Where have all the Bees Gone

I’m on vacation at the moment traveling through the south for the next few weeks. Getting away from the home base serves as a wonderful de-stressor and idea generator. Camping and enjoying nature adds to that and I highly recommend it to anyone. Roughing it without phone or computer connections frees you to immerse yourself in nature again in a way that we are often too busy to notice.

While on our trip, I’m loving the amount of wildflowers growing along the road, particularly in Texas where May is often too hot and dry to support wildflowers. They normally blossom in late March/early April and burn out by May. Each time I’ve stopped to enjoy the flowers I have noticed one thing.

No buzz. No bees.

I knew the bees and their handlers have been battling pesticides and a mysterious disease for a while. That’s old news. You see it on Facebook along with dire warnings in the science magazines. Yet this is the first time I’ve truly stopped long enough to really notice their absence. Every where I went, the silence was shocking. I looked in campsites, rest stops, roads, wilderness areas, and private gardens in Illinois, Indiana, Arkansas, and Texas. Not one bee showed up. They are really gone.

Of course, My father told me his town’s local bee keepers took their surviving hives, to California for the summer. I’ve also heard my uncle, another bee keeper hobbyist, has built new hives and got a new queen to start again. So the bee populations aren’t extinct, just critically damaged.

Why this is important.

Okay, everyone knows bees are pollinators but few people seem to grasp why this is important. Most plants have multiple pollinators, including, in some instances, birds and bats. However, bees are just so wonderfully good at it. That is the whole job of the average bumble bee. He snuggles up tight with a flower, becomes covered in pollen, and then moves on to snuggle with the next bright blossom. Without bees, massive crop production will go down. In some cases, such as avocados and almonds, the plants will really be in trouble because bees were nearly their sole pollinator. As CNN science writer Nabila Khouri stated in the article “Bees are dying — what can we do about it?“, the absence of these little noisy critters is going to cost the economy big time.

The FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations] estimates that in Europe alone, 84 percent of the 264 crop species are animal pollinated and 4,000 vegetable varieties exist thanks to pollination by bees. The benefits of bees also go far beyond gastronomy. In a study conducted by the University of Reading, in the UK, researchers found that bees contribute £651 million ($805 million) to the UK economy a year, and according to the American Beekeeping Federation, honey bees contribute over $14 billion to the value of US crop production.

To fight this, some farmers have started acting as the pollinator. From what I’ve read, this means they take a delicate paintbrush and rub it across the center of flowers and then on to the next. It is an interesting workaround, but any great orchard or vineyard has a huge amount of flowers. A handful of men attempting to do the same work of hundreds of bees? Sounds incredible and unworkable but for some farms it is their only choice. However, it is not hard to imagine that this method won’t be that successful or lead to fewer vegetables and fruit in the markets and higher prices. Without a huge workforce, the equivalent “bee-hours” are just too great to replicate.

In some cases, farmers are paying bee keepers to bring their hives from out of state to help local crops. The description sounds like the keepers and the poor bees are hauled from site to site every few weeks in order to get as many crops covered as possible. It’s necessary but would not be needed if we just move to support the local wild bees to regrow their hives again. However, with the collapse of so many hives, the wild  population could take years to recover. In addition, the beauty of the land will take a hit as well. Wild flowers will not reproduce. Some trees will struggle to get pollinated. No one will be giving these plants a helping hand.

The additional impact for you.

Crops aren’t the only things affected by the bees dying out. As I’ve said before, farmers are already trying to find other ways to take care of their crops. However, as the old saying goes, nature abhors a vacuum. What this means is that eventually something else will come along and fill the pollinator niche that the bees left behind if humans can’t get the little buzzers back from the edge of extinction, but what takes their place may not be as beneficial as the bees. Also the replacement may not be as friendly towards humans as bees are. Wasps are far more hostile and less useful than bees. In theory, they could fill the flower niche although I don’t think it is in their nature to seek flowers.

Another, less obvious impact is that no bees equals no honey. This means the collapse of industries based on honey, bee pollen, royal jelly, or beeswax, like mead, cosmetics, bakery items, candles, some drinks, lip balms, and some items in the drug industry are all going to be hurting or disappearing.

What can you do?

The good news is that bees reproduce quickly. Studies on other small animals, like ocean plankton, have shown that populations recover rapidly if the conditions are right. Therefore, the wild bees (and even local “kept” bees) may be up to their normal busy-buzzy populations if we simply quit killing them with pesticides and create environmentally healthy situations for them. That’s where you come in.

If you live in an apartment or house with little gardening space, plant some outdoor windowsill of potted herbs like chives, rosemary, lavender, and thyme. Bees seek these plants and you get herb byproducts as well. If you have a larger space, plant fruit trees or wildflowers. Butterfly (another pollinator) and bees will love those.

In addition, support your local beekeeper by buying local honey, wax, and bee pollen at the farmer’s market or roadside fruit stands. It helps them fund the rebuilding of their damaged hives and has the additional bonus of supporting small, local businesses.

Finally, if bees have set up a nest in your neighborhood and become a problem, don’t poison them. Call your area beekeeper or other pest control person for help relocating them instead. Yes I know they sting, but that is more out of defense. We can all learn to live together.

Remember that every act you do in nature has local and potentially global consequences, and every living thing in nature is connected. So let’s work together to bring back that hum that hangs over a flowery field on a summer’s day. It may seem like the lowly bee is not important in your life but without it the world becomes a little more silent and a lot less sweet.

2 thoughts on “Where have all the Bees Gone

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