In 2006, beekeepers in the United States (and other parts of the world) noticed a dramatic decline in honey bee populations, a phenomenon now known as “colony collapse disorder.” The problem affects more than local beekeepers’ profits. Acting as an invisible but critical link to our food supply, bees pollinate about $15 billion worth of U.S. seeds and crops annually, according to a Cornell University study, including more than one-third of our nation’s food supply. In fact, most of our vitamin- and mineral-rich food—including berries, almonds and fruits—would disappear without bees.
Researchers have considered many possible causes for the decline, citing everything from global warming to bee memory loss to bee malnutrition. Recently, scientists have targeted the varroa mite, a parasite that spreads viruses to bees. Jay Evans, Ph.D., a research scientist for the USDA Research Service, hopes to identify the specific viruses the mites transmit so better diagnoses and treatments can be developed.
According to Ross Conrad, author of Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007), the industrialization of agriculture is the largest single cause of the decline. “We’re destroying our life-support system,” Conrad says. “We have to learn how to work with nature in a partnership instead of trying to dominate it in order to conform it to our own desires and wills.” Conrad links bee disappearance to a combination of factors associated with industrialization: the use of pesticides, antibiotics, long-distance travel, poor diet, genetically engineered crops, large monoculture farms, the changing climate, inbreeding and stress.
What can we do? First, avoid using pesticides, Evans says. Also, although about 1 million blossoms are needed for bees to make a small amount of honey, feeding your local bees with fresh herbs is a positive step. Conrad suggests planting bee-friendly forage, such as mint, cilantro, coriander, thyme and rosemary, in your garden. To keep your local bees healthy, you also can feed bees honey, the preferred food for bees, or herbs, such as chamomile, thyme and red clover, made into a tea and mixed with sugar syrup.
Don’t be afraid of your neighborhood bees—instead, learn to value them. Rather than destroy their nests, create a solitary box for them to set up home. (Visit http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/feature/backyard/wildhab.html for more information.) Remove them only if they’ve become a true nuisance by contacting a local beekeeper.
Ice, Ice Honeybee
Save the honeybee with a scoop of Häagen-Dazs ice cream. Honeybees help create ingredients that go into more than 40 percent of Häagen-Dazs flavors. When you buy a carton of Häagen-Dazs’ limited-edition flavor Vanilla Honey Bee and other honeybee-dependent flavors, a portion of the proceeds will be used to fund bee-research programs at Pennsylvania State University and the University of California at Davis. Visit www.helpthehoneybees.com.
Did You Know?
• One-third of all U.S. crops depend on honeybee pollination.
• Australia sent 100,000 packages of bees to the United States in 2006 to combat the U.S. decline of bees.
• The decline in honeybee population isn’t as new as it seems. The world’s honeybee population had already declined by nearly half more than 30 years ago.
9-1-1: We Need Honeybees
In the United States alone, honeybees pollinate more than 100 different crops worth $15 billion annually. Their disappearance would directly result in the loss of vitamin-rich foods, such as:
• citrus fruits