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At this point, most of us have heard that our bee populations are dwindling and are aware of how deeply the issue will affect our ability to grow food in the not-too-distant future. The statistics are scary and the amount of information you have to sift through to figure out what’s actually happening — and why it’s happening — is overwhelming. There’s just so much going on.
I’ve wanted to dig through the various websites, scientific studies, and opinion pieces for a while now, so I could finally wrap my head around it. And after hitting the proverbial snooze button for a few years, I‘ve finally found (made) the time. My goal was to see how my personal choices could help the situation – either by contributing to a solution or, at least, by not further contributing to the problem. If you’re on that same path, I hope this article will help.
Sharing what I’ve learned
To share what I’ve learned in the easiest way possible, I’ve boiled everything down to just the main points and presented the facts as clearly as I could. I purposely skipped a lot of the dramatic details, as well as the scary statistics… all of which you can find (if so inclined) by scrolling down to the resource list at the very bottom of the article and clicking through the links.
Let’s start with a quick understanding of what’s killing our honeybees, so that we can better understand the actions we can take – and choices we can make – to help.
Brand Spotlight: At the bottom of this article, you’ll find a quick blurb about a small company called Flow, that makes it easy to support solitary nesting bees with sustainably built, easy to use bee homes. I’d like to point out that I do not support their honeybee hives… but I wholeheartedly support their pollinator houses. I explain why down below.
What’s killing our honeybees?
The big story everyone’s talking about is CCD, or Colony Collapse Disorder. One interesting thing that I learned is that while CCD is definitely an issue, it’s only an issue for managed honeybee hives. The key words here are “managed” (as opposed to “wild”) and “honeybee” (as opposed to just “bee”). Did you know there are nearly 20,000 species of bees and that only a few of them make honey?
These distinctions between bee vs. honeybee and managed vs. wild led me to the second interesting fact, which is that honeybees are not native to the US — they were brought here from Europe in the 1600s. And you will rarely find honeybees in the wild; most are farmed (‘managed’).
Also, not all bees live in hives. In fact, they many species of bees don’t even live in communities — they live solitary lives in the dirt. Wow, right?
That tidbit led to yet another interesting find. And another. And another. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s have a quick chat about CCD.
What is Colony Collapse Disorder?
CCD is a strange phenomenon, where the majority of the worker bees abandon their colony for no apparent reason. They leave behind a healthy queen, plenty of honey and pollen, their young brood, and a few nurse bees to feed the young. The worker bees aren’t found flying around nearby and they aren’t found lying dead on the ground outside the hive. They’re just missing.
It’s the worker bees that leave the colony to gather bellies-full of nectar each day, which they bring back to the hive and convert to honey. So if the workers don’t return to the hive, the rest of the colony eventually dies.
It took a while for beekeepers and scientists to figure out why the worker bees were deserting the colony, but they now know at least a few of the factors.
And by the way, CCD isn’t the only cause for dwindling populations. Honeybees are also dying in and around the hives from human activity. These deaths aren’t technically considered CCD, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that honeybee colonies are being decimated and there are several causes. The biggest killers are pests, disease, and, as mentioned, human activity.
Here’s a quick summary. (Or skip this upsetting part and scroll down to see how your choices can help to support the bees and sustainable beekeeping.)
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Pests & pathogens are killing the bees
- The Varroa mite has been devastating U.S. honey bee colonies since it arrived from Asia in the late 1980s. These tiny parasites cling onto the bee and suck the blood-like fluid from its body. If that isn’t horrifying enough, they also spread viruses through the colony.
- Another parasite is the apocephalus borealis. Nicknamed the “zombie fly”, this creature seemingly disorients the bees that they attack. Unable to find their way back to the hive, the bees fly around all night until they eventually die. A week or two later, the zombie fly’s larvae crawl from the dead bee’s body and go on to infect more bees. Like the Varroa mite, this parasite is also known to spread disease through the colony.
- Native to Africa, small hive beetles have been contributing to hive destruction since the 1990s. These little buggers walk in like they own the place and lay massive amounts of eggs in the unprotected combs. Their egg hatchlings grow up faster than aliens in a horror movie, only to lay more eggs in the combs — over and over. Because they reproduce quickly, these rude guests can overwhelm even a large hive in a relatively short amount of time. (Trust me, don’t Google Image these dudes. I had the heebie-jeebies for a week.)
- While a healthy bee colony can fend off the wax moth, hives that have already been weakened by pesticides or other means are susceptible to invasion. These vandals chew through the honeycombs, leaving behind a thick, silky web that can destroy a hive in as little as a week.
- A variety of deadly diseases from spore-forming bacterium to chronic bee paralysis have also been killing honeybees and infiltrating colonies in the U.S. since the 1980s.
