Sunday, April 10, 2011

TO BEE OR NOT TO BEE

Apis melliflera
The first time I heard that we ought to be doing all we can to save our declining honeybee population, it came from an individual who also happens to be a member of the Native Plant Salvage. The Native Plant Salvage is a group whose goal is to protect and encourage plants that are native to the Puget Sound region. My friend remains a staunch supporter of ridding our region of invasive species so that native species aren’t crowded out.

So you can imagine my surprise when I learned the very same honeybee she was encouraging me to protect is an imported species. (And of course I didn’t learn this interesting fact until just after I’d erected our first hive and harvested the first bit of addictive honey.)

It is believed honeybees came to this continent from Asia and Africa via Europe in the 1630’s. Native Americans called them “white man’s flies.” Feral honeybees proliferated through the natural process of swarming. However, prone to the same diseases affecting domestic hives, today there are virtually no more feral honeybees in existence.

Imported or not, I’m told I’m doing a good thing for humanity by keeping a hive or two. Experts have been telling us for some time that our continent’s food production is absolutely dependent on the pollination activities of the honeybee, and that we ought to be very concerned about their, as yet, unexplained decline.

As we approach April 21, the date I hope to repopulate our now vacant hive, I’ve been looking more closely at the history of Apis mellifera on our continent. I am especially interested in learning how pollination happened before honeybees. How did we grow to be so dependent on a species that, for the moment, is prone to a growing number of fatal diseases?

One of Washington's many bumble bee species.
I’m still unable to pinpoint why my own bees didn’t survive the winter, but I was opposed to medicating them or using pesticides against some of the more common diseases like nosema, mites, wax moths, foulbrood and chalkbrood. I’ve read that these diseases are capable of developing resistance over the course of a single season. I figured why bother and opted out, which means there are any number of reasons my hive didn’t make it.

Maybe this summer I should also be looking into keeping the native mason bees. Do we really need these super-pollinator honeybees to get the job done and, if not, are there other insect populations we should be encouraging? The statistic I’ve read is that honeybees account for about 80% of all insect pollination.  I worry that a system which relies almost exclusively on one species is a vulnerable one indeed.

Although we don’t see it much in the media, there is in fact a growing awareness and concern for the conservation of native pollinators. It is widely believed that native pollinators such as flies, wasps, moths and butterflies have also experienced a decline in total population. The causes for this decline may include habitat loss, widespread pesticide and herbicide use, and competition from introduced species including the honey bee.

You don’t say!

Sweat bee, native
Furthermore, some studies suggest honeybees have a preference for invasive species over native species, meaning they may actually help invasive plants crowd out native plants (thereby also crowding out the native pollinators who feed on them).

I mentioned the widespread belief that honeybees are necessary to pollinate agricultural crops. Although this may be true in the midwestern and western U.S., where large scale monocultures have eliminated native bee habitat, it is apparently not true in all instances.

For example, a study conducted in California demonstrated that on organic farms near natural habitat, native bee communities could provide full pollination services, even for crops with heavy pollination requirements (e.g., watermelon). Based on these results, scientists are now turning an eye toward learning whether small farms bordered by natural habitat could be supported solely by native pollinators.

Mason bees
Some believe that honeybees are not even the best choice of pollinator for many crops.  For example, they don’t work as well in the alfalfa fields as leafcutter and alkali bees do. Honeybees do not use the ‘buzz’ (vigorous vibration) type of pollination used so efficiently by bumblebees to pollinate the nightshade plants we eat so regularly, such as tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes, and peppers. Honeybees are not able to fly in colder temperatures, like the mason bee, to effectively pollinate early spring blooms like apples and cherries. Yes, honeybees are used to pollinate these crops, they just aren’t as effective as some of our native insects are.  

The inputs required for keeping honeybees are also in question. We truck them all over the country to follow the nectar flows. We supply hives with sugar, corn syrup, pollen substitutes, and grease patties to get them through the winters. Insecticides are used to control mites. And I’ve already mentioned the antibiotics.

Long eared bat, Washington State native
In spite of all these new questions I have, I plan to keep my hive for the time being. But I also want to look into ways I can increase populations of native pollinators, such as encouraging the native plants growing in our borders. I’ve ordered the book The Forgotten Pollinators by Gary Paul Nabhan, and I suspect reading it will further influence my thoughts on whether or not to keep honeybees.

Anna's Hummingbird
At any rate, this subject causes me, once again, to step back and notice that it seems the more we try to control nature (in this case, by controlling rate and quantity of plant growth), the more vulnerable we become to collapse. It’s unfortunate we can’t be more satisfied with what the “Garden of Eden” naturally provides. Instead, our species insists on dreaming up labor- and resource-intensive ‘improvements’ that are vulnerable to failure and which result in destroying the natural system that was working just fine before we tampered with it.

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