They need huge areas to feed a hive. It doesn’t hurt to plant plants in Portland, but even if everyone planted their front yard in clover I don’t think it would feed very many hives. It’s a good start, and it can’t hurt.” He told me that a hive needs five pounds of nectar per day during the summer to feed their brood, and on a good day a hive can bring in up to 15 pounds. For perspective, even if your whole backyard is raspberry bushes it might produce one to two pounds of nectar. Where Johnson thinks we can make a bigger impact is with trees planted by the city and the strips of grass along the roads. “City trees should be nectar producing or pollen producing,” he said. “What really makes sense is the sides of freeways. That’s huge. Outside the central city – from here to Corvallis – you’ve got 75 to 100 feet in the middle of the road and on the side. Those plants would be tremendous.”

The final recommendation? Support local honey. Caron told me that roughly two thirds of the honey used by Americans is imported. And there was some interesting discussion at the Portland Urban Beekeepers meeting I attended about where it’s coming from and what’s actually in that imported honey. So even if you don’t want to change your landscaping, or start a hive, or get involved politically, you can at least spend a few extra pennies and buy local honey.

That’s it, folks. That’s some of the fascinating information I learned about bees. Hopefully you learned something, too. And next time your crazy friend posts something on Facebook about the bees dying and taking us with them, speak up and tell them what’s actually going on. And make sure to send them a link to this article. 🙂

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Hold on Honey, what’s this buzz about bees? Part 2 of 3.

Last time we talked about why bees are important (they help pollinate a third of our food and contribute considerably to crop values), outlined what’s been happening over the last few years (the difference between Colony Collapse Disorder and increased overwintering loss) and what might be causing it (a perfect storm of parasites, disease, poor nutrition, stress, and pesticides.) Now let’s talk about those pesky pesticides and if you should really be all that worried.

bee frame-2C’mon, It’s the Pesticides, Right?

So now we get to the meat of the hysteria: pesticides can also weaken the bees. And here is where, in my opinion, it gets really tricky. I’m sure most of you who live in Oregon remember hearing about some 50,000 bees that died in a Target parking lot after linden trees were sprayed with a neonicotinoid insecticide which later prompted the Oregon Department of Agriculture to temporarily restrict the use of neonicotinoids (also known as neonics) on linden trees. The EU also enacted a two-year moratorium on neonics after the European Food Safety Authority identified risks to bees (although there has been some recent controversy on if the scientists involved in that decision skewed the data to make it look worse than it actually is.) As a result of that ban, many canola farmers in the EU are experiencing crop losses this year of 20 percent to 50 percent due to an infestation of flea beetles. And herein lies the problem: farmers are facing an uphill battle to feed an ever-growing population on increasingly less land, and pesticides can help protect those crops. But are these pesticides also harming bees, therefore threatening our food supply? Certainly, there are plenty of groups screaming yes. Whole Foods even has a campaign to encourage consumers to “go organic” as a way to help the bees. Oddly, though, none of the six beekeepers (even the one who is vocally anti-GMO and pro-organic) I talked to support a ban on neonics or even seemed fully convinced that there was enough scientific evidence to say that neonics, when used properly, are definitely harmful. “We’ve gotten very side-tracked with the neonics,” said beekeeper and entomologist Dr. Dewey Caron.  “It is a landmine, but there is not much data to suggest that the real problem is neonics.” Caron explained that even without that evidence, many backyard beekeepers still believe that if they keep their bees away from pesticides, they’ll be ok.  “To say that I don’t let them near neonics so that will keep them happy and healthy is probably not true.”

One of the ways that farmers use neonics is with seed treatments – the farmer buys the seed already coated with a small amount of pesticide to help protect the seed while it’s in the ground and as it germinates and grows out of the soil. The planting process of these seeds can churn up pesticide-laced dust from the coating that can be carried by the wind to where nearby bees might be foraging.  In response to that, last year Bayer Crop Science, the primary manufacturer of neonics, introduced a new lubricant for seed coatings that reduces planting dust by up to 90 percent. I reached out to Sarah Myers at Bayer to get her take on what’s happening with the bees and what role pesticides play in recent bee deaths. Myers is a beekeeper who works in the North American Bee Care Center at Bayer and is the president of the Wake County Beekeepers Association.  “It would be nice if we could say if we eliminate pesticide use honey bee health would increase, but it’s not the silver bullet that many people are looking for,” Myers said. “There is a risk associated with it, but how you mitigate that risk is key.” Myers explained that although neonics are a systematic insecticide they don’t affect the nectar, so for a honey bee or other pollinators, they are very safe. “The science is there,” Myers said, “but getting folks to understand the science versus the emotional drive is the tricky part. A product that kills the insect is easier to identify than how you use the product. Some applications are safer than others – the key is to read the label and think of how you’re using the product.” That label explicitly warns against spraying on a blooming crop that attracts bees, which is exactly what happened in the Target parking lot in Wilsonville.

