For the common honey bee (Apis mellifera), a species that thrived for millions of years, the last decade has brought an alarming decline in numbers, a syndrome known as Colony Collapse Disorder. Since 1990, over 25% of the managed honey bee population in the USA has disappeared*. Manitoba lost 46% of its honey bee colonies in 2012 and Nova Scotia has seen declines of about 18% in the last two years. Canada is the 12th largest producer of honey in the world, with a crop worth about two billion dollars. Any decline is a significant loss to the economy.
Because over one-third of global crops depend on bees and other insects for pollination, scientists and farmers are struggling to learn the causes of this decline and reverse the trend. The usual suspects are global warming (which advances the timing of blooms so that the pollinators come out of hibernation too late to get the food); wide-spread use of pesticides that are toxic to bees; habitat loss when farmland has been taken over by other development and when monoculture crops are planted (loss of diversity); and other factors such as parasitic mites.
Among the solutions proposed is the planting of more native species (occasionally known as weeds) that provide the appropriate type of pollen and nectar necessary for the bees to thrive, which would result in more bees being available to pollinate our crops. Marla Spivak, professor of entomology at the University of Minnesota, in a recent TED talk [YouTube, September 2013] explained that bees get their protein from pollen and their food carbohydrates from nectar. Unless there is a diverse source of this food, from various types of flowers, continuing throughout the growing season, bees will lack sufficient nourishment to sustain their population.
As a measure of the importance of bees to agriculture, apple and blueberry crops require about one colony of bees (that’s about 30,000 bees) per acre of planting. The Canadian Honey Council represents over 8,000 bee-keepers managing over 700,000 colonies across the country. At its AGM to be held this month, it will be discussing the need to protect bees from exposure to neonicotoid pesticides, and how to cooperate with growers and regulators in reaching a compromise while reducing the use of neonicotoids. In a strange twist, a recent article by blogger Scott Sutherland (Geekquist) reports that some researchers are experimenting with using bees as the actual agents of delivering organic pesticides. When the bees exit their hive to forage for food, they walk through the pesticide, which sticks to their legs and is subsequently deposited on the plants they visit, without apparent harm to the bees.
Although scientists around the globe are acutely aware of the declining bee population, more information needs to be circulated to the general public. One enterprising project designed to educate and encourage support for urban beekeeping is the B-Shack, designed, fabricated and assembled by a team of students in the School of Architecture at McGill University. To read more about it, check it out at http://farmhouse.farmmresearch.com/bshack
Wild bee populations, including bumblebees, also play a role in pollination and they can benefit from flowering native plants grown along roadsides, farmers’ fields and even city gardens. Cover crops like white clover and alfalfa are also important components in producing healthy bee populations. Honey bees have a highly evolved social organization, in which individual members of the colony perform specific tasks, yet all work together as part of a complex society. Dr Spivak suggests in her talk that if, like honey bees, we each make individual efforts as part of a collective body, we will produce results.
Gardeners everywhere should be concerned about the future of our bee population. We believe that Chester gardeners will respond to the challenge. By encouraging the planting of flowery borders and hedgerows around our village and by adding more native flowers to our own gardens, and by eliminating pesticides, we can help not only the bees but other pollinators such as butterflies and birds.—–
* Gabriella Chavarna, Pollinator Conservation, Renewable Resource Journal, Winter 1999-2000; Among many other sites to check: pollinationcanada.ca; canadahoneycouncil.ca; Geekquinox blog; honeybees.ca; honeylandcanada.com/eng/e