Over the last few days, we installed over 130,000 head of livestock—cute, fuzzy, winged livestock. Despite less than ideal conditions of cool, rainy weather, the bee installation seemed to go pretty well. Our participants have been sharing stories of the introductions: the thrill of holding 10,000 buzzing creatures in our hands, the satisfaction of seeing them ooze as a mass down into the hives we assembled for them, the adrenaline rush from the sentries that buzzed around our faces as they assessed our threat. Even though any of us are beginners, most not wearing gloves, some without veils, not one bee decided to sting us. Not one in 130,000.
You may have heard that 35% of the world’s food crop depends on pollinators such as honey bees. Their efforts give us the miracles of honey and beeswax (candles, soaps, lotions, waxes, polishes), and propolis, and royal jelly—with their numerous health benefits.
I just have to say, “Thank you, bees!”
I wanted to do something nice for them in return so I decided try to inform myself and others about what we can do to keep our bees healthy. I tried to avoid internet sites that seemed too biased or sensational and stick to the more scientific ones. I consulted beekeeping books and my notes from an entomologist’s recent lecture. (See my list of references below.)
What I found is overwhelming. The story of honey bees engages scientists, economists, politicians. I find it hard to summarize for the sake of this blog the breadth and depth of information out there about the state of this insect. However, there is agreement on one point. The bees are in trouble.
I have to conclude that well-intentioned people—gardeners like us, farmers, people who keep their lawns and flowers beautiful, may be killing our bee colonies at unprecedented rates. The bee’s decline is likely caused by multiple factors, but I want to focus on one that seems easiest to address—the lawn and garden products on the shelves of our local hardware stores.
They have enticing names like 12 Month Tree and Shrub Protect and Feed, All in One Rose and Flower Care. They have lush gardens on the labels. But they kill honey bees. There is strong evidence that may be causing whole colonies to die. These products contain a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids (because they are derived from nicotine). They affect the brains and nervous systems of insects both “good” and “bad.”
Last week, the EU banned several neonicotinoids. The Canadian government is officially re-evaluating them in light of mass bee deaths there last spring. The US EPA is also reviewing this class of chemicals stating, “Data suggest that neonicotinic residues can accumulate in pollen and nectar of treated plants and may represent a potential exposure to pollinators. Adverse effects data as well as beekill incidents have also been reported, highlighting the potential direct and/or indirect effects of neonicotinic pesticides.”
While we are waiting for governments to process research and weigh political and economic consequences of bans, consumers can make educated choices for our homes. Organic methods are safer but not all are without risk. Even OMRI listed products like Spinosad in Monterey’s organic insect spray can adversely affect bees if they visit recently treated flowers.
Bees forage over an area of within a 2 mile radius from their hives. Their range encompasses over 12 square miles. Depending on where you live, you could have a lot of neighbors in that area. Do they know what effect their lawn and garden products might have on area beekeepers, not to mention the honey bees and native pollinators?
Here is a link to a list of products that contain neonicotinoids. And here are some additional pointers for safer pesticide use. Perhaps you could print out and share? I think this is a conversation worth starting at local hardware stores, friends, neighbors, and Grow Appalachia participants.
Dr. James Amrine, entomology professor emeritus, WVU
Beekeeping for Dummies by Howland Blackiston
The Beekeepers Handbook by Dianne Sammataro and Alphonse Avitabile