While there have been some studies that want to claim that neonics are the sole cause of CCD, these studies appear to be flawed and haven’t demonstrated a direct connection or correlation to CCD. What seems to be more likely is that neonics can cause sub-lethal effects in bees – meaning that bees exposed to safe levels of neonics may have an increased susceptibility to pathogens. This brings us back to the perfect storm situation I mentioned earlier – pesticide exposure at safe levels could be one contributing factor (compounded with poor nutrition) that places stress on the bees making it harder for them to overcome viruses, bacteria and pathogens introduced by parasites like the varroa mite. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater – there may be ways to mitigate this risk without banning an otherwise very useful and safe insecticide.  “If we were to take neonicotonoids away, which have a safer profile [than some alternatives], and replace them with the older chemistries, that would be going backwards in science” Myers said. “I know a lot of farmers are worried, they need better technology. As a beekeeper, I certainly wouldn’t want us to go backwards in science.”

How Big of a Deal is This, Really?



I asked this question to each of the beekeepers I interviewed because from what you read on the internet, the bees are doomed for extinction. But not one of the beekeepers I interviewed was overly concerned about the honey bee species. Tom Chester, a local beekeeper in his 19th season of keeping bees who also teaches beginning beekeeping courses, told me, “I don’t think it’s a big deal at all. I think there’s a lot of effort going into bees and I’m pleased there’s research going into bees. It’s a good thing, but I’m not overly concerned.” It doesn’t seem like the honey bee is headed for extinction, but even if it were, it’s not the end of the world that many people think it is. Myers obviously cares just as much about keeping the species alive as anyone, she’s been a beekeeper since college and has a small honey business with her dad, but she’s not concerned for our food supply. “Say tomorrow we didn’t have any honey bees,” Myers said, “we would not starve.  Our diets would change – we would eat more grains and cereal, but our native bee species would have to make up the difference.”  Myers told me that in North America we have 4,000 bee species, and honey bees are one of them. If honey bees disappeared tomorrow, those other pollinators would still continue to pollinate the fruits and nuts that are facilitated by honey bees. We would still have some of these things in our diets, but we wouldn’t be able to meet the demand so food prices would go up. “I don’t think that will ever happen, though,” Myers said. “I do think honey bees are improving. Bees have been around a long time, they’ve had ups and downs. I don’t think we’ll get to the point where we have a concern for our food supply.”

Which brings up a good point – we’ve been recording higher overwintering losses for the last nine years.  If this were really impacting food prices, wouldn’t we have already seen that happen? “The short answer is no,” Caron said.  “We have been saying it will cost you more for a bee-pollinated crop but the bee input for apples is 15 percent of the total cost. If bees go up a little bit, say five dollars a colony, but that’s only 10 percent of 15 percent, do you now pay an extra dollar an apple? No. We can’t point to a specific instance where this crop now costs more or now growers are getting out of growing it because of pollination. We cried wolf that would happen, but it hasn’t.” What about honey, though, that must cost more, right? “The price of honey right now is sky high,” Caron said, “but not because there are fewer bees. It’s because we’re changing our honey buying habits.” Caron explained that before World War II there were closer to five million managed bee colonies in the US. Now there are half that many, but that’s not strictly due to CCD or overwintering loss, it’s primarily because we moved to alternative sweeteners like refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners and so people got out of beekeeping as the demand dropped. Now there’s a trend to get back to natural foods like honey, so the demand is higher.  “Most of the honey is going into prepared products,” Caron said, “so now the honey we buy to put on our tables is a specialty. We changed our honey-use habits.” Something that needs mentioning here that Myers pointed out to me – even though we’re seeing a 30 percent overwintering loss, that doesn’t mean it’s a compounding decline in population. In the spring, beekeepers either divide their hives (and the bees breed more bees) or they purchase new bees from breeders to make up the difference. We’re not continually losing a third of the bee population every year.

