March 30, 2012

What’s happening to the Bees.

Photo: MightyBoyBrian

His labor is a chant,
His idleness a tune;
Oh, for the bee’s experience
Of clovers and of noon!

~ Emily Dickinson

Nature has her mysteries, breathtaking mind-blowers that leave us confused. What the hell is happening to the bees is a big one.

It’s a monster, ecologically speaking, because no one’s sure exactly why bees are dying like mad. It’s wildly important because bees are pollinators extraordinaire, unmatched in their ability to mate plants and support the Earth’s food cycle.

Studies released this month by the well-respected journal, Science, pinpoint a type of insecticides known as neonicotinoids that could be damaging bees. Neonicotinoids lace nearly all corn, canola and sunflower seeds sown in the U.S. Although they are found in low levels, the chemicals may be more potent than the Environmental Protection Agency (and similar European agencies) once thought.

According to NPR:

The chemicals are absorbed by the growing corn or canola plant and transported throughout its roots, leaves, and even its nectar and pollen. This makes the entire plant poisonous to lots of insects that feed on it, from root-gnawing worms to sap-sucking aphids.

Did you catch that? About nectar and pollen? That’s what bees eat. And it takes only a small amount of these insecticides to kill a bee.

In the first study, researchers at the University of Stirling, in the United Kingdom, exposed bumblebees to low, “field-realistic” levels of a neonicotinoid insecticide called imidacloprid. The bumblebees didn’t die, but in a remarkable and unexpected development, they almost stopped making new queen bees.

In the second study, carried out in France, honeybees that were exposed to another nicotinoid seemed less able to navigate, and many never found their way back to their home hive. This study, however, exposed the bees to higher levels of pesticide, probably higher than most bees encounter in the real world.

Together, the studies show that when bees are exposed to levels of these insecticides that aren’t enough to kill them, they’re still harmed in ways that can endanger the survival of their colonies. The neonicotinoids appear to be “so toxic to bees, really the only safe number is zero,” says Christian Krupke, one of the authors of the Purdue study.


Though some may associate bees with stings, remember that we all want (frankly, need) these fellows and queens around. Consider this:

Backyard, rooftop and even mobile hives are growing in popularity. Regular folk are trying a hand at beekeeping and the rewards touch families and communities.

I grew up in a beekeeping family with as many as five or six hives buzzing behind our garden (a damn productive garden too, I might add), and I never once was stung. Even as an amateur smoker (it’s a beekeeping technique, for all you bee virgins) in jean-shorts and flip-flops, I still came out unscathed.

I have great memories of checking the bees with my dad and sister. The honeycomb, Ball-jarred and swimming in its own golden honey, offered a flavor I’ll never forget. A real friend-maker, playmates would actually ask to taste it—not every child had this abundance in their own homes.

Photo: freenaturepictures

If hives and keeping sound like too much on your outdoor plate, simply treat your own space as a bee-safe area. At a minimum, plant natives plants and avoid chemicals.

If you want to take it to the next step try planting some bee attractors (from Gardens Ablaze):

>Appropriate Herbs

Basil, Bee Balm, Borage, Catnip, Cornflower, Dill, Echinacea, Evening Primrose, Fennel, Goldenrod, Horehound, Hyssop, Lavender, Parsley, Poppy, Thyme, Sage

>Appropriate Ornamentals

Bachelor’s Button, Black-Eyed Susan, Butterfly Bush, Clematis, Coreopsis, Dame’s Rocket, Foxglove, Goldenrod, Heliotrope, Hydrangea, Lantana, Larkspur, Mexican Hat, Plumbago, Rose of Sharon, Salvia, Sweet William, Zinnia

It’s true that environmentalists, scientists and farmers have suspected many culprits in the disappearance of bees. In a way, it is a desperate search for an answer. Colony Collapse Disorder is still a mystery.  Cell phones, habitat declines, parasites and other chemicals have been studied for their seemingly harmful impact on bees. What’s clear is that bees are a balanced, and balancing, element of nature’s system.  Anything and everything could waver the delicate vitality of these creatures.


Editor: Brianna Bemel

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