WHY BE CONCERNED ABOUT THE HONEYBEE?
Honeybee keeping is big business. It is worth billions of dollars. For instance, the pollination of almond trees in California is the direct result of the honeybee. In fact, Almond country in California spans approximately 650 km encompassing around 240000 hectares and 60 million trees. Row after row of precisely spaced trees plays host to two honeybee hives per acre. That is around 80000 bees per acre or 40 billion bees in total. A total regimented landscape with trees blocked out for early or late harvest.
This monoculture is a perfect example of modern large-scale agriculture. Single crops, grown on an industrial scale have been responsible for substantial increases in our food supply. Monoculture is used all over the globe. However, it is not just better management and new varieties that have increased yields. The humble honey bee is critical to a successful harvest.
WHAT BRINGS THE BEES TO THE COMMERCIAL TREES?
Honeybees commence a 5-month pollinating tour of the USA in February. The bees arrive but not by nature’s directions. Instead, they are trucked in on huge trucks containing 500 hives at a time stacked four high. Some of these bees have been flown in from Australia to partake in the pollination work in the US. Overall, it is safe to say that these little creatures certainly rack up some travel time during their 5 months work assignment to different locations. It is also accurate to say that bees pollinate 90% of our commercial food crops. We are most definitely dependent on them.
BEE BEHAVIOUR IN A NATURAL SETTING.
Basically, bees in a natural setting would probably venture about 5 kilometers during their days foraging. In the evening they return home to a hive that has remained in a stable location for a very long time. Bees navigate by the sun and landmarks. They even have a sophisticated communication system where they can direct other bees to food.
Honeybees also have an impressively structured society. The worker bees forage and return with food to the hive each night. this food sustains the queen bee and the rest of the residents in the hive. The young nurse bees care for the newborns while the queen increases the population of the hive via her eggs. Guard bees guard the hive against robbers and alert soldier bees to defend the hive. A simple but effective structure that has worked for the bees for over 100 billion years. That is if we take the age calculated of a fossilized bee stuck in a piece of Burmese amber.
HOW ARE OUR HONEYBEES DYING?
Honey bees are not dying in the hive so much as they are simply not returning to the hive. This leaves the queen, eggs, and larvae to starve. The young nurse bees abandon their posts and fly away from the hive. This type of behavior only occurs when the deserter honeybee is diseased. It is a way that they ensure safety in the hive by leaving and not infecting others. This is not just a few bees that have bailed on the establishment. The numbers of losses and disappearances are astonishing.
More than 800000 colonies in 2007 mysteriously died and one million in 2008. Some commercial beekeepers reported losses up to 90% since the end of 2006. These incredible numbers are not limited to one country. In Croatia, five million bees disappeared in 48 hours. Canada, Europe, Asia and South America have reported large losses. Bees can be seen as mother earth’s health check. If something is not right, it will show with the bees and that appears to be exactly what is happening.
SUSPECTED REASONS WHY BEES ARE DYING
The phenomenon dubbed “Colony Collapse Disorder” or CCD in 2007 sparked a global investigation. Academics and researchers are looking at the following credible suspects.
- Genetically modified crops.
- Pesticide poisoning.
- An invasive parasite,
- The stress of being moved long distances.
Entomologists were convinced that the cause was either a new virus, a virus that had mutated into a more virulent strain, or a virus that had combined forces with another pathogen, such as a fungus, to create an HIV-like disease that destroyed bees’ immune systems. A virus was discovered in 96% of hives where losses had occurred. This virus, discovered in Israel in 2004 was investigated further and found to be more a symptom than a cause.
In addition, a nicotine-based pesticide called imidacloprid was suspect. Bayer, the company who produces this pesticide cites studies to say that their pesticide is not the culprit in the demise of the bee colonies. Other studies though say that the chemical does disorientate bees, impairs their memory and communication and causes nervous system disorders.
HAVE BEES DISAPPEARED BEFORE?
In the past.
In America, the first recorded disappearance of bees was in 1869. Large numbers of bees disappeared in the US and Australia at intervals throughout the 19th Century. An epidemic wiped out 90% of honey bee colonies in the UK between 1905 and 1919. It would appear there is a link between weather patterns and honeybee disappearance. When bees have disappeared in the past the summers have been hotter than usual. However, as reported by researchers this may be a factor but not necessarily the whole cause.
Losses in current times
Beekeepers not only lose colonies in the winter but also throughout the summer. In 2015, summer losses, at 28.1%, were the same as winter losses. However, the combined results showed beekeepers lost 44.1% of their colonies between April 2015 and March 2016. This high rate of loss is close to the highest annual loss rate over the 6 years that annual colony loss numbers have been collected.
Smaller honeybee apiaries do not appear to be experiencing as many losses as bigger honeybee apiaries.
WHAT HAVE RESEARCHERS FOUND?
According to Stationary Hive project, there may be a number of factors that are contributing to bee loss.
- The habitat surrounding the apiary may contribute. Large intensive agricultural landscapes may affect colony losses. Where the percentage of the intensive agricultural land area increased within a 2-mile radius, a correlating percentage of colony loss occurred within the apiary.
- undisturbed natural habitat in proportion to the intensive agricultural land area used.
- Higher use of pesticides over larger intensive agricultural landscapes provides more exposure to the honey bees.
- Hotter weather patterns.
WHAT CAN WE DO AS INDIVIDUALS TO HELP BEES AND BENEFICIAL GARDEN INSECTS
Many of us are home and garden owners. As such, we all have times that we reached for the pesticide or herbicide. Either the path needs weeding and it is certainly easier and quicker to spray, or something is eating our favorite plant. Being mindful of the products we use on our own gardens is surely a step in the right direction. The commercial beekeepers are searching for an answer and replenishing their honeybee stock as losses occur. However, as most of us do not engage the services of commercial bee supply for our gardens it is prudent that we protect ourselves and our beneficial insects by using the safest products available.
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Stationary Hive project (refer link above)
Book title: A world without bees by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum published by Guardian books 2009