The Impact of Pollinators: The Unsung Heroes

The Case of the Disappearing Bees is not the next revamped Nancy Drew novel, but a real life global phenomenon that has environmentalists hunting for a solution. The habitats for these tiny creatures have altered so severely it is estimated that bee colonies have declined by 50% between 1945 and 2007. In 2006, the USDA in the United States echoed this estimate by saying that some beekeepers “began reporting losses of 30-90 percent of their hives” and between 2006-2011, “annual losses averaged about 33 percent each year.” In an annual USDA survey from 2012-2013, “more than two-thirds of responding beekeepers reported losses greater than 14 percent.” These are just a few facts illustrating the downfall of the honeybee, a sudden drop that will wreak havoc on our agricultural landscape unless something is done to save them.

Did you know that honeybees are responsible for maintaining one third of our crops through pollination? Without bees, our grocery stores would be depleted of a long list of produce including: apples, oranges, blueberries, almonds, cherries, pears, plums, peaches, mangos, onions, cashews, strawberries, beans, coffee, walnuts, lemons, carrots, cantaloupe, watermelon, coconut, broccoli, cabbage, eggplant, blackberries, limes, tomatoes, cranberries, and grapes just to name some. If you enjoy food, any food at all, you will be a proponent to keep the bees alive and thriving.

So what is causing the elimination of the bee population? One frontrunner would be Varroa mites, known as a “major pest of honey bees,” that literally kill whole colonies of bees if left untreated. Some other contributing factors in the decline of honeybees include other diseases, fungi, and parasites, as well as the use of pesticides—particularly the class of neonicotinoids that environmentalists have pointed out as being toxic to bees. Also, another major factor is climate change. According to scientists, bees “have lost nearly 200 miles off the southern end of their historic wild range in both the US and in Europe, a trend that is continuing at a rate of about five miles every year.”

The good news here is that Congress recognizes the importance of honeybees and has given more funding for bee research to prevent Colony Collapse Disorder, CCD, the name given to the sudden death of bee colonies. However, one DIY hobby has enormous potential to help replenish the populations: Urban Beekeeping.  

Urban Beekeeping has the enormous potential to lift these swarming sweeteners out of their unfortunate circumstances and into a world where fruit salad is not in danger of becoming a luxury item. It has been on the rise especially in New York City; antiquated laws banning beekeeping due to its name on the exotic pets list have been lifted since 2010. The New York Times lauded the benefits of raising bees in the city as opposed to rural areas, pointing out the significant decrease in pesticide residues and that bees pollinate crops for the entire community, strengthening the neighborhood and providing healthier food year round. Plus, there are many beekeeper clubs with resources and mentors to start a support network.

To get started, one needs a space to keep their new fuzzy friends: preferably a small yard, but an apartment rooftop works great too—just be sure to get permission from the building. Also, check your local beekeeping regulations according to the area since the seasonal climate is different everywhere. The hives are formed from several layers of stacked boxes—which can be bought online or at bee keeping retailers. The most common hive to use is the Langstroth hive because of its easily removable honeycomb trays. Place your hives in a nice warm sunny area facing south or east, and avoid cool damp air. If you are able, put a fence around the yard so they are able to fly at higher altitudes; bees tend to fly in straight lines and will miss great pollinating opportunities if kept at a lower level.

The next thing, and arguably most important, is the Smoker which pumps your hives full of smoke that hides the bees pheromone alerting them to danger. This Smoker is used only for the routine inspections two times a month for diseases and parasites; the last thing you’d want is for your little bees to think you were a predator, inciting them to sting you in defense. For these inspections, either a full beekeeper’s suit or a veil is key. Start your hive with an investment of about $500-1000.

Overall, it’s very important to note that beekeeping techniques will be different depending on where you live. Therefore, having knowledge of local regulations and rules for proper beekeeping will be best for starting this venture. A good timeline for the proper steps to ensure honeybee success can be found here at Beginning Beekeeping.

Swarms are a dramatic affair, with sometimes more than half the hive leaving with the queen to find another home. This mostly happens due to overcrowding, poor ventilation, or the loss of the queen. Make sure the bees have access to water and add supers and a queen excluder in early spring to provide extra space. You can tell if a bee hive has swarmed recently by noticing lack of eggs, fewer bees, and queen cells along the lower third of the hive frames. The swarm will huddle together, keeping the queen in the center, while a few bees search for their new habitat. Swarming, in addition to diseases and parasites, are the major issues the beekeeper might encounter along the process.

Modern beekeepers attest to the satisfaction felt knowing they are making a difference as well as the meditative effect they get by watching the bee colony work as a single organism to bring us honey. If this were a mystery novel, then the beekeepers would certainly be the unsuspecting superheroes that swoop in to save the day.

We invite you to click on the links included within the article to learn more about how bees are important pollinators and the environmental problems they’ve been facing.

Photo Credit: Paige L.

Written by: Megan K.