Lifestyle

What is the buzz on the lack of honeybees?

Something is wrong. We need birds, bees and other insects to pollinate our crops. But honeybees are vanishing in droves. Why?

It appears that a combination of issues, rather than a single threat, is confronting the bees.

It appears that the increasing commercialization of farming — where farmers raise just a single crop, use pesticides or import bees long distances ­— all play a role.

The bees cannot fight off parasites, traces of pesticide, or disease. They are fragile and easily stressed.

Evan Sugden, of the biology department at the University of Washington and an expert on honeybees, says that scientists are trying to unravel this mystery.

“Colony Collapse Disorder is the phrase that has people talking about how bees appear disoriented and have the urge to leave the hive,” Sugden said. “After a few days, no bees are left in the colony. We don’t know exactly what causes this.”

He added that the complex problem has been studied for a long time.

“The issue has been going on the last 20 years; the onslaught of the problem is largely due to transporting bees (to farms),” he said. “Bees (are) vulnerable to parasite mites they come in contact with when transported; micro diseases and other factors stress the bees.”

Researchers and beekeepers from all over the United States have weighed in on the issue.

Local beekeeper Bob Redmonds said that “CCD is a complex issue, but mono-cropping (the farming of single crops) may be a contributing factor.

“Can you imagine the little bee just trying to get a nutritional diet and having only one thing to eat?” he asked.

Besides little variety in the food available, chemicals in even trace amounts harm the bees.

Steve Sheppard, a Washington State University entomologist and respected authority on bees, said, “There are so many stresses on the bee; being raised in brood combs with high levels of pesticide residues adds just one more thing.”

Maryann Frazier, M.A., a senior extension associate in Penn State’s Entomology Department said, “Something’s causing the bees to be particularly weak and then allows the mites and the viruses to do their job.” She adds: “We have never seen a die-off of this magnitude with this weird symptomology.”

Meanwhile, it is not just the pollinators that are at risk. Our entire ecosystem depends on pollinators.  Humans may face their own Colony Collapse Disorder if we lose the bees.

“The biggest value of bees is that they pollinate our crops,” Sugden said. “Through pollination, bees are responsible for a huge amount of food we eat.”  Without bees, many foods such as apples and peaches and other types of fruits as well as vegetables will no longer be available.

Western Washington is home to several dozens of strains of honeybees, Sugden said. The two most common are the Italian bees, which have yellow stripes, and Carniolian bees, which are darker, grayer and a bit smaller. Honeybees are highly social insects and very important pollinators. They work tirelessly to create productive relationships between plants, foraging for flowers and then cross pollinating.

Some local gardeners have been concerned about bees after this recent long and wet winter; it appeared even more honeybees were disappearing. According to Sugden, “What has happened to the honeybees this winter is not much different than past winters, but this last winter had fewer days for bees to forage, which affects the population.”

Recent interest in urban beekeeping is causing a surge of honey bees in the city and suburbs in King County. The best way to support this trend is to support local beekeepers, researchers say. Perhaps the most important thing is to make sure that local ordinances permit hives.

Sugden suggests that if you want to help, walk around and observe types of flowers and plants the bees like. Bees do much better when there are a variety of plants. Bees also forage at different times of the day and season.

He believes “the best thing by far that people can do is educate themselves on the problems. Do not use pesticides; be as organic as you can.”

Putting in plants that specifically provide bee forage is very helpful and there are quite a few guides now on which species to use and how to plant.

But too much care is not helpful.

It is important to leave some less organized corners of any such garden, some brush piles and especially some bare ground for nest sites of native bees.

Native bees are also important to pollination, both in nature and in gardens, especially bumble bees. The way to encourage them is to leave significant swaths of wild land (meadows, highway verges, shrubby patches) and to avoid pesticide use whenever possible.

Janice Murphy, integrated pest management coordinator for Seattle University, agrees.

“It has been my passion since I was a little girl not to use pesticides,” she said. “We don’t use harmful pesticides (on the Seattle University campus), and take a holistic approach (with) the entire ecosystem, including honeybees.”

Beth Ann Kahkonen with the Honey Bee Research Program with Washington State University,  Department of Entomology noted that there is a growing interest in bees. More people are becoming beekeepers.

But she noted that resources to strengthen bee populations are slim.

“There are no feral colonies (no wild hives). Local beekeepers determine what is in your area,” she said.

Bees generally stay within  a two-mile radius.

“As long as people are planting vegetables and flowing plants, fruit trees, etc., they will visit your yard,” she added.

But bee enthusiasts need to do their homework. There are many types of plants they can get for their own native pollinators that are native to North America such as bumble bees.

But attracting many different kinds of pollinators will help. Other pollinators such as wasps, hornets and butterflies are all insects that pollinate.

Anticipating that some well-meaning people will be nervous around bees, she added, “Bees usually won’t sting you unless you’re aggressive with them or get too near their hive.”

What can you do?

One helpful activity is to find out more by looking at the Pollinator Pathway project on Seattle’s Capitol Hill at www.pollinatorpathway.com.

The Pollinator Pathway is a plan to provide an urban model of support to the foundation of the food web. With a mile-long series of gardens in planting strips along Seattle’s Columbia Street, the project establishes a corridor between the two green spaces book-ending the project — Seattle University’s campus at 12th, and Nora’s Woods at 29th.

A resident along the Pathway was pleased about the plants that volunteers placed near her home in March.

“The flowers planted did attract the pollinators; there are hundreds of bees this year,” she said.

Peggy Kunkel is a student at the University of Washington News Lab.

Learn more

To learn more about the topic, visit:

• The Washington State Beekeepers Association: www.wasba.org

• Washington State University Agricultural Extension: ext.wsu.edu/fs

• The Xerces Society: www.xerces.org, which is dedicated to conservation of bees and other pollinators.

• The University of Washington offers classes that help students understand the relationship of the pollinators and food with hands-on experience and working with beehives.

Community Events, April 2014

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