Ecocentric

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)

SEE ALSO:  The Big Surprise of Martin Luther King’s Speech 
 
35 comments
catherineanngarvin
catherineanngarvin

Greetings Bryan Walsh, My new book Hope for the Honey Bee discusses this exact topic of how empowered human-beings creating year-round bee gardens can revolutionize current down turn of Apis Mellifera. Check out my book on Amazon.com Thanks of the awesome job you doing for getting the word out about bees. Peace and Many blessings. 

BillCBeekeeper
BillCBeekeeper

The honey bee pollination industry should threaten a boycott for next year. The chemical industry has way to much influence on agriculture policy. Without this type of action, we will continue to watch as bee colonies mortality will continue to increase. If hobbiest beekeepers want to make a difference, STOP TREATING!!! All treatments do is select for more virulent mites that can easily survive the poisons that are being used.

Maudycross
Maudycross

In some parts of Victoria, Australia, where wireless smart meters have been installed, it has been found that bees will no longer return to their hives if the hives are closer than about 80 meters from an operational smart meter. 

RSMJR87
RSMJR87

I worked for Beyer Crop Science for 3 years, I also notice wondering bees flying around like kamikaze's in Bakersfield, CA running into walls and the ground. The Orchards that use the GMO's in our area is cotton. which is placed right next to the Almond Orchards where they keep multiple Bee Colony's.  We need to stop treating seeds with these Herbicides and Pesticides and tell our farmers to stop using treated seeds, And deal with the pests and weeds the old fashion way( bam we just made more jobs) cause ultimately If all the Bee's are gone there will a piss poor Harvest if none at all.

RSMJR87
RSMJR87

GMO's Beyer Crop Science...

US1776
US1776

Stop spraying all these insecticides on crops and lawns.

.

MastaPlanna
MastaPlanna

Does anyone out there think that the simple solution to this would be to just stop "landscaping" every nook and cranny?  I mean if I didn't have anything to eat I'd die too.


We cut down everything that grows constantly and its just caught up with the bees.  Thats my take at least

KenWheel
KenWheel

This is what genetic inbreeding gets you.

captain_obvious
captain_obvious

Unexplained numbers??  Duh, only in America perhaps.  The rest of the world, including their governments, are way ahead of this situation and have implemented bans on Monsanto products to address exactly this problem.  Their products have been proven to be the cause of the bee-apocalypse.  Only in the USA, where corporate profit is paramount to humans' and natures' best interests, are these bee deaths a big mystery... Pathetic.

LyndaLBDuke
LyndaLBDuke

We the people need to DEMAND a REPEAL OF THE MONSANTO PROTECTION ACT (supposedly due to expire soon) because this keeps them in business and protects them from Lawsuits and condemnation of their GMOs.  We need to bring Monsanto DOWN!

omgirl
omgirl

Corn, meat and wheat, what you call the "backbone of the American diet" are also the backbone of the American health crisis. Losing bees WOULD constitute a food crisis, and would detrimental health consequences for all Americans. Perhaps we could get by without almonds, but what about apples and other fruits and vegetables, which are leaps and bounds more healthful than foods like corn, meat and wheat, which have sketchy nutrient profiles and are likely to be rife with harmful hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and/or GMO? I'm seriously stunned anyone could make that statement. Who's paying you, Monsanto??

LyndaLBDuke
LyndaLBDuke

I have a garden, and NO pesticides.  I have lots of flowers to attract and feed the bees...and NO MONSANTO!


marryman
marryman

If bees were to die off, the eco system would go into the toilet and  humans will eventually die with them. We  cannot survive without them, even with all of our technology. 

perisoft
perisoft

When I first saw the headline, I read it as "beefpocalypse", and was immediately concerned. As much as I appreciate bees, I confess to significant relief when I realized that hamburgers are not in danger.

se123
se123

sorry but corn and wheat is not my staple diet....fruits, vegtables and meat

BarbaraThurman
BarbaraThurman

Probably got nothing to do with it, but I can't help but think that as our dependence on cell phones rises and more cell phone towers are built, our bees are dying. Too much crap bouncing around our airspace for these little creatures to find their way home. And without the hive, they die. 