There was one beekeeper I talked to who, when I asked the question of how big of a deal this is, said, “Oh, it’s a very big deal.” Mark Johnson has been a commercial beekeeper for 43 years. Unlike all the other beekeepers I interviewed, he makes a living keeping bees – he provides pollination services to farmers starting with the California almond bloom in February, moving from crop to crop all spring and summer and then he harvests honey in August. “I run about 1200 hives, and my boys have a couple of 100 as well,” Johnson said. “We do both pollination and honey but honey is only about 20 percent. In western Oregon if you tried to keep bees for honey you’d go broke, it’s mainly renting hives to farmers.” Johnson told me he doesn’t really think our food supply is in jeopardy unless commercial beekeepers are unable to make a profitable business. From his perspective, it’s a big deal because of the finances.  “How many businesses can lose 25 percent every year and stay in business? It’s a huge problem for the beekeeper,” Johnson said.  “I have expenses a hobbyist doesn’t have – it’s terribly expensive when a hive dies. And when I tell a farmer I’ll bring him 200 hives and now I only have 140, but he needs 200 to pollinate, I’ve lost good will – I’ve been with some of these farmers for 38 years. If I lose that contract it’s terribly expensive for me. That cuts hugely into any profit.”

bee on berry flower-1The other thing Johnson pointed out to me is that he started seeing this problem not in 2006, but in the late 80s and early 90s when the varroa mite first showed up in Oregon. “It hit me in 1989, but nobody cared until 2005 or 2006. The first year I didn’t think I had a problem, then the next year I had between 80-90 percent die off. In 2005, what happened for the first time ever, there weren’t enough bees for the crop that needs more bees than any other crop in the world – California almonds. For the first time they realized it would cut into agriculture and that made the news.” Now Johnson treats with miticide to control the mites as almost all commercial beekeepers do. Many backyard beekeepers don’t treat for mites because they like the idea of the organic approach, but backyard beekeepers are reporting a higher overwintering loss despite the better diversity of forage that the urban environment provides. Some of the research suggests that the most prominent pesticide in bee colonies is beekeeper applied, but according to Caron, treating for mites can improve survival by 30 to 35 percent. So that’s a personal decision each beekeeper makes. Chester recommends that you at least test for mites, then you can decide what you want to do about them, because as he said, “It’s not about if there are mites, you always have mites. I highly recommend that you test for mites. That gets you thinking about mites, and then you can decide if you want to treat.” For Johnson, the hope on the horizon is the research now going into bees. “Things like the USDA team following 20 commercial beekeepers (who collectively manage about 40 percent of the total bee population) and sampling protein, checking brood, comparing what beekeepers are doing,” Johnson said. “We haven’t had that kind of research until the last year or two. It’s going to be five to ten years until you can look back and see long term results, but it’s very encouraging. And it’s because of politics and the media. Sometimes the media can be our friend.”

In that way, from a commercial beekeeping business perspective, it’s troubling. But as far as the species, it’s not doom and gloom, as Caron told me. “We’re not at a risk of extinction – we’re not at the dire last stand for bees. What we’re seeking to do is to keep it from getting to that point. A rescue takes a lot more money and effort than to try to conserve. So that’s where we’re still at.”

Next time we’ll get into what kind of research is being done, where the solution might come from and what you can do to help.

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Hold on, Honey. What’s this buzz about bees? Part 1 of 3

“Bees are wild animals… Strictly speaking one never ‘keeps’ bees – one comes to terms with their wild nature… The only time I ever believed that I knew all there was to know about beekeeping was the first year I was keeping them. Every year since I’ve known less and less and have accepted the humbling truth that bees know more about making honey than I do.” – Sue Hubbell, “A Book of Bees”

Hubbell wrote “A Book of Bees” in 1988 with fifteen years of beekeeping experience. At that time, the topic of bees had not reached the hysterical level of media coverage that it has today, but her message in the above quote rings true in light of recent research into what’s happening with the bees: it almost feels like the more you know about bees, the less you really know about bees.bee frame-1 Perhaps you’ve seen some of the recent hysteria about bees. (I’d love to use some of the memes here but I’m not sure about copyright infringement, so I won’t.) Pictures of dead bees with captions like, “If we die, we’re taking you with us,” and “Genetically Modified Crops have killed millions of bees” pop up regularly online. Maybe you just have a vague feeling that you read something one time about bees dying off and that it’s bad. Until, of course, a friend on Facebook posts something that paints a pretty terrifying picture: bees are dying off, we’re practically in a Beepocalyspe, and it’s all because of evil Monsanto and their toxic pesticides. If we don’t save the bees, they will all die and no one will have anything to eat. The only answer is to boycott Monsanto and Big Ag, ban GMOs and pesticides, and by all means buy as much organic as you possibly can. Man, that sounds bad, right? I even saw a bumper sticker just the other day while driving on I-5 that said, “Give Bees a Chance, Go Organic.” Right next to it was one that said, “Millions Against Monsanto.”