Human activity is killing the bees
- Pesticide poisoning: Bee colonies are poisoned when farmers spray their crops with pesticides or when beekeepers try to control a mite or insect invasion within the hive itself. We also kill local bee populations by spraying pesticides on our lawns and gardens at home, as well as in public domains such as parks, schools, and commercial areas.
- Pollination services: Commercial beekeepers often rent their hives to farmers around the country to help pollinate almond groves, blueberry fields, and other agricultural products. Bees can spend as much as 6 months of the year traveling long distances, often fed only sugar water or high fructose corn syrup on the road. The extensive travel in 18-wheelers and lack of proper nutrition is unnatural and highly stressful for the bees. While the stress alone may kill them, their immune systems also weaken, making them easily susceptible to disease. Monocropping exacerbates the problem.
- Monocropping: In the wild, bees fulfill their nutritional requirement by gathering and consuming the nectar and pollen from a biologically diverse mix of flowering plants. However, when bees are rented out for pollination services, it’s usually to farmers that mono-crop. With only a single plant to forage, the bees miss out on the wider variety of nutrients their bodies need. This further weakens their immune system and makes them more susceptible to the pathogens that infiltrate their colony.
- Greedy harvesting: Worker bees gather nectar each day and bring it back to the hive to feed the colony. They collect more than they need in order to store a large enough reserve to get them through cold winter months when nectar is in short supply. Before storing the nectar, they convert it to honey, so that it doesn’t spoil. (Check out this cool video to see how they do it: How Do Bees Make Honey?) Late autumn is a great time for beekeepers to harvest honey because that’s when the reserve is at its highest. But it’s not a great time for the bees, who need it to survive winter. While bees do store more than they need, greedy beekeepers don’t just take the extra; they take (nearly) everything and leave the bees with (almost) nothing. In place of honey, these unethical beekeepers will leave behind sugar water or high fructose corn syrup. These non-natural diets do not provide the nutrients the bees require and, as a result, many don’t survive the winter. It’s worth noting that, by contrast, beekeepers in the 1800s (when farming was generally more in tune with nature) are reported to have waited until spring to remove any truly surplus honey from the hives.
How can we help to save the bees?
Unless you’re a beekeeper, there isn’t much you can do to help bee colonies that are devastated by parasites or disease. But as individual consumers and gardeners, there are absolutely ways we can help bees that are devastated by human activity. Let’s take a look.
To combat pesticide poisoning
For starters, we can try to not use pesticides. Check out the Integrated Pest Management Program for ways to safely tackle pest problems in your garden or yard without pesticides. You can also petition your town’s schools and park services to do the same.
If you do use pesticides at home, be sure to follow the directions on the label and don’t overdo it. Using too much can not only damage your lawn or garden; it can also be harmful to people and pets, not to mention our bees and other pollinators.
Also, bees are active during the day and they rest at night. So, if you do use pesticides, wait to spray them until at least an hour after the sun goes down. This helps to minimize the risk of bees encountering the freshly sprayed chemicals and also leaves sufficient time for the chemicals to dry before the bees start buzzing around again the next morning.
As a consumer, you can also choose pesticide-free or organically grown produce, whenever possible. And you can also choose natural clothing, bedding, and rugs made from organically grown (or at least pesticide-free) fibers of cotton, hemp or linen.
To combat stressful pollination services
Folks, we need to slow down on the almonds and almond milk! According to Bee Culture, almond pollination “relies heavily on out-of-state apiary shipments, which have been steadily increasing with almond acreage. For the 2017 almond pollination season, a total of 1.7 million colonies were shipped into California…”
1.7 million bee colonies? I practically choked on my burrito when I read that.
According to ABC News, almonds demand more bees than any other crop, taking more than HALF of US honeybees during almond pollination season. The truckers, they say, drive across the country for several days at a time, stopping only at night when it’s cool enough for the bees to stay put and not try to fly away from the hive.
Almonds also require massive amounts of water and, since they’re mostly grown in drought-hit California, cutting down on our almond consumption addresses two problems at once.
Popular dairy-free and soy-free alternatives to almond milk include cashew milk, oat milk, coconut milk, and macadamia nut milk. If your favorite cafes aren’t already offering these options, ask them to. The more they hear that their customers want these alternatives, the more likely they are to offer them.
To combat malnutrition from mono-crop pollination
Generally speaking, organic fruits and vegetables are better for your health and the environment than conventionally grown produce. But it’s not uncommon for large, commercial organic farms to focus on just one or two crops (monocrop or duocrop).