RickMueller
RickMueller

Does anyone else see how simple it is to figure out if it is the CCD's causing the problem? 


Ban them for 5 years and see if the hives make a comeback. Simple, right?


A responsible chemical industry would do it on their own. 

This, unfortunately, is why we need government regulation free of the influence of lobbyist.

UrbanFarmer
UrbanFarmer

" 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."

You are kidding me, right ?    This is our real food crisis - that the "backbone of our diet" is corn, meat and wheat.   It should be unsurprising to the educated person that the reason we have an explosion of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer is precisely because the "backbone of our diet"  is corn, meat and wheat.

Everyone should be eating a healthy plateful of fruits and vegetables - even the American Heart Association now recommends nine - I will repeat that - nine - servings of fruits and vegetables every day.

Where would we be getting that without pollinators ?   Everyone should be working their hardest possible to expand the growing of healthful fruits and vegetables across the country, and having pollinators to support that.

Whiteraven7
Whiteraven7

OK…if we as a nation chose to take care of our own citizens first and remove ourselves from an altruistic "we need to take care of the rest of the world" syndrome, which no longer has any applicability to a former perceived status or role within the world community, logically we would not have to produce such vast quantities of grain crops. This acreage would then be converted into cultivating crops which are not fatal to the bee population and, in fact, ourselves. 

We have bent over backwards to help other nations in the past with few "thank you's" from all but our most loyal allies. I realize it is harsh to support an isolationist viewpoint for our nation, but the United States of America needs to take of its own first. How many times have nations we have courted by assuming the role of the good guys, who have been the recipients of vast amounts of foreign aid from us, thrown this kindness back into our faces? 

The disappearance of honey bees is a cog in the overall system-of-systems situation we currently find ourselves. Everything we do currently as a nation has a global socioeconomic impact to both the international community and to humanity. The condition of non-human species throughout the world is predicated on this. Honey bees may not be the rainforest, but the Earth would not be the world it evolved into if either component had been missing from our planet's history.

This is all I have to say.

peterlborst1
peterlborst1

Let's be clear, the fate of beekeeping rests as much in the hands of small time beekeepers as large. 99% of the beekeepers in this country are doing beekeeping on a small scale, and they own something like half the hives in the US. The exact number is difficult to know, since the government stopped including beekeepers with less than 5 hives in their census figures. So, the much used figure of 2.5 million hives in the US may be 1 million shy of the mark. Small timers probably own at least 1.5 million of the country's hives. They are not separate from commercial beekeeping however, since they buy bees from large companies that exist solely to supply the US with new bees in the spring to make up winter losses. This industry has been in place for 100 years or more, so large scale losses are not new, and there is a viable method for dealing with them. I have some old stats on the number of small timers, but beekeeping supply companies will tell you that there has been a resurgence in interest in beekeeping in the past decade, so these numbers are still probably good approximations

There are about 212,000 beekeepers in the United States, 95
percent of whom are hobbyists with fewer than 25 colonies.
Another 10,000 part-time beekeepers operate 25-299 colonies.
Commercial beekeepers, those owning 300 or more colonies, are
estimated to number about 2,000. Hobbyists and part-time
beekeepers combined account for 99 percent of the beekeepers, 50
percent of the colonies, and 40 percent of the honey production.

Hobbyist Beekeepers

The beekeeping industry has a preponderance of small operators
who keep honeybees as a hobby or for small-scale pollination of
orchard and field crops. The industry generally considers
hobbyists as beekeepers owning fewer than 25 colonies. There are
about 200,000 active hobbyists in the Nation, 90-95 percent of
all beekeepers.

Part-Time Beekeepers (Sideliners)

Part-time beekeepers or sideliners are classified as owners of
25-299 colonies. Units of this size are usually not large enough
to employ a beekeeper full time and beekeeping generally does not
serve as the principal source of income. However, since parttime
beekeepers sell the majority of their honey, they are more
concerned with honey prices and production costs than are the
hobbyists. 

Honey: Background for 1990 Parm Legislation. By Frederic L. Hoff, and Jane K. Phillips. 
Commodity Economics Division, Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

peterlborst1
peterlborst1

@captain_obvious writes: > Monsanto products to address exactly this problem.  Their products have been proven to be the cause of the bee-apocalypse.