I’ve been hearing this buzz (ha!) on social media and when I asked my readers on Facebook what I should look into next, the resounding answer was “find out what’s happening with the bees.” Now, almost seven months later, after hours of research, interviews with six beekeepers, reading Sue Hubbell’s book and hearing a talk by the editor of Bee Culture Magazine, I feel I can solidly answer your question: it’s complicated and they don’t really know for sure. (See what I mean? The more you know, the less you know.) And the fact that they don’t really know makes it easy for activist groups to fill in the blank with half-cocked ideas.

This and the next two posts will give you a glimpse into what’s going on and what I learned about bees, but you won’t walk away with a hard and fast answer, because there isn’t one. I know not all of you want to read three long posts on bees, so I’ll give you the bottom line up front: There are a handful of things that are contributing to a higher level of bee losses, but there is no smoking gun, and bees are not on the brink of extinction. Should we be aware of what’s going on and keep looking into solutions? Absolutely. Should we panic, jump to conclusions, ban pesticides and try to scare people into buying organic to save the bees? Absolutely not; the sky is not falling.  The answer is coming, but it will take the cooperation of the beekeeping industry and the agriculture industry, and it will take research and technology (read: money and time). This is not something that is easily summed up in a quick bumper sticker, which is probably why many people are confused about it.

This first post will address why bees are important, what’s actually happening, and what might be the problem. My next two posts will address what role pesticides play in the issue, how big of a deal this is, what’s being done about it, and what you can do to help. Let’s start by talking about what we do know.

Why Are We Even Talking About Bees?

Although you might think honey bees are simply pesky stinging insects that we tolerate so we can have their honey, bees actually help create a third of our diet by pollinating more than 90 different crops and they boost crop value by $15 billion each year.  Almonds in particular are completely dependent on honey bee pollination. In fact, the California almond business requires the use of 1.4 million colonies of honey bees, approximately 60 percent of all managed IMG_20140724_143428520honey bee colonies in the United States. So, if you’re an almond farmer or if you really like almonds (or almond butter or almond milk), the fact that bees are dying at an unsustainable rate is concerning. Concerning for the farmer because he can’t make a profitable crop without pollination and concerning for the consumer because that means the cost of almonds could go up. Almond farmers in California are already paying around $170 per hive for pollination services. One of the beekeepers I interviewed told me when he started keeping bees 43 years ago it was $11.25 per hive and he saw the price double in 2006 when almond growers started feeling the pinch.

So that’s why bees are important. But what’s actually happening with the bees – what does it mean that they’re “dying off?” There are essentially two things going on – one phenomenon that you’ve probably heard of, called Colony Collapse Disorder (or CCD) and another that’s less of a phenomenon and more of an exaggeration of normal beekeeping – increased overwintering loss. CCD is characterized by a sudden disappearance of most adult honey bees in the hive. They often leave behind the queen, honey and capped brood (bee larvae) but no dead bee bodies. While this phenomenon is not exactly new (it’s been documented as far back as 1869) it was given the name CCD in 2006 after a large number of beekeepers began reporting exceptional losses. Overwintering loss, on the other hand, is a standard part of beekeeping. Bees are active in the spring, summer and fall when temperatures are above 55 F. They collect pollen and nectar to make honey that they store in the hive to feed themselves over the winter when the cold temperatures and wet weather make it impossible to leave the hive (and there are very few flowering plants in the winter with which to make food.) A typical hive needs roughly 100 pounds of honey to survive the winter. The bees cluster around the queen and use body heat that they produce by consuming honey to stay alive. Because of the nature of this hardship, some of the bees don’t make it to spring. Normally about 10 percent of the bees die before spring – that is a number that is acceptable and standard to beekeepers. What’s new and concerning is that instead of this 10 percent loss, beekeepers have been reporting about a 30 percent loss since around 2006. Often CCD and the increased over-wintering loss are conflated (particularly by the media), but they are not the same thing. Most beekeepers are not reporting CCD anymore; they’re reporting increased overwintering loss.

