ZBTZahBTzoo asked yesterday about my take on the bee collapse, so I feel like I have been given permission to drone on and on about bees. I've been keeping up with the story, with fear. I don't want to lose my bees. We are just hobby keepers, so our financial livelihood does not depend on pollination fees, queen production, package bees, or honey production, however, we've grown to depend on them for pollination of our garden and trees, for sweetening, and gifts. The bees are an integral part of our long term sustainability plan.
Lack of sustainability, in my opinion, is causing the bee collapse. The dependence on pesticides, herbicides, cheap and lower quality sweeteners, and the move away from self production of food are contributors to lack of sustainability and the stress on honey bees. In the attempt to "bigger"* farming the best practices have fallen to the wayside.
Pesticides are used to kill both good and bad insects thereby ending the natural cycles of nature. Did you know that it takes twice as long for the predator bugs to reestablish after pesticide use? Since pesticide use eliminates predators (good bugs) you insure you will always have to use pesticides to keep ahead of the pest bugs. Sure, no orchardist is going to spray pesticide on trees that are being pollinated, but the residue is there and you can never control what your neighbor sprays or dusts. You also cannot control where a bee will go. The practice of broad pesticide use to ease the production of mass quantities of perfect appearing fruit and vegetables with the least amount of work is weakening the pollinators (not just the honeybees), if not killing them. Farmers aren't the only ones spraying pesticides. Towns frequently spray for mosquitoes. Fumigating a town, in my opinion, is poisoning the people and the bees.
Though many scientists say herbicide use is not as dangerous to the environment as pesticide use, I believe that herbicides do injure wildlife. There is nothing preventing bees and other insects from landing on sprayed weeds. The sharp odors of the herbicide would have to befuddle any creature. Our quest for ease in gardening, large scale farming, and landscaping leaves best practices by the roadside. Speaking of roadsides, the willy-nilly spraying of the various Departments of Transportation kills everything within wand distance. What makes it senseless is that they still send a mowing crew.
Backyard beehives, at one time, were not uncommon. Families had fruit trees, gardens, and bees. Bees were able to feed on a seasonal diet and depend on the cycles of nature. Now, beekeeping, for the most part, is handled by commercial operations that also want to "bigger." Bees are stressed by cross country transportation so that they can pollinate crops as Spring arrives in each area of the country. To supplement their natural diets, bees are fed high fructose corn syrup instead of foraging naturally or sugar water. Best beekeeping practices have been forgotten in the name of pollination dollars and pollination dollars are necessary because the glut of cheap sweeteners at the grocery stores don't allow beekeepers to make enough on honey to survive.
Sure, there may be fungi or parasites. In Mississippi, beekeepers have struggled terribly with mites. But, I do know that strong colonies are not as susceptible to illness. Haul bees 2,000 miles in the back of a trailer and I feel sure any incubating illness or parasite will show itself. Moving back to more localized agriculture and a return to smaller, best practices farming, rather than quickest, easiest, and biggest farming would go a long way towards bolstering the honey bee. Yet, that is easier said than done. Farmers have been forced financially to abandon best practices. To stay in business you must have economies of scale. To compete with foreign suppliers (who it turns out are not supplying the same quality) getting the most and cheapest to the market usurps the best practice of rotation planting to avoid poisoning with chemical fertilizers and pest problems and encourages herbicide use, defoliates, and pesticide use. Unfortunately, only the chemical companies are thriving.
I am as guilty as the the next person of supporting large scale agriculture. I have enjoyed cheap grains and meats, almonds, more delicious apples than we can grow in Mississippi, citrus when I want it, and avocados. Yet, I have lately (last 8 years) been struggling with food quality and wondering whether cheap foods that don't really have a taste are worth it. With all the scary news articles about non-nutritive food additives in chicken, fish, cattle, and pig feed, I am getting scared to eat. I just feel that we have moved so far away from our food sources, that what we eat is barely recognizable. The honey bees know it, too!
* from The Lorax by Dr. Suess. Read this book!