Finally! The sun is back, and with it the insects and the birds, frogs and toads, and rabbits and squirrels.
The bees are around again, too. The honey bees at the farm have been pretty active on warm days recently. Sometimes I hear them buzzing when I walk by the hive area, or see one or two in the greenhouse as I work. Meanwhile, in internet-land, there are many articles circulating about neonicotinoids (a type of water-soluble pesticide commonly used on cereal crops and turf) and other issues that affect bees negatively, mainly in the form of what’s been called colony collapse disorder (read: hives dying).
Some things I’ve noticed about the conversation in these articles is that honey bees are the focus, and rarely other, native pollinators. Another thing I’ve noticed is that the conversation doesn’t look at how bees are kept or cared for when people use them for honey. I think these are two big gaps in the discussion.
If you’re reading this blog, you might already be aware that honey is what bees spend all summer making from the pollen they collect. It’s not a pointless endeavour, either – honey is what they rely on for food all winter, when there are no flowers around to feed off of. They also use it to make wax that’s then used to construct the combs, where their larvae grow, and eating it during the winter keeps their body temperature up, as they can’t control body temperature internally. Bees are great stockpilers, expending so much energy on collecting and making whatever they can in order to keep their community thriving during cold months. Seeing industrious worker bees buzzing around the farm is pretty impressive – even moreso when you realize just how much it takes for them to make honey.
Unfortunately, when people collect honey from bee hives, we take their winter food source away. Much of the efforts the bees have put into preparing for the next winter, building the hive, and caring for their young is lost to them because we like to use honey. In most cases, sugar water or corn syrup is given to them in place of the honey that was taken.
Now I’d like to point out that one of the main reasons people like to use honey is because it has antimicrobial, antifungal, and other health-promoting properties. Let’s compare that to corn syrup. Do I need to elaborate on this? I think most of us are aware of how devoid corn syrup is of healthful properties.
Could it be that taking away bees’ healthy, nutritious, immune-supporting food source and replacing it with something like corn syrup is a main reason they’re suffering so badly these days? I don’t think it takes an especially smart person to make this connection. Apparently lots of entomologists (who study insects) are. For some reason, this is being left out of the conversation about honey bee colonies doing poorly.
The subject of native pollinators is also something that deserves more attention. There are so many pollinators that are indigenous to North America – moths, hummingbirds, beetles, ants, bats, and various other kinds of bees (over 4,400 species!). Honey bees pollinate many crops, but were brought here from Europe and thus are not native. Many of the crops we farm now are also not native to the area, and honey bees do much of the pollinating for various crops, which is one reason why people are so freaked out about their decline – if honey bees aren’t around to pollinate crops, crops won’t produce as well, and people won’t be able to grow or eat many of our staple foods as much as we do now.
But honey bees are not the only kind of bee that’s capable of pollinating crops, and are not the only kind of bee that suffers in monoculture environments (where only one plant is grown on a huge acreage, such as corn or alfalfa). All the panic about losing honey bees has overshadowed the plight of native pollinators; most people talk about honey bee decline as though there are no other creatures around to take care of things. As well, people speak of neonicotinoids as being a threat to honey bees, but ignore the threat that exists to native pollinators and amphibians, plus other members of their ecosystems. I hope this issue gets some attention soon.
The wonderful Pollination Canada has some resources on growing a pollinator-friendly garden. Wildflowers for the win!
As for neonicotinoids, there is definite evidence that they probably are affecting bees negatively. Just another reason to look at the big picture more often when it comes to agriculture.
What kinds of insect pollinators visit your home?