Bumblebee laden with pollen at Persimmon Ridge
When you hear the warnings that if we lose our honeybees, we lose every third bite of our food, it's not quite true. Honeybees ARE most efficient pollinators, what with their back-leg pollen baskets and fuzzy bodies that create an electrostatic charge so that pollen adheres to their bodies. But many other pollinators help get the job done. These include many species of wild bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, wasps, flies, ants and even birds, bats, lizards, and small mammals! (Yes, even those evil possums so prevalent here in Williamsport.) Just go outside and look at the bugs in your flower or vegetable garden. You many not see a single honeybee, but unless you're a pesticide fiend, you will see many other varieties of insects flitting about from blossom to blossom. In fact, honeybees are not even native to North America! They were brought over from the Old World with the early settlers. The Indians used to call them "white man's flies" because they announced his advancement across the continent.
But before you get too comfortable with knowing we have all these back-up pollinators, I have to tell you the bad news: the loss of honeybees is the canary dying in the coal mine. The same conditions that are killing off the honeybees are also causing a drastic decline in these other pollinators. And here is where I have to make a point for Boo, Lauren, and all my Williamsport women friends--if we lose the Mexican Long Tongued Bat that pollinates the agave plant, well there goes Margarita Wednesdays!!! (Now I've got your attention!)
Together all these pollinators are required by 75 to 95% of all our flowering plants. As they drink in the nectar and collect pollen for protein, they inadvertently transfer pollen grains from the anther of the flower (male part) to the stamina of the flower (female part). And without the union of these "parts," well no reproduction and no fruit and no new plants!
So, what's wreaking this havoc? Loss of habitat, monocultures of agriculture, and chemical pesticides and herbicides. Paid-for scientists will say they don't know what is causing Colony Collapse Disorder. They'll say that it's a combination of things--stressing an exotic virus or compromised bee immune systems. Well let me tell you that if I sprayed you with pesticides and herbicides and then fed you a diet of corn syrup, your immune system would be so weakened and you would be so compromised that you would succumb to any exotic virus as well!
As I advocated in my last post, I believe that our urban gardens can act as "zoos" for these vital pollinators until the time when the USDA and agribusiness companies quit beating around the bush and cop to the truth! So let's all make room for the pollinators in our own chemical-free gardens, and make a safe place for them--because we depend on them as much as they depend on us!
Yes, we need urban beekeepers--it may even be time we put the bees in the "zoo" to protect them.
I recently listened to a TED talk by Noah Wilson-Rich who has a PhD in Honeybee Health. Basically he says that the city bees are faring better than their country cousins. Urban hives enjoy better survival rates and produce more honey than rural hives! He advocates green roofs and urban beekeeping to help save the bees.
Even though I don't have a PhD in anything, I have a little experience, and I've come to the same conclusion. Bees do better in the city. People in towns and cities plant lots of flowers, shrubs and trees in their yards, giving the bees a variety of nectar all spring, summer and fall. In the country, much of the bees' natural habitat has been eaten up by the monocultures of corn, soy and wheat fields with their shorter bloom times. So instead of their usual buffet of wildflowers, trees, vines and bushes, bees are fed systemic pesticides along with their cereal blooms in addition to the smorgasbord of chemicals used in no-till farming.
Persimmon Ridge Honey Farm has always had the advantage of being close to large areas of wild wooded land and to the Duck River corridor. Spring around here is an unruly tangle of maple, elm, cedar and persimmon trees as well as blackberry, honeysuckle and multiflora rose vines and a vast array of wildflowers. I never have to fee my bees! When they're healthy, they produce plenty of honey for themselves, for me, and for you, my customers.
What has changed in the past couple of years is the increasing agricultural activity in what was pasture on the farms around me. They're being plowed up for corn planting. GMO corn is king! So while the bees still have lots of wild food, they are opportunists and will check out any blooming plant--even one filled with deadly insecticide or one that is about to be sprayed with herbicides to ready the fields for no-till planting. The foraging bees are poisoned right along with the weeds and wildflowers.
So maybe urban beekeeping is the answer for now. Get the hives into the cities and away from the chemicals? It's what we've done with other endangered species--we put them in a zoo for their own good!