During a trip to Cuba planned for the end of December, my family and I will visit a large bee colony in El Cubano Park, outside Trinidad. It wasn’t hard to find a bee haven in this small country of 11 million. Bees are everywhere.
The challenge is not finding them, but protecting them. Honeybees around the world are under assault from a combination of factors known as Colony Collapse Disorder.
Why Bees Matter to Us
First, to understand the crucial role bees play in our environment, it helps to know that these tiny insects pollinate 70 out of the 100 major crops in this country and produce close to 300 different flavors of honey.
To get an idea what that means, visit a local grocery store, starting with the fruit aisle and its shelves of strawberries, blueberries, peaches, apples, grapes and pumpkins, among other items. None of those would be available if we lost our honeybee population. Move on to the vegetable aisle: carrots, cucumbers, beans, broccoli and onions – all would disappear without bees. So would many of our nuts, including almonds and cashews. In the bakery aisle, forget about fruit pies and tarts, chocolate cookies and coconut bars, to name some popular desserts.
Visit a garden or park and note all the trees and flowers that bees pollinate and that provide nectar for the whole bee hive, including (female) worker bees, the queen bee, baby bees and drones (male bees). Honeybee-friendly trees, flowers, crops and herbs include sunflowers, goldenrod and dahlias; thyme, sage and mint; maple, apple and cherry trees; and alfalfa and soybean crops. Two weeds – dandelions and clover – also provide good nutrition.
I recently spent some time with the beekeeper at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home outside Charlottesville, Va. Jefferson himself was an avid gardener, planting more than 100 different flowers, many of them pollinated by bees. Today, a number of the gardens cultivated by Jefferson in the early 19th century offer a glorious array of columbine, primrose, sweet pea, tulips, snapdragons, and hyacinths, to name a few. The beekeeper’s 20 hives are helping to keep these gardens healthy.
Colony Collapse Disorder
Any time you visit a bee habitat, keep in mind the looming disaster referred to above — Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which occurs when the majority of worker bees in a colony (hive) disappear, leaving behind a queen, food, nurse bees and baby bees. Without the mature worker bees to bring nectar and pollen back to the hive, it collapses (dies).
CCD was first identified in 2006. Ever since, it has been a huge concern for the agricultural industry — which relies on bees to pollinate crops — and for commercial beekeepers, who earn most of their money renting out their bees to big farms around the country.
For example, California’s almond crop – estimated at somewhere around 800,000 acres – relies almost exclusively on millions of bees trucked in to pollinate almost 400 miles of almond groves stretched across the state’s Central Valley.
CCD, despite attempts to assign blame for its occurrence, does not appear to have just one cause. But two explanations stand out: First, overuse of pesticides, and second, attacks from parasites (especially varroa mites) and pests (such as small hive beetles and wax moths).
The Pesticide Debate
The debate over pesticides — specifically, insecticides, a type of pesticide designed to kill insects – is especially heated. Scientists are studying a group of insecticides called neonicotinoids (neonics, for short), now being analyzed by the US Environmental Protection Agency to determine whether and how they disrupt bees’ nervous systems. Neonics are manufactured by chemical companies and sold to farmers who use them to eradicate pests on cotton, citrus plants, wheat and corn, among other crops. Chemical companies say the risk from neonics is overstated, and that they are necessary to protect our food supply.
What many scientists, environmentalists and organic beekeepers do agree on is that all the different insecticides and herbicides used on farms and in fields — as well as those sprayed in hives to fend off mites, fungi and other intruders — create what has been called a “toxic soup” of chemicals. Chronic exposure to these chemicals, say opponents of pesticide use, can make it difficult for bee colonies to breed and resist disease.
In addition, some scientists suggest that climate change could throw off pollination schedules because warmer weather affects where plants grow and when they bloom. Bees may not be primed to meet the needs of these new schedules. Recent decisions by big agricultural producers to use all available soil for growing crops, thereby removing acres of land once filled with wildflowers and other sources of nutrition for bees, are cited as another potential cause.
How Kids Can Help Protect Bees
- If you are looking for ways to get young people interested in helping honeybees survive our increasingly harsh environment, get them to think about starting a bee project in their school, such as setting up hives in a protected and supervised area, or planting a garden with bee-friendly flowers and herbs (see earlier list).
- Ask students to do research reports on pollinators, focusing on how much and in what specific ways bees, birds, bats, butterflies and others contribute to the health of our planet.
- If kids do become beekeepers, either at school, in conjunction with a local museum or on their own, teach them proper care of bees: For example, bees always need access to water – in bird baths, shallow buckets and other places.
- Remind young beekeepers to check out any rules or regulations in their area that pertain to honeybees and hives, and to be considerate of their neighbors (especially if they are afraid of, or are allergic to, bees).
By getting involved with honeybees in a direct, hands-on way, kids will learn how their own actions can help preserve a much-endangered population. Young people who feel empowered to bring about change will most likely feel they have a stake in the environment and the many animals and insects that inhabit it – along with us.
Finally, if you and/or your family happen to come across bees and beekeepers in your travels, be sure to take note of how the hives are organized. Teamwork and efficiency are key. Each bee has a job to do, one that changes depending on her stage of life, and no one bee gets preferential treatment. Even the queen, despite her name, has to lay approximately 1,500 eggs every day, never gets to leave the hive, and is kicked out once she can no longer lay those eggs.
Honeybees are both sturdy and fragile. Most importantly, they are essential. They don’t just pollinate fruits, nuts and vegetables. They also pollinate plants that provide food, water, shelter and nesting sites for many other species. If bees disappear, our lives will be less healthy, less diverse, definitely less colorful. Our ecology will become unbalanced in ways we probably can’t even predict.
Bees, wherever you may be going, are worth a visit.
Robbie Shell is the author of “Bees on the Roof,” an environmental fiction novel aimed at middle grade kids. The plot centers on a seventh-grade science competition and a group of friends who face personal as well as classroom challenges as they attempt to raise honeybees on a hotel roof in New York City. Information about the ecological role of bees in the food chain and the mysteries of a potentially devastating syndrome called “Colony Collapse Disorder” is woven into the various adventures and discoveries of “The Bee Team.” The article has been revised to include how to involve children in the solution toward the bee crisis.