Updated: Aug 7, 2019
From alfalfa to zinnias and everything in between, the honeybee is one amazing hyper-pollinator. But before you put that next bite in your mouth, read on to see if you're helping or hurting her.
In today's news, thankfully the topic of Apis mellifera, a.k.a. the honeybee, is present in more and more public conversations. However, with the recent news that the government is cutting funds in honeybee research, it is crucial now more than ever for individuals, businesses and families to step up and take some action. Why? Because everything we know and love has the potential to change, and unfortunately not for the better. CCD -- Colony Collapse Disorder -- has fatally affected honeybees officially since 2006, and is ever-increasing to date.
To better understand how we can combat colony collapse, we much first disect the causes of the disorder. It's no secret that flowers, trees, grasses, and crops we harvest for food around the globe benefit from the honeybee. Crops that are pollinated yield higher crop production per acre, larger size and better product shape, and even enhanced product taste compared to less or un-pollinated crops. Currently the official cause of CCD is still being determined. Thirteen years seems like a long time to struggle with something, but when we're talking about a creature that has survived for millions of years, it's really a drop in the bucket for evolution. Today's agriculture -- monoculture in particular -- is unlike anything bees have had to deal with, relatively speaking. The use of pesticides, systemic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers… chemicals in general are relatively new in comparison to the 120 million years we're talking about. With that in mind, let's highlight some of the more pressing matters.
The causes of Colony Collapse Disorder are extremely difficult to pinpoint because there are no definitive symptoms. No formal documented cause has been determined, so every realistic cause remains a possibility. Some of the more popular suggestions are:
• Traditional bee pests and diseases. Although varroa mites are still the number one lethal pest to honeybees, the idea that they, along with other pests/diseases are the cause for CCD is nearly void. The symptoms of a CCD-affected hive does not match up with the typical symptoms of a pest-infested colony.
•Queen sourcing. Another minute chance but plausible suggestion. Because there are only a few major producers of queen bees across the nation, this can lead to poor genetic diversity.
•Chemical use in bee colonies. Just like the foods we consume that are labeled "organic," treatment products that are labeled organic can still contain chemicals to manage disease and pests. Commercial honey producers, as well as local honey producers may treat bees with "organic" sprays or powders for diseases and pests with effects to be found just as lethal even when used according to the label and management recommendations.
•Environmental chemicals surrounding bees. Bees have a three to five-mile foraging radius so they can be exposed to toxins while foraging pollens and nectar, drink contaminated water sources, or inhale them directly.
There's also always the possibility of unidentified or recently introduced pests and pathogens that can contribute to the decline in bee population.
So now that we know what's happening, what can we do about it?
We're glad you asked.
Nutritional health is the physical foundation of every living organism so it's only natural that this pertains to bees as well. If you are a beekeeper, you know how important nutrition is to keep your hives strong. Just like if you are a person, you know how important nutrition is to keep your body alive and strong. Proper etiquette in beekeeping is never rob a colony of it's honey if there is not substantial "extra" available. Not only is it cruel to do this, it can also be fatal to the entire colony because bees create and depend on honey for survival.
Another way to support bees is to know your honey source. While it's true commercial honey producers are more likely to use chemicals to prevent pests and diseases, smaller local producers may use them as well. If at all possible, schedule a tour to the home apiary or farm and ask about their beekeeping practices and principles. Large commercial producers also travel cross-country to pollinate multiple crops a year. This is exhausting and stressful to bees which can also affect the bees' health. Although it is crucial to support local bees, again, know your source.
A prettier way to assist our furry flying friends is to plant bee-friendly flowers. While it's true the honeybee is the most important pollinator on the planet, she also is limited to certain flower pollens based on the size of the molecules. This can come in the form of tree pollens, grasses, bushes, potted plants or fruits and vegetables. And just because a plant is labeled "good for pollinators" does not always mean bees -- there are thousands of other pollinators (who prove important too!). Research which flora is good for honeybees in your growing zone, or go to our Enrich page for a comprehensive list of flowers that grow well in Oklahoma.
Lastly, on the subject of flowers, it is also important to know your flower source. The only way we can truly turn this planet around is to start taking personal responsibility. It may seem inconvenient or expensive, but future generations are at stake here, not to mention our own legacy. It is so easy to pick up that lovely potted lavender plant or Better Boy while we're on a Home Depot run or at the grocery store. But did you know there's a very good chance those pretty flowers were treated with a systemic pesticide that can most definitely prove fatal to a bee that lands on said flower, as well as any other bee that follows her lead? Systemic pesticides hold the toxins not only in the flowering parts, but also the stem, the leaves, the fruit… Literally the entire plant contains these chemicals. So not only are the insects affected, but now those big juicy fruits containing those toxins go into our mouths, our children's mouths, our grandchildren's mouths… you get the picture.
To make change happen, we must first identify our own responsibility and importance in a crisis. Then together we can create the solutions in order to carry out the change. As a global community, we are moving in the right direction, but it's going to take some serious time and energy on all of our parts. Take the time to think about what you are purchasing and why. And always remember even in the smallest blip of time, you are always leaving your mark.