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Honeybees Buzzing Back in 2011

by Fred First

What with the extremes of temperature and rainfall, and cursed by more than the usual cadre of pests in the vegetable garden this year, it was not a stellar season. But it will be a memorable summer for this one reason: the honey bees are back! Or at least it seemed so in our small corner of the world.

From the first flush of dandelions in our lawn until the final blossoms fell from the October chrysanthemums out back, we have seen more domestic honey bees this year than in all the 11 years combined since we moved to Goose Creek.

The several Floyd County bee keepers I know have been upbeat. They have had mostly very good honey production this year, with nothing like the 30% hive mortality that has been common many places as a wave of bee death and disappearance has swept across the globe since 2005 and 2006.

With some measure of hope, I thought I would revisit the plight of the honeybee, since first writing five years ago about the ominous, early days of a bee plague that has since become infamously well-known as CCD–Colony Collapse Disorder.

But is the future looking less bleak today than it was five years ago for these hard-working insects we have made so busy on our behalf for so many centuries? Do we know now what’s been happening to bee colonies and how to protect them from collapsing?

While some pieces of the mystery are known, more than a few important uncertainties remain. It seems clear, though, that the honeybee’s health and our own will rise and fall together–a relationship that should not surprise us, as the bees and their hooded keepers share a common organic chemistry and cellular biology.

Loss of honey bees’ services would be catastrophic, since “three of every ten bites we eat” (or more depending on whose stats you use) is the result of bee pollination.  Look at this list of food plants pollinated by the honeybee.  Our relationship with bees is an economy we have nurtured for our benefit–not the bees’. And their tainted environment is largely of our making, not theirs.

The list of challenges to bee-keepers has always been long–verroa mites and tracheal mites, fungi, viruses and a variety of insect infestations and brood diseases. But humankind has lately added some new stressors and threats.

Recently, nano-particles added to diesel fuel for improved combustion have come under suspicion for causing both human and bee disorders. These substances mask the smells that bee’s follow, as well as impairing their navigational systems.

The antibiotics used to keep bee hives healthy, paradoxically, might be implied in an increase in hive mortality. And, like their excessive use in feedlots, antibiotics overused in treating bees can lead to selection for even more virulent hive pathogens.

Hauling hives over great distances for almond grove and other fruit pollination has become common. Not surprisingly, this causes stress on this insect so finely tuned to the geography of its place in the world.

Any toxin that ends up in plants and their pollen can have an impact on bee health. Both genetically-modified and pesticide-laden pollen have been implicated, as well as dust from insecticide-coated seed. (You might find online and read “Pesticide Blowout.”)

Of particular concern is a group of pesticides called neonicotinoids. In 2008, when these substances (especially clothianidin and imidacloprid) were found in large numbers of dead bees in Germany, the use of these insecticides was immediately halted. (There were popular demonstrations in Italy, France and Slovenia last month against these pesticides on behalf of the bees.)

In America, on the other hand, the EPA has looked the other way and sanctioned questionable science that ostensibly suggests that these chemicals do bees no harm under field conditions. There are parallels here to the industry-biased “science” of safe cigarettes of an earlier era that many of us still remember.

But Floyd County bee-keeper Mark Chorba, member of the New River Valley Beekeeping Association, confirms that, although he’s had one colony completely disappear this year, overall the bee-keeping enterprise is alive and well in our area.

And more bees buzzing this year is probably not just wishful thinking after all, he says. More people have been attracted to bee-keeping by the increased focus on honeybees due to CCD.

That last sentence is perhaps the most hopeful thing I offer here in this second look at the plight of the bees: the more we have become aware, the more we have been made to care. The more we care, the more likely we will be to bring the bees–and ourselves–back to good health.

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