Sunday, February 21, 2010

Support Your Local Honeybee

Most if not all of you have heard about the latest honeybee problem: Colony Collapse Disorder. One day the beekeeper goes out and the worker bees in their tens of thousands are gone, leaving the queen and the honey. One-quarter to one-half of hives are suffering this fate in the course of a year, sometimes even more.

Suggested culprits range from cell phones to Al Qaeda to an alphabet soup of new bee diseases, but the truth is not simple and the remedy is complex. The stakes are high: Almost all fruits and nuts, and most vegetables are bee-pollinated. Cattle forage in the form of alfalfa and legumes including soybeans are also at risk.

I recently read a book: A World Without Bees by Allison Benjamin and Brian McCallum. I highly recommend their careful research and conclusions.

So, what is the cause of CCD? Well, to start with, there are many causes, many factors that make beehives weak. Some are not surprises, but have been with us for decades if not longer. It is the total weight of the factors that brings a bee colony down.

1. Pesticides old and new. Growers spray for insect pests, and inevitably the bees get hit. The neonicotinoids, a new class of insecticides which are low-toxicity to mammals, are deadly to bees.
Even small exposures cause bees to become disoriented and unable to make their way back to the colony.

2. Varroa mites and their treatments. Varroa mites invaded this country from Asia. Asian bees cope with them, but Western bees do not. They are bloodsuckers and rapidly weaken the bees. And the miticides commonly used to control varroa are also weakening to the bees. After all, you're trying to kill a bug living on another bug.

3. Junk food. Bees are fed artificial pollen made from soybeans, and high-fructose corn syrup, instead of sugar which used to be a (poor) substitute for the nutrients found in honey. Junk food for people, junk food for bees. HFCS is cheap, though.

4. Lack of genetic diversity. Queen lines are very inbred now, because it's more efficient for the supplier. Bees are bred for pollination services, mainly, rather than for vigor, wintering capability or honey production. And many commercial queens have mated with one drone, rather than the 14 to 15 that she would couple with on an uncontrolled mating flight.

5. Loads of new bee diseases, mainly viruses that take advantage of the bees' weakened state. Old diseases and parasites are showing a resurgence, including the intestinal parasite nosema, chalkbrood and foulbrood.

6. Loss of habitat. Suburbs are taking over from wild meadows, vast monocultures from mixed farms and orchards, paved areas from wildflowers. Monocultures are pariclarly bad for bees, which benefit, like we do, from a balanced diet.

7. Genetically-modified crops, including crops with their own built-in insecticide expressed in pollen and nectar. Bees are very delicately balanced creatures. We don't know what effects GM crops might have on them.

That is a lot of specific factors. But let's take a step back now, and look at the linchpins of the disorder: globalization and the almond harvest. Yes, almonds!

A few decades ago, U.S. beekeepers ran into deadly competition with honey producers in Argentina and China. The price of honey was undercut so badly that commercial beekeepers could not make a living no matter how hard they worked. Customers would not buy a $6 jar of honey from a local beekeeper when they could buy a $1.50 jar of honey from China. What to do?

This problem coincided with the tremendous growth in California almond orchards. Almonds are a huge cash crop for export. California produces about 80% of the almonds in the world. Almonds are bee-pollinated, and bloom very early. The bees' normal lifecycle includes a winter rest eating stored honey to keep warm. Then in the spring the colony builds up gradually to be ready for the peak blooming season. This won't work for almond growers, of course. They need strong colonies early in the spring. And they need LOTS of them to service the 600,000 acres of almonds.

So 65% of the bee colonies in the U.S. are pulled out of their winter snooze, built up with artificial foods, and loaded on a truck for California. The orchards are packed tight with beehives, two per acre, to make sure every almond blossom is visited. Bees work hard but are malnourished due to overcrowding and only one source of food. Then they are trucked all over the country for other crops, a few weeks here, a few weeks there, until they finally end up at home wherever that is, and the cycle starts again.

Pollination pays: up to $150 per hive. Enough to make ends meet for the beekeeper. But at what cost?

Bees are not little cash cows; they are not industrial machines. If you streamline production with too much traveling, mass-produced genetically-narrow queens, junk food, monocultures, and distorting the natural cycle, bees do not just shrug off the insults and keep chugging. They get tired, they get sick; you could say they get discouraged.

Pesticides are certainly part of the mix, but farmers and chemical companies have been notoriously resistant to ban known bee poisons. The profit motive--let's say the short-term profit motive--rules.

What can we do to save these marvelous creatures? To start with, vote with your wallet. Seek out local beekeepers in your area who do NOT send their bees on pollination tours. Buy their honey, at a fair price for the work involved.

If you have the space, habitat and inclination, get your own beehive. A good friend of mine has a hive in his backyard, with a swarm-captured colony. I have bought my hive and ordered my bees: Minnesota Hygienics, bred to groom themselves carefully and keep pests out of the hive. Should be fun.

The fruits and vegetables that you buy locally (unless you live in the California valleys) support agriculture on a more sustainable scale. In general, do what you can to support habitat preservation, non-GMO cropping, organic gardening and orchards, less pesticide spraying. The future of your food depends on it.

Northern Colorado citizens can contact the Northern Colorado Beekeepers Association for honey, to join, etc.

Readers in other parts of the country can surely find similar local groups. This work is available to all of us. If enough dedicated people work at saving the honeybee, we can do it.