By contrast, smaller local farms tend to practice healthier crop rotation, which provides a more diverse mix of crops and nutrients for bees. While not all large-scale organic farms will monocrop, you are more likely to support healthier bees by eating locally grown, in-season fruits and vegetables. The easiest way to find local, seasonal produce is at your farmer’s market or by subscribing to a weekly CSA (community supported agriculture) box.
To combat the greedy harvesting of honey
This is a tough one. There’s a heated, ongoing debate over whether it’s better to avoid honey altogether (in both food and in skincare products) or to buy honey from local, sustainable beekeepers to support their efforts. I won’t cover the two sides of the debate in this article, but I will say that both have valid arguments.
To that end, I’d say you can help to combat the greedy harvesting of honey either way, depending on your beliefs. If you wish to avoid honey altogether, you can opt for an alternative sweetener such as coconut nectar, pure maple syrup, yacon syrup, blackstrap molasses, brown rice syrup, barley malt, coconut sugar, palm sugar, or date sugar.
On the other hand, if you wish to support sustainable bee farming, skip the big-company honey brands found in most supermarkets. Instead, choose honey from local, small-scale honey producers that use organic farming methods and that practice “balanced beekeeping” with an emphasis on bee welfare. Like local foods, it’s easiest to find local honey at the farmer’s market or a smaller grocery store that offers local products.
Demand for honey in the US far outpaces our domestic supply, so we import the majority of our honey in order to meet the demand. If you eat honey often, you might consider slowing down a bit and consuming it more as a special treat than as an everyday indulgance.
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What else can we do to support the bees?
Plant some flowers
One valid argument from the “avoid honey” camp is that farmed honeybees compete with wild bees for food. The more we transform our wooded areas and flowering fields into apartment buildings, shopping malls, and concrete sidewalks, the less green space we have and, therefore, the more competition we create for food and the harder we make it for the wild bees to survive.
Planting native, pollinator-friendly plants helps the wild bees, as well as birds, bats, butterflies, and other pollinators to thrive. If you have space to plant a bee and butterfly garden, great! If you don’t have a yard, plant some flowers on your balcony. If you don’t have a balcony, plant them in a window box.
Your local nursery can help you to make the best choices for your particular environment.
Let the weeds be
For some reason, we love to kill the dandelions and clover weeds on our lawns and in our gardens. The weeds aren’t hurting anyone and they provide an easy food source that bees love. Let them bee!
Report bee loss
If you notice that you used to see a lot of bees in a particular area and now you never do, report it to the EPA. This type of community-gathered information helps the EPA to identify patterns that may be associated with the use of specific pesticides or active ingredients.
Provide a home for solitary nesting bees
There’s a company called Flow, that designs sustainable pollinator houses for solitary nesting bees. The idea is that anyone with a backyard can help to provide much-needed bee corridors between our wild spaces and urbanized areas. I absolutely love this idea.
This father and son team also builds honeybee hives, which I do not support. Here’s why.
Flow’s pollinator houses 👍🏼support wild bees that don’t produce honey but do pollinate our food, which is great. Added bonus, they’re also made from reclaimed wood. By contrast, the insides of their honeybee hives 👎🏼are made from plastic, which bees don’t like.
For one, bees like to make their own honeycombs from wax in order to suit their colony’s custom needs. Plastic is also colder than wax, so it takes more energy for the bees to keep warm in winter. Also, the plastic does a poor job of transmitting vibrations that bees need in order to communicate with each other.
The other main reason I don’t like Flow’s honeybee hives is that you can just turn a key to extract the honey. While this is incredibly convenient and sounds like a great way to keep both the bees and beekeepers safe, it doesn’t regulate the amount of honey you take.
Bees store honey for a reason and you have to be extremely careful with how much you harvest. If you aren’t putting the bees’ needs first, you risk starving the colony and/or overworking them, as they strive to feed their brood and rebuild the inventory they need to survive.
So, while I don’t support Flow’s particular approach to managed honeybee hives, I do support the pollinator houses they build for wild, solitary nesting bees. Their website also provides the information you need to properly maintain the house and keep your bees healthy. It’s also worth noting that they donate 100% of their profits from a few of their products to bee conservation efforts!
Please share this important information
As you can see, there are several factors that contribute to the issues surrounding our bees. We can’t control all of these factors, but we can each do our part to contribute to the solution. Or, at least, not contribute further to the problem.
Our everyday choices do make an impact and every bit counts. If you find a sustainable, ethical honey source, share it with your friends, so they can also shift their support away from commercial operations toward more balanced beekeeping. Similarly, if you plant some bee-loving flowers, share the photos on social media and tell your friends why you planted them. Encourage them to follow your lead.
Whatever changes you make to support our wild and farmed bee populations — share, share, share them, so others can join your journey. The more educated we become as a community, the more we can collectively help our bee populations to survive and (hopefully) to thrive!