Bees + Humans: A New Era of Interdependence

Feature Stories Summer 2011 Issue

Bees + Humans: A New Era of Interdependence

By Wendy Allen | Photo By Jim Klousia 0

As cute and inadvertently wise as he was, Winnie the Pooh was incorrect when he once said, “The only reason for being a bee that I know of is to make honey. And the only reason for making honey is so I can eat it.”

Oh Pooh Bear, there are so many other uses for that golden, gooey deliciousness! It’s a natural digestive aide, sugar alternative, allergy remedy, energy booster, skin soother and topical antiseptic (it was even mixed with cod liver oil to dress wounds during World War I). It’s also the only food that will never spoil when stored properly. Famously, a jar found in King Tut’s tomb was still edible after more than 3,000 years. Without honey, we wouldn’t have White Winter Mead (Iron River), Leinenkugel’s Honey Weiss (Chippewa Falls) or Gray’s Honey Ale (Janesville)—for the 21 years and older Pooh Bears, of course. And if you’re remotely a fan of food, we wouldn’t have one-third of what we eat today.

Which leads us to at least one other very important reason for being a bee. Bees had their sticky feet in your honey on toast, but they also pollinated that fruit salad you had for breakfast, the alfalfa fed to your lunchtime hamburger plus its mustard topping, not to mention the coffee keeping you awake right now and that cranberry almond chocolate bar which will tempt you this afternoon.

Hold on. Coffee? Cocoa? Not to lessen the importance of fruits and veggies, but these are two particularly necessary items in my diet. The bees responsible for many of our favorite foods are disappearing, and over the past few years, it’s been hard to miss the panic surrounding their mysterious mass disappearance. But are my coffee and chocolate really at risk?

To find out, I embarked on a search for colony collapse disorder in our region (and in the process, received a crash course in beekeeping), and I’m here to give the definitive answer. It’s yes…and also no; a contradiction which made me sigh, “Oh bother.”

It’s turned into the most concerning mystery of the 21st century. In fall of 2006, beekeepers started reporting up to 90 percent of their hives had vanished. Poof. Just gone. The phenomenon has since been dubbed “colony collapse disorder” (CCD), but the true cause continues to elude beekeepers and scientists alike.

Hives can naturally disappear or die off for various reasons: parasites or disease, harsh winters, a weak queen, not enough food to last through the winter. Other more recent concerns include pesticide exposure, loss of habitat, cell phone towers and GMO crops. Commercial “migrant pollination services” have especially come under fire for trucking hives across the country, following a bloom of mono-crops beginning with Florida’s oranges and culminating in California’s massive almond fields. These services have been blamed for causing poor nutrition and putting undue stress on the bees.

Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, believes this is all combining to cause CCD, and he gives a great analogy: “It’s like when you haven’t had enough sleep and haven’t eaten well, and you get on the red-eye flight across the country and everyone has a cold around you— then you’re more likely to get that cold. Same with the bees.”

Dr. Charles Benbrook, chief scientist with The Organic Center, disagrees somewhat, pointing out that these factors were affecting bees for decades before CCD came on the scene. This means something happened in 2006 to put the bees past the tipping point and cause new—even spooky—symptoms. Beekeepers will suddenly find a hive deserted; all the honey and brood will still be in the comb; and—implying something more insidious is at work—no other insects or animals will touch the hive. All that honey up for grabs, and no takers.

Dr. Benbrook says the something that changed in 2006 was, and continues to be, the routine use of nicotinyl insecticides as seed treatments for crops—or for those of us who aren’t in tune with country life, we’ll know these chemicals as pet flea and tick treatments. Nicotinyl insecticides (also called nicotinyls, neonicotinoids or neo-nicotinyls) were introduced in the early-90s, and by the mid-2000s, were widely used around the world. What made these chemicals so attractive to agriculture is the exact feature that makes them so dangerous to bees: they are “systemic,” meaning the toxin spreads throughout the plant—stalk, leaves, flowers, pollen and nectar, even the duttation (doo-TAY-shun) droplets, or the plant’s “sweat,” a favorite water source for bees. When used as a soil treatment, the nicotinyls will linger in the soil, sometimes for years, to be taken up by future crops and running off into streams, purportedly creating toxic wild plants downstream.

France, Germany and Italy banned nicotinyls after researchers discovered how even small amounts of the chemicals disrupted bees’ ability to communicate, navigate and perform their assigned hive tasks. Despite the evidence, they are still allowed in the United States.

A small number of affected bees will not bring down a strong hive, says Dr. Benbrook. But when more and more are exposed, even to low levels, “by the time fall comes around, the social structure in the hive and the tasks that all the bees must do in concert to sustain the health of the hive don’t get done.”

“By my read of the evidence, and certainly many other people’s, it is clearly the exposure to the nicotinyls that has been the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ around the world,” says Dr. Benbrook.

Though they have differing views on the role nicotinyls play in CCD, Black very much agrees they are a serious issue. However, he emphasizes that we, as a society, use pesticides for so many purposes—not only in agriculture, but on our lawns, gardens, and around the home—and we shouldn’t focus solely on nicotinyls. “What about the new class of insecticide that comes along?” he asks. “Is the new one OK? We [The Xerces Society] believe that more action should be taken by the federal agencies to better regulate all insecticides, not just nicotinyls.”

Heavy stuff. But amazingly, as I poked around locally, I was hardpressed to find a beekeeper in Southwest Wisconsin who had beyond-a-doubt experienced CCD here. Dare I hope?

