Honeybees Are Still Hurting, But Backyard (and Rooftop) Beekeepers Can Help

Honeybee losses keep piling up and scientists don't know why. In the meantime, though, hobbyist beekeepers can help keep the embattled insect going

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Photo by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post via Getty Images

Honeybees are still under threat

As I wrote in my cover story last month, the news has not been good for honeybees, which are still dying off in large and unexplained numbers. New data from Canada underscores the fact that the problem isn’t just American—the major agricultural province of Manitoba lost 46% of its honeybee colonies over the past winter, and nationally, Canadian beekeepers lost 29% of their colonies, around the same rate seen in the U.S. “It’s very de-motivational when you’re just cleaning up all this death,” Allan Campbell, the head of the Manitoba Beekeepers Association, told Amber Hildebrant of CBC News. “For all the work you do, you’re no further ahead. You’re behind.” That sad pessimism from those on the frontline of the honeybee war sounds familiar too.

The one benefit from the now multi-year uptick on bee deaths is that the media and scientists alike are paying more attention to our favorite pollinators. Earlier this week honeybee health was a major focus of the 246th National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society, which bills itself as the world’s largest scientific society. Richard Fell, an emeritus professor of entomology at Virginia Tech, gave a broad presentation on colony collapse disorder (CCD) and honeybee decline. But the answers still aren’t clear. Pesticides (including neonicotinoids, which have been linked to sub-lethal impacts), parasites, lack of nutrition and diseases are all behind the collapse in honeybee populations. That’s something nearly everyone in the honeybee world could agree on, though Fell—like many scientists—doesn’t believe that pesticides alone are the cause of CCD, and he believes a ban of neonicotinoids, something that European Union has already moved on, would be premature in the U.S.

(MORE: The Plight of the Honeybee)

As Fell put it in a statement:

I think it is important to emphasize that we do not understand the causes of colony decline and CCD and that there are probably a number of factors involved. Also, the factors that trigger a decline may be different in different areas of the country and at different times of year

Of course, that still begs the question of what we should be doing about honeybee loss and CCD. Last month the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did introduce new labels that prohibit the use of some neonicotinoid pesticides where bees are present. That’s a positive step, but of course labels only work if farmers use them—and if regulators enforce the rules.

A pair of studies presented at the ACS meeting showed that corn planting season seemed to be particularly dangerous to honeybees. That may be due to the fact that corn seeds are now treated with neonicotinoid pesticides, and when they’re planted, dust can be created that contains very high concentrations of the pesticides, which then in turn contaminates surrounding fields. When pollinators like honeybees forage in those fields, they can be exposed to dangerously high levels of the pesticides. Such widespread contamination makes it that much more difficult for beekeepers to find clean foraging territory for their charge—a task that’s already tough enough due to the growth of monocultures of crops like corn and soybeans that offer little nutrition for bees, and the gradual dwindling of noncropped rural lands.

(MORE: The Trouble with Beekeeping in the Anthropocene)

Even if honeybee losses continue to mount, we’re unlikely to face a real food crisis. The backbone of our diet—corn, meat, wheat—is derived from wind-pollinated crops that don’t need honeybees. Still, honeybees pollinate nearly every other fruit and vegetables out there, along with valuable nuts like almonds, so persistently high honeybee losses would probably mean smaller harvests and higher prices. Farmers could try to turn to wild pollinators like the bumblebee or the alflafa leafcutter bee, except that those species are much more difficult to manage and are experiencing their own population declines. There’s a reason human beings have kept honeybees around for thousands of years.

So what can we do? Even as the number of professional beekeepers has been falling in recent years, the number of backyard or hobbyist beekeepers has been on the rise—anecdotally, at least. Beekeeping recently became legal within the confines of New York City, and the amateurs keepers have swarmed to the business. The latest trend for skyscrapers is a honeybee hive or two on the roof. That includes the famous Waldorf Astoria hotel on Park Avenue, where bees have been kept on the 20th floor roof for the last few years. The Waldorf Astoria makes its own honey, and even recently hosted a friendly battle of the bees, facing off against honey made at the Grand Wailea Resort, another Waldorf property on the Hawaiian island of Maui. (For the record, Wailea won the popular vote from partygoers at the rooftop reception last week—including my vote—while the Waldorf Astoria won the judges’ vote.) “Keeping our bees and making honey is great for our chef, and it’s the right thing to do for our horticulture,” says Jim Heid, the landscape manager at the Grand Wailea.

Backyard beekeepers won’t save the honeybee—that’s going to require a shift in how we farm, and just as importantly, what we expect out of our bees. But a little more honey can’t hurt.

(MORE: Beepocalypse Redux: Honeybees Are Still Dying — and We Still Don’t Know Why)

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