Thursday, April 26, 2012

To Bee or Not To Bee?

Dr. Mari Loehrlein, Professor of Horticulture and Landscaping, School of Agriculture, Western Illinois University, Macomb, IL.

The flight of the bumblebee is a solitary one, as is the flight and life of many other types of wild bees. However, most people are familiar with the colony lifestyle of the honeybee, a domesticated species. Even so, the writers of “The Bee Movie” got it wrong when they made the nectar gatherers male (the only job for the male bees in a honey bee colony is to fertilize the queen, other than that, they don’t contribute to the efforts of feeding young, gathering nectar, nor in gathering pollen – in Star Trek terminology, their designation is drone).

In their book “Beekeeping”, Eckert and Shaw claim that keeping bees preceded other agricultural advances. Indeed, they suggest that human-honey bee interactions probably date to the dawn of human existence. Rock paintings attributed to Neolithic humans depict the removal of honey combs from a nest of bees. Inscriptions on Egyptian tombs from 4000 years ago include depictions of bees as symbols of royalty.

Modern-day beekeeping is not much different than it was 2000 years ago! Roman beekeeper and writer Columella laid out the basics of beekeeping, much of which is still relevant today. He included the observation that “swarming is greatest from May 10 to June 30 and the first crop of honey is harvested from June 30 to July 31”.

Many advances have been made in beekeeping over the years, including developments in the hive boxes themselves, and other devises such as wax sheets with cell indentations, honey extracting devices, methods of extracting honey without killing the bee inhabitants, and improvements in rearing queens.

Honey bees annually pollinate more than $15 billion worth of seeds and crops in the United States. Some crops are almost solely dependent on the honey bee for pollination. These include apples, plums, almonds, watermelon, onions, broccoli, carrots, sunflower, cantaloupe and honeydew.

In “Silence of the Bees” a Nova (PBS) program, the unexplained disappearance of colonies of bees was explored. The term Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has been used to describe this phenomenon. Recently, an explanation was offered: pesticides used to coat corn seeds is released during planting. Researchers suspect that mass die-offs of honeybees may be caused by the particles of insecticide that are released into the air when neonicotinoid insecticides are sprayed onto seeds before they are planted in the ground. Both Yahoo News and NPR have covered this topic recently.

Unfortunately, in addition to the loss of honeybees, other pollinators are experiencing declining populations, and possible extinction. According to the Xerces Society, “Many of our native bee pollinators are at risk, and the status of many more is unknown. Habitat loss, alteration, and fragmentation, pesticide use, and introduced diseases all contribute to declines of bees.” Fruits and seeds derived from insect pollination are a major part of the diet of approximately 25 percent of all birds, and of mammals ranging from red-backed voles to grizzly bears.

With evidence like this, it seems close attention must be paid to the repercussions of pesticide usage and the method of applications, since pollinators are an important lynch pin in the interconnected web of life on earth. 

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