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?
Lots. 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 good 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.”
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. 🙂