By Jill Hedgecock
Author of Rhino in the Room
In April 2016, researchers reported that beekeepers experienced a dramatic reduction in viable bee hives (i.e., 42% increase in hive loss) compared to 2015. This unprecedented phenomenon was dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and led to predictions that managed honey bees could disappear by 2035. However, the plummeting decline has been tempered somewhat by the intervention of dedicated beekeepers. In 2017, the number of commercial bees increased due to beekeepers adding more bees and hives to make up for previous years’ rapid losses. An important intervention, because honeybees are critical to human food production. Between 75 and 90% of crops, including apples, almonds, onions, cherries, avocados, and oranges are pollinated by bees.
Bees are absolutely fascinating creatures. In August 2017, Scarlett Howard at RMIT University in Melbourne found bees trained using a sugar solution reward were able to distinguish the difference between zero and up to four objects. Zero is a concept young child often struggle with, so having an invertebrate grasp this idea is remarkable. Perhaps even more astounding is the 2010 discovery that bees were able to learn individual human faces and could identify faces where a sugar reward was placed. These discoveries suggest an intelligence in insects never before imagined. And with a renewed respect for the importance of these buzzing creatures, shouldn’t humans hold as much responsibility to ensure the survival of these agriculturally-important animals and take measures to prevent CCD?
According to Dr. Elina L. Niño who heads up the E.L. Nino Bee Lab at U.C. Davis where she provides support to California beekeepers, the number one reason for CCD is the Varroa mite. The mite is the host of over 20 viruses that affect bees. The Varroa mite became a major honey bee pest after its appearance in Florida in the mid-1980’s. Responsible beekeepers should check their hives for mites every two weeks and regularly treats for mite infestations
“Oxalic acid or wood bleach is a naturally-occurring compound that is lethal to the mites but doesn’t harm the adult bees. It’s generally applied by vaporizing a few grams of crystals within the hive or by sprinkling a dilute solution over the frames,” says Grove. “I use the vaporization method: It’s quick, clean, and I don’t have to disassemble the hive.”
Dr. Niño also cautions beekeepers about the problem inadvertently created by commercial beekeepers who’ve propagated queens with no natural resistance against harmful viruses. Richard Grove, a beekeeper based in Walnut Creek, California, intentionally maintains biologically diverse hives—two different Western honey bee subspecies from commercial apiaries and one hive of feral “survivor stock” Italian bees.
Beekeepers should also avoid pesticide use wherever possible, especially Neonicotinoids (AKA Neonics) by stocking their hive areas with natural predators (ladybugs and praying mantis) of garden pests like ants. Neonics usage became popular in the late 1990s in the United States and Europe but have since been found to harm bees, butterflies, and water-borne invertebrates. Neonics are mostly banned in the European Union due to research that suggests some formulations reduce all bees’ resistance to viruses and interfere with the forager bees’ ability to navigate back to the hive.
Gardeners can help bees by purchasing plants that have not been treated with systemic pesticides like Neonics. A systemic pesticide incorporated into the plant tissues, including the pollen which is fed to baby bees along with honey.
Home Depot, a large home improvement store, provides Neonic treatment information on the plastic plant tag. Home Depot and Lowe’s (a similar type of home improvement store in the US) have pledged to stop selling Neonic-treated plants by the end of 2018 and 2019, respectively. Visit the Xerces Society website for up-to-date pest control product information: https://xerces.org/wings-archive/Neonics-in-your-garden/. It is important to read product labels, especially all-in-one rose plant foods, to avoid these pesticides: acetamiprid, clothianidin, dinotefuran, imidacloprid, nitenpyram, thiacloprid, and thiamethoxam.
Embarking on beekeeping as a new hobby is another anecdote to CCD, provided novices follow strict guidelines. While beekeeping may seem a potentially painful hobby, bees are not vengeful insects and rarely sting even when swarming according to Grove. Richard gently “smokes” the hive entrance to calm the bees, before carefully removing the hive lid and pulling frames, the vertical rectangular elements, that hold honeycomb within the hive box where the baby bees, pollen, and honey occur. By moving slowly and avoiding squashing bees, he says it’s possible to tend a hive barehanded without getting stung. Another trick is to not breathe on bees as they equate carbon dioxide with predators, such as raccoons, sniffing around the hive.
“I’ve been stung hundreds of times,” says Grove. “My worst experience was when a hive tipped over. While putting everything back together, I probably got 30 stings on each ankle.”
Despite the occasional sting, Grove clearly enjoys his hobby. He affectionately referred to the bees buzzing around the hive entrances as “the girls”. Drones have only one purpose—to fertilize the queen, whereas non-queen females serve as guards, nurse bees that care for the queen’s off-spring, foragers that bring pollen back to the hive and mortuary bees that remove dead bees.
Grove’s goal as a beekeeper has never been to harvest honey, rather his interest has always been to help the environment. With the threat of CCD still looming over honeybee populations, the importance of dedicated beekeepers like Grove cannot be overstated.
More about Jill Hedgecock:
Award-winning and internationally-published author Jill Hedgecock is dedicated to taking readers on high-stakes adventures. Her short stories, personal essays, and nonfiction have appeared in multiple anthologies and magazines. Rhino in the Room is her debut novel. She lives in California with her husband and three adorable dogs.
Visit www.jillhedgecock.com to learn more.
Disclaimer: A similar version of this article was published in the California-based Diablo Gazette.
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