These days tens of thousands of small time hobbyists and backyard beekeepers have popped up worldwide. The alarm has been sounded about the dire plight of bees and people are learning about the fascinating secret life of bees and implications for our food system if our free pollinating service goes away. You’ll see people in funny suits and hats with face nets, on any given day, turning up on their urban roofs, out in their tiny city postage stamp yards, or on rural acreage administering smoke to calm the bees, as they examine their hives.
These days you can mail order a queen and her court ( a “nuc” consists of roughly 10-20,000 bees for starter kits). No one needs to know anything about bees, you just need the suit and the hive, and a bunch of bees. Let ’em go to work. Right?
Well, no. It’s a steep learning curve. I apprenticed and read voraciously for a year before ever even attempting to start with real bees. They are wild creatures. And they deserve the respect due the mystery of their nature. As you have already read, I have messed up, failed my bees, and killed a few in the process of trying to be helpful. They usually have a different idea than humans of what is right. We can do more damage than good, if we don’t become good disciples of that which we embark upon to tend and nurture.
And talking about invasive species——did any of us know that there are thousands of different kinds of native bees, that hatch every year from the dust, to also serve as pollinators—– all specifically evolved for certain plants? Are we pushing natives out by the import of apis mellifera, the humble honeybee, originally brought from Europe? Likely. They compete for the same habitat. And with the loss of wild habitats, including habitat that is poisoned or changed by chemicals and GMO’s, and what we humans classify as weeds (what???pull up or exterminate that dandelion? NO!!!! it is the first and most tasty morsel the bee will find in the Spring when they come out of hibernation) bees of all varieties are struggling to survive. Turns out, we humans could be seen as an invasive species, if you look at the technical definition: an organism (plant, animal, fungus, or bacterium) that is not native and has negative effects on our economy, our environment, or our health. With this, we should seriously consider the effects of anything we introduce (including ourselves) that is not native to an area.
If you are a beekeeper or have any inkling you’d like to “bee”, I encourage you to begin by learning about your eco-system and those native bees that live there first——how can you preserve their habitat and learn their ways, even as you begin to prepare for adopting your nursery of honeybees. I know, I know, honeybees benefit us humans—which is exactly why we love them. But we desperately need all types of pollinators these days. And that means paying attention to all their habitat.
And, we need more backyard beekeepers than ever if we are going to make it through this time of crisis and bridge to a new flourishing of our food system for all beings. Don’t get me wrong. We need you.
For anyone who pays a whit of attention to the daily news, you will learn that bee colony collapse disorder and the demise of the bees is on the horizon. Over the past 5 winters. commercial honeybee keepers——those guys that haul their bees across the country on huge semi flatbed trucks for almonds in California, blueberries in Maine, strawberries in Florida—- have seen losses of 30%. “Last week a consortium of university and research labs announced that beekeepers lost 42.1 percent of their colonies between April 2014 and 2015, an 8 percent spike from the previous year, and that the number of summer deaths exceeded winter deaths for the first time since the survey began in 2010.” (http://www.Washingtonpost.com, “What’s all the Obama Buzz about Bees”, May 18, 2015) Thankfully, President Obama has begun to take notice and recently his administration announced the first National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators, a bureaucratic title for a plan to save the bee, and other small winged animals and their breeding grounds. (http://apps.washingtonpost.com/g/documents/politics/national-strategy-to-promote-the-health-of-honey-bees-and-other-pollinators/1554/)
Should we be worried? Yes. Personally, I lost all my backyard hives last winter. It’s hard to know what happened when you open up what seemed to be a thriving hive at the end of summer, and find a ghost town with nary a bee, not even a dead one. All I know is that bee-kill has made grown men weep—not only because of the loss of their livelihood, but also because of how devastating it is to lose those for which one has become accustomed to caring. There is a fondness, an interdependence and care that grows up between the beekeeper and their little bees.
Bees—native or domestic—perform about 80% pollination around the world. One tiny honeybee can pollinate over 300 million flowers a day. Seventy out of the top 100 human food crops, which supply about 90 percent of the world’s nutrition, are pollinated by bees( http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/en/campaigns/genetic-engineering/Bees-in-Crisis/) These are staggering numbers.
You gotta admire them. They are ancient and fierce little creatures. Evidently the oldest honeybee fossil, found by Cornell U. research, was 100 million years old. Wow. And so, as they perish, so goes the human experiment. Bees are the current canaries in the mine. Resilient, adaptable, but struggling to exist. And if we don’t wake up soon to the brilliance and absolute necessity we have for these tiny insects, our food system will be not only impoverished, but thrust into a severe crisis.
The message from agribusiness, The GMO project, and major chemical companies is that everything is o.k. No worries. But public skepticism is growing as we see the bees losing, due to immune issues such as mites, disease, whole colonies dying or becoming confused and never making it home, as well as habitat loss. Research now shows that neonicitinoids in backyard pesticides/insecticides, glysophates and broad spectrum, systemic herbicides found in GMO’s Roundup products impact their neurological and immune system. Bees are stressed to the max. And what stresses the bees, is also stressing us. I leave you with a few wise words from those who have gone before…
There is not an animal on the earth, nor a flying creature on two wings, but they are people like unto you.”
–The Koran (sacred scripture of Islam)
“Until he extends the circle of compassion to all livings things, Man will not himself find peace.”
“By ethical conduct toward all creatures, we enter into a spiritual relationship with the universe.”
“Even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath, so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is Vanity.”
Coming up next time…Wonder