Just what products are you talking about? 

Pete

VasuMurti
VasuMurti

@marryman 

You're right! That's what Dr. Carl Sagan said in his PBS miniseries, Cosmos, in 1980. He said far from being the crown of creation, all life on earth is interconnected. (This point was repeated by vegan author John Robbins in his 1987 Pulitzer Prize nominated Diet for a New America.) We might be destroying certain animals and plants upon whom our survival depends.

This point was made clear as early as 1962 by Rachel Carson in her book, Silent Spring, which launched the modern-day environmental movement: pesticides were used to kill insects, which were eaten by birds, and in time, thousands of birds died. The title of Rachel Carson's book came from her warning that a time might soon approach where we would not hear any birds at all with the arrival of spring.

Rachel Carson's argument was repeated in Back to Godhead in the '70s. And when the environmental disaster at Love Canal occurred, Back to Godhead editor Satsvarupa dasa Goswami commented that America's karmic debts are coming due.

In a 1983 Back to Godhead article entitled, "You Can Talk of Peace Till The Cows Come Home," Suresvara dasa similarly points out that through killing animals by the billions, pesticides, etc. we think we're conquering nature, but we're really kicking ourselves: sometimes it comes back to us in the form of acid rain, etc.

Environmental devastation, rather than abortion and war, is the most visible manifestation of the collective karma for killing animals.

peterlborst1
peterlborst1

Currently there are an estimated 500 million colonies of honey bees world wide. Then -- there are millions of other species of bees, that aren't honey bees and aren't kept in hives at all. Then -- there are millions of other pollinators including wasps, flies, bats, and birds. So -- the pollinator crisis is a media event, not a reality. But what would cause all these to die off? Oh, probably anything like a nuclear catastrophe, a giant meteor, the usual stuff. But then -- we won't be worried about bees, will we? About all that will survive that is bacteria and roaches

Pete

BettyWhite
BettyWhite

Do you realize that you need those bees to get your fruits and veggies too? Oh and the feed that gets fed to cattle and chickens, that feed in essence is thanks to the bees. Literally, all of our food is dependent on the survival and success of bees.

LyndaLBDuke
LyndaLBDuke

@RickMueller Stop the use of Monsanto Products - ROUND UP!  And many others, the GMOs etc....our best move would be to gather strength and REPEAL THE MONSANTO PROTECTION ACT and then take down Monsanto!  THEY are agriculture bullies!

t2vodka
t2vodka

@UrbanFarmer Couldn't agree more.  Since I have switched to a primarily fruit and vegetable based diet with just enough meat to get my protein (chicken, turkey and fish) I feeeeeeel great, everything works better :)

peterlborst1
peterlborst1

> No responsible person contends that insect-borne disease should be ignored. The question that has now urgently presented itself is whether it is either wise or responsible to attack the problem by methods that are rapidly making it worse. ... Practical advice should be ‘Spray as little as you possibly can’ rather than ‘Spray to the limit of your capacity‘ -Rachel Carson in Silent Spring

[note: She DOES NOT say that pesticides should be banned, far from it. They need to be used intelligently as needed]

Pete

BillCBeekeeper
BillCBeekeeper

Do you realize that there are only 5 strains of bees in USA....this means we have a bottle neck problem of inbreeding within the queen rewarding community!!!

UrbanFarmer
UrbanFarmer

  @peterlborst1  "there are millions of other pollinators including wasps, flies, bats, and birds" - again, I have to say, this is one of the more uneducated and thoughtless comments floating around out there, largely put out by industry

. You apparently don't understand basic biology.  The point is that bees are specifically *adapted* to collecting and transporting pollen - from the hairs on their bodies to the "baskets" on their legs. When did anyone ever see bats pollinating tomatoes ?   No, I didn't think so....

perisoft
perisoft

@tschuss @RickMueller Well, I suppose if you banned it, it would solve the problem. The trick would be getting the bees to comply...

beekeeperslie
beekeeperslie

@UrbanFarmer The point is... it is not just honey bees that are important to protect, and beekeepers are as responsible for bee deaths as anyone; that includes pesticide manufacturers.