Plight of the Honeybee

From the NPR blog The Salt:

Beekeepers have a whole list of reasons for why so many colonies are dying. There’s a nasty parasite called the Varroa Mite, which they can’t get rid of. There are also bee-killing pesticides. And there are just fewer places in the country where a bee can find plenty of flowering plants that provide nectar and pollen.

That was especially true this past year. The same drought that left Midwestern corn fields parched and wilting also dried up wildflowers and starved the bees.

That was a natural disaster. But May Berenbaum, who chairs the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says that most of the changes in the landscape are the result of people’s decisions about what to do with their land.

I hope this is the wake-up call for commercial orchards to adopt sustainable practices, because commercial agriculture can either choose to change their practices now, or be forced to when there are no honeybees left.

Remember, honeybees are not only an introduced species (there are no native American honeybees!), they are also a monoculture. In the wild trees are pollinated by many species. If one species crashes, the other insects can make up the difference. When you rely on one species only, then if that species crashes you’re in real trouble.

Which is exactly what’s happening.


The honeybees that pollinate big commercial orchards also don’t always “live” in that orchard. Trucks stacked with bee boxes drive from field to field, where orchards can “rent” the honeybee hives from commercial companies. When the trees are finished blossoming, the bees are loaded up and moved on to pollinate another crop. These orchards are also monocultures- the bees can’t live in the orchard year-round because after the trees are done flowering, there’s nothing for the bees to eat. In the wild, there is something flowering throughout the growing season. As one plant stops flowering, another starts.

Despite the lurid headlines that often appear, scientists agree that there is no one cause of the current honeybee “colony collapse disorder”, it’s the whole list of them happening all at once. Drought, pesticide use, stressful beekeeping practices, a narrow variety of available food, the use of corn syrup as a winter bee “food”… they all are contributing factors. Another problem with driving bees from orchard to orchard is spreading pests and diseases from one colony to another.

From Oregon Live:

Life in mono-crop, plantation-style orchards can be trying for bees. The landscape is rich in pesticides and chemically infused dirt. Our bees intermingle with hives from around the country and vice versa, swapping parasitic Varroa and Tracheal mites and diseases like Nosema ceranae — a microsporidium causing bee dysentery — at an alarming rate.

“For diseases and pests, the Central Valley is the proverbial melting pot,” lamented Zach Browning, an Idaho and North Dakota beekeeper who sent 16,000 colonies for almond pollination this year. “We spend the majority of the year preparing the hives, cleaning them up, only to bring them down here to be re-infested.”

Go read the whole article. Why do beekeepers drive their hives from place to place? To make up the lost revenue from honey production, which fell when cheap honey imports drove down the cost of honey. You know, those honey bears you buy at Walmart. And now we know that much commercial honey isn’t even honey at all, it’s cut with corn syrup.

So what can we do?

cross creek honey

1. Only buy local honey directly from the farmer. It’s easy to find. Ask your local grocery store why they don’t carry honey from local apiaries. Ask your bakery where they buy honey. Ask at restaurants, too.

2. Encourage native bees in your yard. There are plenty of guides and websites that tell you how step-by-step. Encourage diversity wherever possible.

3. When you talk with your farmers, ask them how their crops are pollinated. Ask them how they are encouraging pollinating insects and biodiversity on their farms. Spend more money with the ones who give answers you like.

We can change the world with our wallets. We can’t force commercial agriculture to change overnight, but we can encourage more farms to adopt sustainable practices by spending our money with them.

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