It’s STEM DAY: Just Bee-Have (It’s the right thing to do)

You can order a queen through the mail.

It’s written in the U.S. Postal Code.  Queens are that important. No, not that kinds of queen. Honeybee queens.

What? North America didn’t even have honeybees until Europeans brought them here. Today,

1 out of every 3 bites of food are directly or indirectly on our tables because of the honeybee.

honeybees - 1 (3)Whoa Nelly.  That amounts to $15 million in crops each year.  Even more incredible is that for more than 10 years, beekeepers lost 1/3 of their bees each year due to” colony collapse” disorder.  Luckily, the post office can help.  Bee colonies can be divided and a new colony established as long as they have a queen.

Last week, I talked to my friend Tina Wildbrandt about colony collapse.  She and her 83-year-old father tend six hives.  Tina loves bees. Why?

They’re so gentle. And all they want to do is work, work work.

Tina’s father, Allen Vison, wanted to be a beekeeper since he was 10 years old.  Five years ago, he and Tina took a class at the local community college, studied like mad, networked with other beekeepers, and finally took the plunge.

It’s really physical work.  Each hive weighs about 80 pounds.

Tina talked her husband, Doug, into helping with some of the heavy lifting.  Perhaps that was the easy part.  Doug is a landscape architect, living in a sea of Dandelions and Echinacea.

Tina, Doug, and Allen are passionate about stemming the tide of “colony collapse.”

No one knows precisely what causes “colony collapse.”  The first suspect was insecticides.  However, some of the highest insecticide levels are in healthy hives.  Experts like Dennis vanEngeldorp and Maria Spivak agree that it’s complex.

Tina tells me her favorite part about beekeeping:

There’s always more to learn from the bees. Each beekeeper does things a little different and we all learn from each other.

Spivak is a bee behavior researcher. She’s fascinated with the bees as a super organism where nobody is in charge.  Bees have a collective social behavior, and even a social healthcare.  Bees scrape resins from plants and cement it into the hives.  This cement, or propolis, has a natural antiseptic quality.  Bees weed out sick individuals and will even oust a queen, or swarm to create a new colony if they sense the queen is weak.

Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD) occurs when we forget our connection with nature.

After WWII farming began to take on an industrialized nature.  Farmers began to use pesticides and herbicides and chemical fertilizers.  They stopped planting cover crops and clover to naturally replenish the soil. Farmers stopped planting flowering shrubs as hedgerows dividing the fields.

Farms became monocultures, or food deserts dominated by soybeans and corn. Almond farms, naturally a honeybees friend because of the high protein content, became so large that 1.5 million bees had to be trucked in and out again.  After the flowering, even almond farms become a desert to the honeybees.

These industrial sized farms on one or  two crops become a banquet for pests because they provide no natural plant boundaries.  Miles and miles of corn do little to stop corn blight, where a plot separated by a hedgerow followed by a plot od wheat or barley, creates a natural barrier to the spread of disease. So, more and more pesticides got developed.  Hives often show six types of pesticides.

Colonies can disappear almost overnight because of a nicotine like buzz.

Neonicontinoids, a new class of pesticide, coats the seed, moves through the plant as it grows, and kills the pests that chomp on the leaves and stem.  Lower doses reach to pollen and nectar.  Neonicontinoids is to bees sort of like nicotine is to humans.  The bees get a little buzzed.  Some become disoriented, lose their way home and die.  Others, return to the hive and lead other bees back the addicting nectar.

Varoa destructo mite compromises the immune system. Tiny mite attach to a bee larvae. Usually six mites attach to each bee.  Tina explains that in human terms:

It’s like having six parasites the size of your fist, sucking the energy out of you.

The mites grow, sucking the juices out of  the bee, weakening it, so it cannot mature to a strong bee. Bees  keep the hive at a constant temperature summer, winter, spring, and fall by beating their wings.  Too many mite-infected bees can cause the hive to collapse.

Believe it or not, lawns are a big problem, too.

11% of the pesticides used are lawn application; lawnmowers create 5% of greenhouse gases 

Yard after yard of clean, pristine lawns create a bee food desert, too.

Here’s Maria Spivak’s Ted Talk on colony collapse. Ted Talks are a little more in-depth than the quick fix of a YouTube video, so set aside a good 20 minutes to listen and learn more.  I know it seems like a lot of time in our busy day.  I wanted to multi-task, too.  But this is too good to miss a morsel.

Yes, there’s a lot we each can do.

  • Plant rooftop gardens and keep rooftop hives in the city
  • Plant bee-friendly flowers.  (Tina tells me that flowers with flat heads like these are the best.)
  • Plant flowering shrubs and flowers between fields and along roads or streets in hedgerows.
  • Avoid pesticides.
  • Search for native plants
  • Consider cover crops as a way to replenish the soil and keep out weeds and pests.
  • Plant a meadow. If you don’t have enough room for that, plant a meadow in a pot.

To paraphrase Spivak:

Every one of us needs to behave more like a bee society.  Each one thing we each do can add up to something larger than that the sum of each one thing.

That’s good advice for more than just the honeybees.

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