As a commercial operation with 600 hives, I expected Gentle Breeze Honey to be a giant field filled with rows upon rows of boxy beehives. Instead, owner Eugene Woller’s home and “honeyhouse” are tucked against a low hillside near Mt. Horeb, and a short walk brought us to only six or eight hives just inside the tree line. To my surprise, the other 590 stretch from Fitchburg to as far west as the Driftless area. Last summer, Woller found three of his hives gone, but he shrugged and said he “found them late in the fall, so it could have been a late swarm,” and he moved on to describing how pollination services can be done right.

Woller brings bees to pollinate a local wildflower seed producer’s fields, but he’s conscious of how far the bees are moved and whether they’ll be exposed to chemicals in their wanderings. It has worked out beautifully for both sides, and now the producer requests only Woller’s bees each year.

Listening to Woller talk about beekeeping and his previous work with the entomology department at UW-Madison, it’s clear he takes his responsibility to every single hive seriously while enjoying every minute. He says that healthy bees make the best honey (and oh, it’s delightful. Try their spreadable spun honey if you prefer to eat your honey on the toast, as opposed to licking it off your elbow).

Busy as a bee (sorry, I had to!), Sarah Shatz was on her way to Minneapolis for a Beekeeping in Northern Climates workshop at the Minnesota Bee Lab when we finally connected. She and her partner, Claire Strader, have one backyard hive in Madison, and they keep five hives at Troy Gardens, where Claire is the farm manager, and where the bees are obviously beloved (and spoiled). “When the farm has extra space,” Shatz says, “they’ll plant flowers that bloom at different times of the year right near the hive so they don’t have to fly very far.”

“We have not experienced colony collapse at all,” she continues. “Our big issue is the [Varroa] mites, and winter losses from the colony not being strong or not having enough food going into the winter. That’s why we’re going to this workshop.” In cold climates, a colony would need about 75 pounds of honey to survive an average winter, more if it’s a late spring like this year.

In Minneapolis, Dr. Marla Spivak is a renowned entomologist at the Minnesota Bee Lab, who has developed a variety of Italian bee called the Minnesota Hygienic. These bees have been bred for “hygienic” behaviors and have had success surviving our harsh winters.

“All the research I do, and have done, is based on keeping bees healthy,” says Dr. Spivak. “I don’t research how to treat diseases and parasites; I research how bees can help themselves by promoting their own natural defenses. Bees can survive the coldest of winters if they are healthy.”

Jordan Bendel and his family moved back to Bloomingdale (near Westby) last year from Minnesota, and they used to spend winters down south. “When we were in Texas,” Bendel says, “I saw a fair amount of CCD. They’d just be gone, except for maybe a handful of bees or the queen. Up here, losses happen more in fall and over winter, but it’s hard to tell if it’s really CCD. It could have been mites, starvation or something else.”

“You get 30 beekeepers in a room, and you’ll get 30 different answers to a problem,” he says. Our region’s (almost more pressing) issues of managing genetic diversity, harsh winters and mites will often cause minor rifts in the local beekeeping community, but Bendel is careful to point out that there are a lot of ways to manage bees, and many methods will show success over time. His personal success has been through using “top-bar” hives, which allow bees to build their own comb without frames and foundation. Bendel believes the use of this system has been a major factor in keeping his bees strong and healthy.

Beyond everyone’s personal choices, there’s a tangible sense of community and support for one another. “There just aren’t that many beekeepers around these days, so we want everyone to see success, whatever way they do it.”

Unfortunately, no matter how many winters it’s survived or how “hygienic,” no breed of bee is immune to CCD. And this puts beekeepers in an interesting position—almost as “auxiliary” members of the colony.

A bee colony is utterly dependent on each member to do very specific jobs in order for the entire hive to survive. Today, with everything they’re faced with in the environment, bees depend on humans for survival as much as a healthy queen or a far-flying worker. We have become a vital part of their world: tending them, creating bee gardens, preserving wild habitats and fighting for their lives in our communities and across the country. As a result, the 2008 Farm Bill contains provisions for conservation programs specifically intended to promote bee and other pollinator habitats on farms, and the Xerces Society’s work has preserved over 50,000 acres of habitat.

There’s no consensus on whether total bee populations have rebounded in the past five years, but if bee club attendance is any factor, then at least our local bees are destined for success. Bendel and Shatz both said one of the “good” parts of the CCD issue is the increased interest in bees, even by people who don’t want to keep hives.

We’ve entered a new era of interdependence as we realize just how much depends on some of the smallest creatures on our planet.

Bugs may not be cute or cuddly, but without bees to pollinate our food, or any number of the tiny beings improving our soils, assisting decomposition, eating pests and more, we wouldn’t have the big animals—polar bears, pandas, wolves, buffalo—we’ve grown to love as the faces of the conservation movement. We humans may not even be here, at least not in the numbers we are today. We need the little guys.

Even though CCD remains a huge and concerning issue worldwide, I’m left feeling good about what’s happening here in Southwest Wisconsin and the upper Midwest: the science being developed, the wonder on a child’s face as she watches the queen bee, and especially the community banding together and effecting local change even when our government agencies will not—all for the love of a little bee.

Our caffeine and chocolate are in good hands.

Wendy Allen is digital editor, copy editor, and a writer for Edible Madison. She reads style guides for fun, believes stories have power, and is fascinated by the evolution of the English languageā€”for better or worse. Her mission: to wrestle the wily comma into submission.

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