The purple coneflowers opened last week, and for a foraging nest of bumblebees, the flowering couldn’t have come too soon.
The larkspur has been in flower for a month, but the wiry blooms make the bee work for its supper. The coneflower is easier because the “cone” is a mounded disk of tiny individual flowers, each rich in pollen and nectar. The bees don’t need aerobatics to feed from these blooms: They just land on the central pad, fold their wings and belly up to the buffet.
The bumblebees work the coneflower patch all day, but they begin early. Soon after arriving, their hairy bodies are glittered with pollen. By grooming themselves, they gather the crumbs into sacs on their legs and return the packages to the nest pantry. But some of the pollen will find its way from one bloom to another, and thus the bees will pollinate the coneflowers. Later, the goldfinches will arrive on the fertilized flowers to pick at the seed, but enough of those seeds will spill on the ground for new coneflower seedlings to sprout. The system seems so beautifully balanced.
The human biosphere, by contrast, is a lot messier. My coneflower opened for National Pollinator Week, which is an observation that brings disparate players to Washington to pronounce their love of bumblebees, honeybees, native bees, monarch butterflies, all butterflies and indeed every living creature that carries a grain of pollen to a lonely stigma. Not all the human players are on the same page, however. Your viewpoint is framed by where you stand.
Most of the parties agree that pollinators need help. Losses of honeybee colonies have become the norm in recent years, especially among commercial beekeepers who rent their pollinating colonies to fruit and nut growers around the country. There is no scientific consensus as to the exact cause, but factors include a parasitic mite that spreads disease, use of a new class of bee-toxic pesticides known as neonicotinoids, and loss of forage.
Others are worried about the plight of bumblebees — about half the species in North America seem to be in some decline, and a few are on the precipice of extinction. This doesn’t even address the 4,000 species of other native bees, most of them loners and some the size of a pinhead. We don’t really know how they’re doing. Among butterflies, the monarch has become the poster child of lepidoptera in trouble, with the loss of overwintering habitat in Mexico and of sustaining milkweed on herbicide-soaked farms in this country.
On June 22, Becky Langer arrived bearing seeds, or the promise of them. She is bee health project manager for Bayer CropScience, a global agrichemical company whose U.S. base is in Durham, N.C. Bayer has launched a number of pollinator protection initiatives, including one named Feed a Bee, in which wildflower seed mixes are distributed to individuals and groups. The company has given away more than 200,000 packets of seeds for the 2016 growing season and has 40,000 left for distribution, she said. In addition, “we’ll plant at least 25 million flowers in the fall,” Langer said as she announced a partnership with the Wildlife Society, a Bethesda-based association of biologists.
Bayer is one of the world’s largest producers of neonicotinoids, and for environmental groups the idea of Bayer coming to the rescue of bees is akin to Count Dracula organizing a blood drive.
“They talk about every other factor in bee decline but don’t want to admit the role of neonics,” said Tiffany Finck-Haynes, a spokeswoman for Friends of the Earth, the Washington-based environmental group.
On Tuesday evening, James Cook of Barrett, Minn., arrived in Washington at the wheel of a silver Dodge flatbed truck carrying 2.64 million honeybees, every last one of them dead. He calculated their number by weight. “We based it off 4,000 bees per pound,” he said.
The honeybees were gathered as the winter dead from hives that Cook, a commercial beekeeper, had been keeping in Idaho. Beekeepers used to lose 10 percent of their bees each winter; now the norm is 40 percent, he said. He brought the insect corpses to Washington as part of events organized by environmental groups to press the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Agriculture and Congress to do more for pollinators. The bees were in plastic containers and display cases shown to the folks he met with. A large sign on the side of his truck announced his Keep the Hives Alive Tour, and during his multi-state odyssey, he discovered just how much the plight of pollinators has captured the public’s imagination, he said. In a blighted area of Detroit, he pulled over to let a van go past. “The van had two guys in it, they both had huge grins, and they said, ‘We lose pollinators, we lose us.’ It’s just amazing the energy people feel toward them.”
One of the most interesting products served up for Pollinator Week was a short documentary by the nature photographer Clay Bolt. “A Ghost in the Making” was about his quest to find the rusty patched bumblebee, once common and now exceedingly rare. In it, he quotes the Xerces Society’s Rich Hatfield, whose pronouncement aligns squarely with my own view. “Bumblebees and other pollinators really need three things: They need flowers, they need a safe place to build their nest, and they need a pesticide-free environment, and as long as you can provide those things, it truly is a ‘Build it and they will come’ scenario.”
So as more coneflowers open this week, I could be found in the garden observing the antics of my bees. Cook was heading back to Minnesota and contemplating what to do with 2.64 million bee bodies. “We haven’t fully figured it out yet,” he said, “but we’d like to compost them.”