This time, “They told us, “the end is here.” That’s what the media hype machine warned us just a few years ago. Massive die-offs were decimating the worldwide bee population, and there was a little hope for humanity.
Even comic Jerry Seinfeld – not known for being a downer – premised his entire 2007 kid’s film Bee Movie on the idea of bees bringing about the end. That one was somehow scarier than anything we were seeing on the nightly news.
It all came down to alarming reports that something called “colony collapse disorder” (largely pegged to human causes) was triggering massive die-offs of pollinating honeybees. It would too begin to devastate our fruit and vegetable harvests in an eco-catastrophe worthy of a mid-70s disaster flick.
This was no tree-hugger anxiety attack. This was the real thing. Today, however, we’re hearing that reports of bees’ demise have been greatly exaggerated. “Call Off the Bee-pocalypse” blared a Washington Post headline.
Can we call off the bee-apocalypse? Well, yes and no.
At least in our corner of the world, around the Connecticut shoreline, it turns out that the bee troubles weren’t a gross exaggeration. Local scientists, beekeepers, and growers say that while the situation might not be immediately dire, major threats continue to plague bees and the food crops they pollinate.
“Understand that there is a problem,” say Mark Creighton, the state apiary inspector for the Connecticut Agriculture Experiment Station in New Haven, “and if we don’t fix it now, we will head to bee-mageddon.”
There actually are a number of problems – virus producing mites, loss if bee habitat, extreme weather and pesticides – conspiring against the health of Apis mellifera, or the Western honeybee, a species brought here from its native Europe in the early 1600s and that has since become an integral link in our food chain.
The United Nations estimates that 71 of the 100 crop species providing 90 percent of food worldwide depend on bee pollination. In Connecticut, honeybees from more than 6,500 hives pollinate orchards and fields of apples, pears, blueberries, strawberries, melons, squash, pumpkins, and other produce in support of the state’s $3.5 billion farm industry. Bees, of course, also convert flower nectar into honey representing about $610,000 in annual revenue in the state – a pittance compared to the $67.5 million that North Dakota, the top honey-producer, generated in 2013.
Honeybees are raised by about 1,200 beekeepers in Connecticut, the vast majority of them residential hobbyists with one or two hives, also known as colonies. A hive comprises 20,000-30,000 bees in the winter, and 60,000-80,000 bees in the summer, according to the Back Yard Beekeepers Association.
There are fewer than a dozen commercial operations in the state, the larger ones managing hundreds of colonies and millions of bees that are hauled into the orchards and fields growers every spring.
“Our pollinator starts with 10 hives for pears, then 65 hives the following week for apples,” says Jonathan Bishop, co-CEO if Bishop’s Orchards in Guilford. While he’s aware of the beast hive die-offs, “we haven’t had any crop failures from lack of bees or pollination,” Bishop reports.
About 17 miles north in Middlefield, Lyman Orchards requires 80 hives to pollinate its 100 or so acres of apple trees, typically during the first week of May, says Executive Vice President John Lyman. And although his pollinators for the past decade, Southbury-based Rollie Hannon, has been able to meet his bees needs, “I know he’s has some tough years,” Lyman says. As a result, “our prices [for pollination] have gone up over the past four or five years by 40 percent.”
“My die-off last year was close to 50 percent,” says Hannan, who started beekeeping as a teenager and today has more than 400 colonies, or about 3 million been. “Years before, I’ve lost up to 95 percent of my bees.” He’s hardly alone in his plight.
In 2006, beekeepers throughout the country began noticing mysterious die-offs in their colonies. The term “colony collapse disorder” (CCD) went viral and led to the bee-apocalypse scare. An estimated 10 million beehives worth about $200 each have been lost, costing beekeepers some$2 billion,” Time stated in 2013, adding that colonies in the U.S. had dropped to 2.5 million from 6 million 60 years earlier.
Last year’s colony losses in Connecticut, according to an annual mortality survey by Bee Informed Partnership, were close to 50 percent.
Last March, however, the USDA indicated that the number of honey-producing hives across the country had in fact gone up to the highest level since 1987. The figures are misleading, though, because they only include honey yields from commercial producers and don’t consider year to year mortality rates. Besides, the increase reflects beekeepers efforts to rebuild hives after die-offs, such as splitting hives into two or simply buying more bees, as well as the dramatic jump in backyard hives.
Back when CCD entered the lixicon, the USDA pointed fingers at the Varra mite, an insidious insect that transmits 22 different killer viruses, as well as widespread use of commercial and residential pesticides and other lethal chemicals. Continued loss of pollen-rich- habitat due to urban sprawls us another stressor. So are monoculture farming practices, whereby thousands of acres are dedicated to a single crop like corn or soybeans. These don’t require pollination and, thus, reduce the bee population.
Environmentalists have focused on a widely used class of pesticides-neonicotinoids, or neon’s, which don’t kill bees but mess with their pollen-gathering behavior – as particular virulent. Not all beekeepers and scientists agree.
“My research looks into roots of exposure of bees to pesticides,” says Kimberly Stoner, an entomologist with the Connecticut Agriculture Experiment Station. While numerous student show the neon’s have some damaging effects on honeybees, she adds, the science isn’t conclusive. “Where the controversy lies are the levels at which the bees are exposed to neon’s to cause the effects.”
In 2013, the European Union imposed two-year moratorium on neon’s while further research was done. Over time, Stoner predict, the U.S. “will probably restrict some uses of the pesticides, like for homeowners.”
Steve Dinsmore, president of trey Connecticut Beekeepers Association, notes the controversy surrounding neonics, but says the Varroa mite is an unquestionable stressor among the groups 400 hobbyist members. “Educating them on proper beekeeping practices is always a challenge,” he says. “Such as making sure their bees have a variety of pollen to consume and protecting hives in winter.”
He recommends perusing beekeeping websites and attending the associations beekeeping school sessions prudent ways to say informed.
State inspector Creighton encourages Connecticut homeowners to make their own property more bee-friendly, not only for honeybees but also bumblebees and other native pollinators. “Plant pollinator habitat in your backyard and limit chemical use,” he suggests. Around here, bees love goldenrod, New England aster, sunflowers, various wildflowers, and even pesky dandelions.
The bee die-off situation is as dire as it was reported a couple of years ago, Creighton concurs, and the problems are complex. It’s not too late to prevent bee-mageddon, he urges, but “if we don’t change our practices, it’s going to happen.”