One step forward and two steps back is often the result when looking for quick or easy fixes to a problem or various schemes to do something bigger and better. That's what comes to mind in looking at the plight of the honeybee.
The value of this bee, both today and in the past, is evident from the series of columns in the last few weeks from swarming and typical honey produced in our county to its countless health and beauty benefits. A whole other area to examine, however, is their contribution to agriculture. Considering they pollinate about one third of crops and many wild plants, a loss of the honeybee would result in billions of dollars lost in agriculture and seriously affect our food supply or what some might call our global food security. Alarmingly, for several years there has been a significant decline in the population of the honeybee with beekeepers often experiencing a one third and more death rate of hives. Also more common is Colony Collapse Disorder when all but a few young bees leave the hive, never to be seen again. Honeybees are in trouble.
Whereas American ingenuity has been the cause of great advancements in many areas, it seems Americans also tend to invent ways to solve some problems too quickly without taking time to look at possible long-range negative effects. Such is the case with one prevailing theory about the plight of the honeybee. In the attempt to make stronger and better crops, or one step forward, the result has been the decline of the honeybee with all their numerous benefits. That is two steps back. According to research, the pesticides that are used for crops are a major problem. In an attempt to control insects, the bee is the collateral damage, being it is also an insect. Science Daily, in the April 2012 edition, described studies that showed a widely used pesticide in the United States correlates to the time frame of CCD (colony collapse disorder). In experiments using much less of the pesticide that is even found in the environment, 94% of hives died within 23 weeks. Some seeds are coated with these insecticides, and when planted release a powder that lands directly on the bees as they fly across the fields. The journal of Environmental Science and Technology reported that most corn and half of soybeans have this insecticide.
Bears are a natural predator of honeybees. This bear was caught resting in a tree one day in hives owned by Teri and Ben Whitney of Chautauqua County and members of the local association.
Yet another hit on the honeybee in agriculture is the invention of the GMO, or genetically modified organism. Scientists, once again in an attempt to do something bigger and better, use genetic engineering to give new or modified genes to plants and food. They have been able to create seeds with pesticidal attributes to control weeds and insects, similar to chemicals such as Round-Up, but without much consideration for the negative side effects on the ecosystem. GMO seeds are widely used for such crops as corn, soybeans, cotton, squash alfalfa, sugar beets, canola, and others. Of course, altering food from its natural state also has repercussions for humans, but that could be a whole other column. Suffice it to say, that if it affects bees, it affects humans. High fructose corn syrup and really anything made from corn has been treated with an insecticide and/or is a GMO and is therefore in much of our food consumption. Fewer honeybees mean less pollination of our fruits and vegetables and also plants such as alfalfa and clover which are food sources for livestock. This is precisely why the American Beekeeping Federation is doing what it can to encourage government sponsored research. Unfortunately, large corporations involved in the seed and pesticide markets for large scale agriculture have their own lobbyists to resist such efforts, including labeling of GMO food sources and continued use of hybrid (sterile) seeds that need to be purchased each year.
The beekeeper, in the quest to maintain healthy hives, also looks out for other contributing factors that add to the plight of the bee. There are pests and diseases such as nosema, a disease that from a parasite affects the bee's digestive system. Various mites can affect the bee's breathing and ability to fly. Migratory beekeepers who take their hives across the country to pollinate crops have also received criticism because it may put an added stress on the hive in not having a chance to rest. This year, across Chautauqua County, one new and perplexing problem is also the loss of queens for yet unknown reasons. Then of course, there is the natural predator, the bear. Although Winnie the Pooh is cute, real bears are drawn to honey and can cause real problems. Sometimes damage is more minimal if the stacked hive boxes are belted together. At other times, the hives are totally destroyed. Many beekeepers have electric fences around their bee yards so that if the bear should attempt to get to the hives, they are discouraged with a shock.
Winnie the Pooh did say that a day without a friend is like a pot without a single drop of honey left inside. More seriously though, a day without a honeybee is trouble. It seems that in man's attempt to move forward, he may have moved backward. As stated in a most recent edition of the magazine Grit, "If you are out there looking at your plants between eight and nine on a sunny morning and you don't see a honeybee, then you aren't getting any fruit set on your cantaloupe." Many more gardeners could have a colony or two in their back yards.
Have a good week and consider getting a hive to help yourself and the honeybee. Some sage advice from "The Secret Life of Bees" says it best.
"I hadn't been out to the hives before, so to start off she gave me a lesson in what she called 'bee yard etiquette.' She reminded me that the world was really one bee yard, and the same rules work fine in both places. Don't be afraid, as no life-loving bee wants to sting you. Still, don't be an idiot; wear long sleeves and pants. Don't swat. Don't even think about swatting. If you feel angry, whistle. Anger agitates while whistling melts a bee's temper. Act like you know what you're doing, even if you don't. Above all, send the bees love. Every little thing wants to be loved."
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