We Need Bees' Help -- and They Need Ours

Planting flowers that bees like will help the pollinators in their mission.
Planting flowers that bees like will help the pollinators in their mission. (Photos Courtesy Of Shelley Mcneal)
By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, March 17, 2007

Let's hear it for the honeybees. These tireless workers are smart, social, and absolutely essential in assuring that crops from almonds in California to blueberries in Maine are pollinated and prolific.

Shelley McNeal, master gardener and bee maven with the Howard County Cooperative Extension, likes to share this with audiences when she presents one of her many talks on bees: "Every third bite of food we take is the result of pollinators."

There are other insect pollinators -- bumblebees, some wasps and a fly that looks like a wasp -- but fuzzy little honeybees are the biggies. They help make backyard flowers and fruits bloom, but their most important role is in agriculture. Every year, hundreds of thousands of bees are trucked from their home apiaries to farms, sometimes in distant states, where they are set out to pollinate a particular crop.

"They are so important to our food sources and to our economy," said McNeal, who has a beehive of her own on her family's 17-acre farm in Howard County. She began keeping bees about nine years ago because her family planted a small orchard and knew they needed bees as pollinators, and also because her father had noticed that his garden wasn't doing as well as it previously had.

The reason her family's garden lacked pollinators and part of the reason bees are being trucked in to carry pollen from one flower to another are the same: Bees are becoming endangered.

Perhaps a quarter of the bee population in the United States -- in some places perhaps as much as 50 percent -- has been lost since the 1990s, when hives were hit hard by mites. Now there's a new threat, colony collapse disorder, in which whole hives suddenly become empty of adult bees. No one knows why the collapse occurs. It might be from a fungus, parasites, poison from insecticides, bacteria or virus, or some combination. We have no solution.

When the problems arose with the mites, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and university researchers came up with some chemicals that killed them, McNeal said. That worked for a while, and then the mites became resistant, so practices were altered to make the treatment more effective. But there were still problems, so the department took another approach: finding and breeding bees that are mite-resistant.

They found a mite-resistant bee in Russia, and beekeepers can now buy a Russian queen that will lay eggs that grow up into mite-resisting adults. But they're not very plentiful or widely available yet.

Other problems bees face include foulbrood, a contagious but rare disease, and nozema, a kind of digestive upset that bees get over long winters when they're confined to the hive and can't get out to clean themselves. There's no treatment for foulbrood. The hive has to be destroyed. Nozema can be treated with medication that can be fed to the bees in sugar water.

However, good beekeeping practices and careful monitoring can keep these lesser threats under control. For the more serious issues, until the problem is identified and a solution found, bees need all the help they can get.

"When I give my bee talks, I say, you as homeowners can do some things to help the honeybees," said McNeal, who is a certified professional horticulturist and works as a horticulture consultant for the cooperative extension's Home and Garden Information Center.

She begins by suggesting that chemical pesticides should be a last resort. Use integrated pest management to balance beneficial insects and pests. For example, if you handpick Japanese beetles from your roses instead of spraying insecticide to control them, the honeybees won't be killed. If you have to use pesticides, use horticultural oil; insecticidal soap; or Bt, a bacterium that controls such pests as gypsy moths. If you have to use more toxic chemicals, apply them at a time of day when honeybees are not about, such as dawn or dusk. "Bees only fly when the sun is shining," McNeal said. They also come out only when temperatures are higher than about 50 degrees.

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