I saw my last wild honeybee about eight years ago, while I was still living in rural/semi-suburban Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In my community, I was the only person lamenting that loss. For years, I had watched my neighbors come out of their houses, arms swinging, with all manner of insecticides, spraying at anything and everything that moved. I could never get them to understand that birds, amphibians, pollinators, and predatory insects were not only beneficial, but absolutely necessary for the survival of a healthy ecosystem. But their never-realized fears of a deadly attack by miniature winged assassins could not be assuaged by the application of rational thought.
The boundaries of my neighborhood were mixed-planting hedgerows (200 plus years old!) where at least one type of flower was blooming from early spring through late summer. There were over 107 acres of abandoned pastures, orchards, and forest, with streams, a healthy wildlife population, and even a cliff, surrounding us on two sides, and a US highway that served as the main corridor into New Jersey, on another. In short, there was absolutely no shortage of food for pollinators, predators, and prey, but they did have to contend with pesticides and automotive exhaust fumes.
Despite my neighbors’ best efforts to eradicate all forms of nature with more than four legs from our otherwise idyllic existence, I still had plenty of pollinators, predatory wasps, and good bugs visiting my perennial garden. So why did the honeybees disappear? And why are all pollinators in decline around the world? The answers appear to be far more complicated (and surprising) than anyone could have guessed.
We now know that low-level, long term stress, usually induced by our reactions to multiple negative stimuli, is far more harmful to our health than high impact, short duration stress that we can manage or eliminate completely. Long stressful commutes, airborne pollutants, low quality food, and worrying about how we’re going to pay the bills, keep our jobs, and take care of our families have negative impacts on our well-being. The same is true for every other creature alive on the planet, except they aren’t worried about paying any bills. We should be so lucky.
Our choice to implement mass monoculture cropping, not just on farms, but in our personal landscapes (yes, I’m ranting about lawns again) as well, is a major source of stress not just for pollinators, but for many other living organisms. There simply isn’t enough high quality food, of sufficient diversity, to keep our pollinators as healthy as they could be. Imagine only having corn to eat and NOTHING else. We’d be starving in very short order, without a source for all the other nutrients we need to stay alive. Well, that’s what we’re doing to our pollinators.
Honeybees are shipped all over the world, timed according to the blooming season of the crop being grown at the destination location. That sounds insane, doesn’t it? Just as international travel exposes humans to increased risk of disease, so does shipping bees on a world tour. I think you’re beginning to understand that what’s bad for us is bad for pollinators and vice versa. We tend to focus exclusively on honeybees, because they’re the only pollinator that shares their treasures with us so willingly. Domesticated honeybees were introduced around the world by human colonizers, and have been in the US since the 17th century. The cultivation of honey is an ancient art, so today’s honeybees are the descendants of European, Middle Eastern, and African honeybees.
Just who are all the major native pollinators in our gardening area? All sorts of bees, butterflies, moths, flies, wasps, insects, birds, and just about any other critter that sips nectar from flowers. The primary stressors responsible for the declines of pollinator species are thought to include pesticides, pathogens, parasites, and poor nutrition. There are host specific bacteria, viruses, and pests that adversely impact the health and productivity of pollinators as well, and there are a multitude of institutions and organizations attempting to find effective remedies. Without pollinators, our food supply would be drastically reduced.
What everyone seems to agree upon is the importance of integrated solutions, using native plants to significantly increase biodiversity, reducing pesticide use, and providing satisfactory habitats for native pollinators.
There are arguments against using pesticides at all, but some sources recommend that we use the least toxic substances possible, and avoid spraying during blooming periods. Maintaining a healthy diet is just as important for pollinators as it is for us.
Here in Georgia, we depend on the southeastern blueberry bee to pollinate our commercial blueberry crops. We can support them and other pollinators by planting blueberries, redbuds, and other plants that provide a continuous succession of blooms from spring through fall. Try to buy from farms that utilize pollinator friendly practices, talk with your neighbors and let them know why they should follow your example and cultivate pollinator friendly habitats and practices in their own gardens. Once you’ve set up a pollinator friendly habitat, maybe you can invite a beekeeper to set up hives on your property for a blooming season.
https://georgiaorganics.org/2014/01/green-acres-spotlight-farming-for-pollinators/ (This particular post is a 2014 interview with the presenters of a sustainable farming seminar. Keep an eye on this website for future dates of similar offerings.)
http://news.psu.edu/story/362124/2015/07/02/impact/new-faculty-position-investigate-pollinator-health (This is actually a job posting for a position at Penn State, but it contains some interesting information.)
There are probably other beekeepers throughout Georgia who offer similar overviews on beekeeping, but here’s the website for the beekeeper who led the class I attended last month. Click on the Honey and Bee Services tab to see their presentation offerings.
The demand for world traveler honeybees to pollinate fruit and nut crops around the world has put undue stresses on the bees. But it is a lovely picture, yes? (Photo ©teressa – Fotolia.com)