This spring is my tenth for keeping bees on the East End, currently in fifteen locations from Southampton to Amagansett on farms, nurseries, and backyards. The challenges have never been greater. And so have the consequences for us all.
It wasn’t always this difficult to keep bees. Back in the good old days, prior to the arrival of Tracheal and Varroa mites, one could be a “bee-haver.” The bees could largely take care of themselves, avoiding the life-threatening effects of diseases. Then in the late 1980s these mites were inadvertently introduced into the United States, and over half of the managed and most of the wild colonies died.
Of the two mites, the Varroa is the more pernicious. It transmits a host of viruses, thereby diminishing the bees’ vitality and lifespan. This is particularly critical in winter. As cold-blooded animals, bees must maintain their population, stay awake (they don’t hibernate) and eat lots of honey (yes, they make the honey for themselves) to generate sufficient heat to prevent the colony from freezing. It is when they are most stressed that they are most likely to succumb.
However, there is a larger problem than the mites, less visible but more insidious. Pesticides. They are ubiquitous.
Pesticides used to come largely in sprays. Their toxic effects, though lethal, were temporary, washed off by rain, thereby diminishing potency. A newer family of poisons, called the neonicitinoids (neonics) is “systemic” to the plant. Applied as seed coatings, soil drenches, or foliar sprays, the chemicals are taken up by plants and distributed throughout their tissues. They cannot be washed off. Traces of the pesticides are everywhere and always present, including in the plants’ pollen and nectar, the forage for bees.
Although I select a hive’s location, I have little control over where the worker bees, my girls, forage for nectar and pollen in an area of some 6,000 acres around their homes. They, in turn, cannot avoid flowers tainted with pesticides. Through the course of a typical day an individual bee will visit thousands of flowers. Collectively tens of thousands inadvertently bring small amounts of pesticides, often in sub-lethal doses, back to the hive where they accumulate. It’s a time bomb.
The scientific evidence is substantial but controversial. It suggests the neonics are a major contributor to the loss of the bees. But control, if not an outright ban of these poisons, is difficult to secure.
Because of their alleged contribution to what we know as colony collapse disorder, the European Union took a positive step and suspended their use for two years, while further testing is done. Here, official debate continues. This means individuals must decide whether to use these pesticides indiscriminately, or in smaller quantities. or not at all.
The loss of a colony may sound inconsequential, but consider this. A colony contains tens of thousands of bees. Since 2006 C.C.D. has been blamed for the loss of one-third or more of the managed bee colonies in this country, an estimated 2.6 million, in each of the past seven years except one. Losing a third of the managed colonies in 12 months amounts to between 20 billion and 60 billion honeybees (depending on time of year). These are enormous losses to our food supply and agriculture in general.
Ah, but your attention, dear reader, is for the bees, not math or economics, you say. Let us look more closely at them.
As of this week, after a particularly challenging winter, my girls sound surprisingly strong. On warmer days they’re out seeking the first bits of pollen and nectar. Various colors of pollen are already showing up on their doorsteps, but we’re eagerly awaiting the bright yellow kind, that tells us that the dandelion, that beautiful “messenger from heaven,” is in bloom. Like a sun shining up from the ground, this radiant flower is the true harbinger of spring and a bountiful source of nectar and pollen for my winter-weary bees.
Imagine my horror when I’ve seen my bees, covered in golden dust, dance a spasmodic death because they have innocently gathered pollen from dandelions treated with herbicides. The dandelion, taraxacum officinale, has been valued for thousands of years for its medicinal qualities. Its name, officinale, indicates medicine. It is one of the most nutritionally dense greens we can eat, higher in beta-carotene than carrots, more iron and calcium than spinach, and more vitamin C than tomatoes, not to mention Vitamins B1, B2, B5, B6, B12, C, E, P, D, biotin, inositol, potassium, magnesium and zinc. Those who buy dandelions pay on average $31.75 per pound for them at the grocery store when they could be picked in our yards for free. But its presence means “weed” on golf courses — and lawns of homeowners and municipalities alike.
Since pesticides are common to farming, many assume it is the farmer who must be killing the bees. Though that may be the case in some parts of our nation, it is not the case here at home. Farmers know the girls are efficient pollinators and increase crop yields. No, homeowners use up to ten times more pesticides per acre on their lawns than farmers on their crops. Nearly 80 million pounds of active ingredients in pesticides are used annually on lawns, and of the 30 most commonly used, 11 are deadly for bees. And it isn’t just my girls we need to worry about – pesticides kill everything, eventually.
I am grateful to share and sell honey from Bees Needs at the Sag Harbor Farmers Market and elsewhere. Many customers inquire about the bees’ welfare and ask how to help. I tell them, as I tell you: Let’s start by kicking our chemical habit. Know the pesticides for the killers they are. An estimated 74 percent of the 104 million U.S. households use them. If you don’t: BRAVO!
Please discuss this with your neighbor or village, town, and state officials. Local policies can and should be put in place to save the bees. Cherish your dandelions and other spring bloomers. When visiting the local nurseries for seasonal flowers consider plants that are especially good for bees. But most important, ask about pesticide applications. We’ve all seen those yellow flags they put out, but my girls can’t read the labels!
Whatever kindness you perform for the bees you return to yourself in personal health and with healthier local fruits and vegetables. Your kids and pets will also benefit. So will the local fish and fowl, and every living thing, whether we eat it or not, now and for generations to come.