So when you see or hear people talking about the bees dying, this is what they’re talking about – this increased overwintering loss. The reason it’s so hyped up is because it feels a lot like a canary in the coal mine – the bees are dying at a higher level than is acceptable, so it must be indicative of a bigger problem. The difficult part is that so far, we don’t know exactly what that problem is, so it’s hard to come up with a solution. That makes it easy for activist groups to jump in, start pointing fingers and leverage this emotional concern to push a specific agenda like banning GMOs or pesticides. As one of the beekeepers I interviewed said, honey bees are almost right up there with panda bears and snow leopards in the way that people care about them – they have a certain allure. And unlike trying to save snow leopards, you can actually start a bee hive right in your backyard – which is probably another reason the bees are getting so much attention. They’re about as popular right now as backyard chickens.  So you have a beneficial insect that people are familiar with and emotionally attached to that helps grow one third of our food, and it’s having trouble. That sets us up for the next conversation – what do we actually know about bee health?

 “You Never Can Tell With Bees” – A.A Milne

After the numbers started painting a bleak picture in 2006, money started rolling in to find the problem and fix it. The USDA put together a workshop of scientists and stakeholders to create an action plan. Research was done and studies were published. So far the conclusion has been that there is no single cause for the decline in bee health. I talked with long time beekeeper, Dr. Dewey Caron, who is also an emeritus professor in the department of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware and an affiliate professor in the horticulture department at Oregon State University. He told me that “It’s an evolving issue. I think when we started it, it was our naïve thought as scientists that we could find a cause and affect a solution. We found out that it’s more like an onion, the more you peel, the more layers there are. There is no quick cause or quick fix.”

upside down bee-1What the research has shown so far is that while there is no single cause for the decline in bee health, there are many factors that, working together, create a perfect storm leading to an increase in bee mortality. Some of those contributing factors are higher loads of pathogens and viruses present in bee colonies, presence of parasites like the varroa mite that pass disease to the bees like mosquitos pass malaria to humans, poor nutrition due to lack of diversity of forage, stress on bees from transporting them around the country for pollination, and exposure to pesticides.  When I asked the beekeepers I interviewed to highlight the most impactful of those contributors, almost unanimously, they all pointed to the varroa mite as a carrier for infection. “We just got finished at a conference and it was a unanimous discussion,” said Tim Wessels, president of the Portland Urban Beekeepers Association and co-founder of Bridgetown Bees, a team of beekeepers who are trying to breed hardier queen bees in Portland.  “There are multiple reasons, but we’re in agreement – it boils down to the varroa/virus complex that is probably at the base of all problems.” Wessels explained that it’s similar to when a human’s immune system is weakened for whatever reason (poor nutrition, not enough sleep, etc.) it makes it that much harder to overcome a virus like the common cold.  Bees may be stressed for a variety of reasons and when a parasite like the varroa mite introduces viruses and bacteria the bees are unable to overcome them.

So how are the bees weakened? One of the reasons is poor nutrition. Just like humans, bees need variety in their diet; they should be collecting pollen and nectar from a diverse source of flowers. Unfortunately, that’s not always happening and part of the reason is because we don’t like weeds and agricultural technology has gotten so good that we can almost entirely eliminate weeds (or things that aren’t what we’re trying to grow). “Monoculture is our enemy from a beekeepers perspective,” Caron said.  “Whether it’s an all-grass lawn or a corn field – that’s a green desert to a bee. Corn fields used to have weeds. Now they don’t. I’m not a believer in a monoculture in a lawn any more than I am in agriculture.” Ideally, there would be something continually blooming for the bees. Instead, when farmers take their bees to California for the almond bloom in February, all they get is almond bloom and nothing else (and you also have an abnormally high percentage of the bee population concentrated in one area making it even easier for disease to spread.) When the crop isn’t blooming, there are no weeds in the orchards or in the fields or in the yards or along the roads. Lots of people want to blame GMOs for the decline in bee death, and while there isn’t any research that actually says that genetically modified plants directly impact the bees, you could make an argument that biotechnology has allowed farmers to eliminate diversity from their fields. (I hope you were sitting down because that might be the only time you hear me say anything that can even remotely be taken as negative toward GMOs.) And, because farmers can get such a good price for corn these days, they’re planting it on every single bit of land they have, leaving no room for native plants that contribute to variety in the bees’ diet. We also love our expanses of green grass. Our yards are all grass, the strips along the highways are all grass (or they’re sprayed with herbicides to keep the weeds down), and the city parks are all grass. That’s just one big green desert if you’re a bee.

That’s it for today. Look for my next post that will talk about pesticides and if this is really that big of a deal.

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