Most people have heard some iteration of the expression “busy as a bee.” As a beekeeper, I can attest to honeybees’ industriousness. As long as weather permits, they will fly out of their hive and seek forage. Throughout a worker’s lifecycle—about four weeks—she (yes, workers are female)1 has several jobs, from cleaning to nursing to guarding to foraging. The worker bee is truly a dynamo of energy and sacrifice for her hive mates. Now that I have gotten to know honeybees a bit better, I think a more apropos expression for the character of a honeybee (or, worker) is “selfless as a bee.”
Honeybees selflessly work for the benefit of the entire colony. Scientists refer to them as a superorganism, which, in simple terms, means that many little critters act as one. One colony, thousands of honeybees, one goal: to ensure survival of the colony. This aim may include swarming, a marvel of nature in which half the hive’s population seeks a new home. The act of swarming technically weakens a single colony, but the brave honeybees set forth on a greater objective, which is to replenish the gene pool available in nature by finding and establishing a new nest elsewhere.
Honeybees are cool, plain and simple. A successful queen, after mating with a dozen or more drones on a mating flight, can choose to fertilize (worker) or not fertilize (drone) an egg, based on the size of the cell in which a worker bee has groomed for her to lay said egg. In some cases, a productive queen can lay well over 1,500 eggs per day. A hive maintains an internal temperature in the mid-90s (Fahrenheit)—during hot and cold weather, using different methods— which is pretty near a human’s internal temperature.
Oh, and they pollinate many of our food crops.
You name it: almonds, blueberries, avocadoes, cucumbers, watermelon, cranberries. By pollinating many plants that increase the diversity of our diet, honeybees play a vital role for humans. Honeybees are absolutely crucial to the California almond industry, for example, which harvests approximately 80% of the world’s crop. All told, estimates show honeybees are responsible for pollinating approximately $15 billion worth of American crops.
A nice (indirect) contribution to our well-being from an insect, right? They get my respect and admiration, but I’m just one person.
A Not So Golden Future
Many of us have also heard about recent honeybee troubles or, more succinctly, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which has become a catch-all for cumulative dangers to honeybees. The idea of CCD allowed beekeepers and researchers to qualify the phenomenon in which seemingly healthy bees abandon their hives for no immediately discernible reason. Prevailing wisdom now cites a number of stressors to honeybees that may cause CCD, including virulent mites, lack of forage, pesticides, creating chemical dependencies within our hives (via mite treatments), and the stress of long-distance pollination contracts (think of how a drive from New York to California would make you feel).
Altogether, these factors are a deadly cocktail. And, as you can see, we humans are responsible for, well, almost all of them.
The pesticide factor is a tricky one. The lifeblood of major R&D companies, such as Monsanto, is manufacturing pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMO). These companies do not just moonlight at the endeavor, they are multi-billion-dollar businesses with heavy political lobby. Never mind that in 2012 Monsanto purchased Beelogics, a leading bee research firm whose primary focus was CCD.
The European Commission, which proposes laws for adoption by the European Parliament, has pre-emptively struck out against pesticides and, accordingly, the manufacturers: in May 2013, the commission put in place a moratorium on neonicotinoids (neonics). These pesticides may be particularly troublesome to honeybees because they are retained in plant tissues, as well as foraged honey and pollen, and are toxic to honeybees and other insects, such as bumblebees.
Pesticides are tricky for a numbers of other reasons. As the world population increases exponentially, more food is needed. Food is money, and pests kill crops. Farmers have become dependent on pesticides to protect their crops. If neonics are banned from use, farmers may resort to even more toxic pesticides. I’m not saying I agree with pesticide usage, but it’s tricky. And more research is needed, as well as more caution and prudence.
Fortunately, I have never experienced a honeybee die-off in my apiary due to pesticides. But I do believe the beekeepers who claim pesticides are a major culprit in their die-offs. I also believe many of pesticide-related die-offs are caused by imprudent applications by some farmers. (Read: not following the directions.)
Where Do I Stand On This Issue?
My convictions are all over the place; it’s musical chairs. My garden is organic—I only partially feed a family of four—but I have also medicated my bees for mites. I believe big corporate money tends to corrupt politics to the detriment of many, but I’ve never turned down a raise or bonus in my corporate job. I believe good researchers are looking into CCD and not everyone (countries and governments, researchers and corporations) has the same idea of what’s going on and how to remedy the situation. It’s a complex issue. In the United States, pesticide manufacturers have deep pockets; their lobbying effort ensures neonics will be around for a long time.
