We have heard a lot about bees disappearing from our ecosystem, but last week in Delaware, about 20 million of them suddenly appeared. Unfortunately, it was on I-95, they were outside the truck that was transporting them to Maine and they were not very happy to be there.
Woe to Adolpho Guerro, who had the ill fortune to be behind the wheel when the load shifted in his 18-wheeler and 460 hives of honey bees tumped onto the tarmac. Woe to the blueberry growers who had contracted with Florida bee wranglers to rent a truckload for pollinating their crops. Woe to the millions of bees that, with their queen missing somewhere in the First State, won’t survive their trip north. And woe maybe to us for bee-ing in this state of affairs.
You’ll remember from your science textbooks that pollen has to get from one part of a plant to another before fertilization can take place, and the plant, lacking opposable thumbs, needs a little help with the process. There are lots of pollinators out there in the garden — butterflies, moths, even birds and bats — but the heavy lifters are bees. In the process of flying from flower to flower to gather nectar and pollen to feed their young, they just happen to take care of the plants’ pollination needs as well. What’s more, they work for free, even in union states.
For centuries, this has been good news for farmers who grow fruits and vegetables dependent on pollination, as about three-fourths of the world’s crops fit that description. The news about pollinators has not been so good in recent years. In 2012, scientists in Argentina and New Zealand published research confirming a surmise that “climate change and widespread fertilizer use can disrupt the relationship between plants and pollinators.” Add to the mix certain farmers’ reliance on insecticides incompatible with good bee health, and a decline in natural pollinators seems inevitable.
Desperate to restore Nature’s balance, many big-acreage farmers have turned to firms offering commercial pollination, a practice in use since the 1940s. Such beekeepers create hives for hire to be transported to a farm and left there for the amount of time required to properly pollinate a planting. To cover a large area requires a large number of pollinators, which is why there was a truck full of 20 million bees on I-95 last week in the first place.
Combining so many different hives to collect that many bees also increases the risk of spreading disease among the aggregate population. One bad apple might spoil a barrel, but an unhealthy bee can damage a whole colony, and we can’t afford to lose too many of those. A UN environmental report states that the number of domestic honey bee colonies in North America, dropping for decades, is now at its lowest point in half a century.
The list of threats to honey bee health includes parasitic mites, Africanized bees (a hybridization experiment that went way wrong) and a mysterious malady called Colony Collapse Disorder, as pernicious as it is inexplicable. In all, the UN report cites 29 different biological pathogens out to bedevil the bee, and that does not augur well for the insect’s long-term chances.
Troubled by what I was seeing and hearing, I sought out some local expertise on the subject, and whaddya know: for once, there’s some good news coming out of Alabama.
I got to speak to citizen scientist David Ellis at Pepper Place’s Jefferson County Beekeepers Association pavilion, where he and wife Susan were moving a goodly amount of sweet amber liquid last Saturday morning. Partnering with his wife’s cousin’s husband, David has been beekeeping for 17 years and seems quite sanguine about his livestock’s prospects: “The stuff you hear on TV a lot is mostly about commercial beekeepers and such. Here in Jefferson County, and I’m going to say pretty much in Alabama, I don’t think you can say we have the Colony Collapse Disorder to amount to anything.”
He also says that, rather than declining, local bee population numbers are improving. The JCBA counts around 175 beekeepers in the area and, according to David, a large number of those can be found in the small gardens of Homewood, Mountain Brook and Vestavia Hills. Statewide, the Alabama Beekeepers Association is about 700 strong.
Why are Alabama hives so healthy? David thinks it has a lot to do with the state’s “no comb” law, which forbids the importation of bees in hives, combs or frames. “We got mites eventually, but the ‘no comb’ act helped diminish the spread of disease,” David said. “That’s why we don’t have the problems some do.”
What’s to be done about the deadly mites? “It’s hard to keep bees in a natural state anymore. We try to use very little chemicals. There are natural ways of doing things that help, and that’s what I try to do, but every so often, you just have to treat the hives for mites, and if you don’t, you’re going to lose them,” David said. “By the time mites are noticeable and taking over, it’s too late then.”
Despite many obstacles to success, people interested in doing right by bees are not dissuaded from taking up the hobby. The JCBA’s annual February workshop for beginners has been packed out for the last 10 years, with an impressive diversity among the aspiring apiarists.
David says he’ll keep on keeping bees until the Africanized variety makes it up here to ruin things, but at this time, the Department of Agriculture reports their march north has stalled out around Gainesville, Florida. That means there’s still plenty of time to purchase some of David’s bees’ wildflower honey or Susan’s long-lasting beeswax candles.
And maybe there’s still time to help bees in general survive their daunting prospects. After all, as David observes, “Without bees, we can’t feed this world.”