So I ask myself: What would a honeybee do?
Well, a honeybee would probably—no, definitely—keep foraging and selflessly work toward hive survival. I’m pretty sure of that. It’s just what they do. Unfortunately, we have such a profound impact on honeybees’ ability to effortlessly survive.
So what can I do to help, aside from writing letters to Congress and donating research dollars to a worthy honeybee program?
The simplest thing I can do is plant good forage for all seasons, preferably plants native to my region—grass is boring anyway—thus weeding out the ingrained thinking that sterile, tidy lawns exhibit my control over nature. I can encourage my neighbors to let certain “weeds” grow, such as clover and dandelions and, if they choose to eliminate them, to just mow them instead of using chemicals. (For the life of me, I cannot figure out how dandelions became such a homeowner’s scourge. Bright + yellow + flower = cheery. Seed heads + kids + big breaths and puffed cheeks = lots of fun. Am I missing something?) My neighbor stopped treating his lawn years ago (I never asked why) and one day he told me he hasn’t seen so many honeybees on his clover in a long time. Thanks, John, those are probably my honeybees!
Just think of honeybees when you pop a blueberry or almond or cranberry, or crunch a cucumber, apple—you get the picture.
Another major detriment to honeybees that probably no one will refute is the loss of forage, let alone forage native to specific regions (remember, though: European honeybees aren’t native to America, but we’ve become dependent on them). Parking lots, malls, homes—they all play a part. But with huge lawns and corporate parks, we have the opportunity to help our often unseen neighbors—and, I might add, anonymous benefactors—by using these both small and large tracts of land more judiciously. Seriously, just plant some flowers—any good forage flowers—and it’ll be helpful. The sea of mono-crop corn in the Midwest, as well as other mass-produced, forage-deficient floral sources, certainly doesn’t help honeybees either.
What Can I Do?
For now, though, just ask yourself: “What can I do?”
One of the most enduring images I’ve seen as a beekeeper thus far in my short time engaged in the “gentle craft” occurred within a hive that was dying, mostly due to my poor management choices. I didn’t detect earlier than I should have that the hive was queen-less, which induced workers to start laying unfertilized eggs. In this case, it wasn’t a lack of effort, but probably hesitation. A hive with laying workers has taken on a difficult personality to change; it isn’t easy to just reintroduce a new queen that isn’t the honeybees’ biological mother or implement a different strategy, such as shaking the hive out of its boxes a certain distance away and hoping the laying workers don’t find their way back—then trying to reintroduce a new queen.
But when I re-opened the hive to see how much of the population had dwindled, I noticed the honeybees, all workers and drones, no queen, were still foraging, still feeding each other, still acting as a cohesive colony—despite their grim outlook. Honeybees join together in a chain at the feet when they are building wax comb; I’ve read the behavior provides a way to measure distance. This dying colony was joined together in an activity that struck me to be normal only for a healthy, queen-right hive. They were single-mindedly still working toward survival, continuing to act selflessly.
At the end of the day, honeybees are important to our existence and the benefit they provide is produced in such a fascinating way. We cannot—and should not—wait for or allow conglomerates to market new pesticides without proper field trials or, more sinister, patent a “superbee” to remedy the situation. It’s unethical on many levels, including financially, for the beekeepers who make their living by working with honeybees—such companies have come to dominate and erase thousands of years of selective plant breeding with GMO crops; given the same inclinations and R&D dollars, what could possibly become of our darling honeybee and their animal husbands? More “big” research dollars are needed for honeybee health programs and they must be integrated, and more closely monitored, alongside companies developing pesticides. It’s a commonsense partnership. If governments or organizations intend to ban pesticides, they must be prudent and provide more sustainable alternatives to the people who use them for their livelihood. Does “going cold turkey” typically work best for someone quitting smoking? No.
We cannot let the plight of honeybees be little more than a media spectacle, despite that the news attention and documentaries dramatically help promulgate the cause. Globally, we have too many smart people who can help fix this problem—in some countries, there is certainly enough money at the corporate or government level that can fund much needed research. Honeybee health should be an issue of collective well-being, not solely one of profit. Think of it as part of your health plan (if you’re fortunate enough to have one). Pick up a book from the library, do some research—support a cause. You don’t need to be a beekeeper to admire these animals, but your diet—and health—may depend on it.
1. At its peak, the hive is comprised of approximately 40-50,000 workers, a queen, and several hundred drones. The number of drones produced is indicative of a healthy hive, because it shows they’re increasing well and are contributing to the overall gene pool.