Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Bees not Beads

(The title is an homage to boyfriends current favorite Arrested Development quote, but the article is really about Honey Bees)

If you know anyone who is at all concerned with sustainable food you have probably already heard that Honey Bee populations have been in slow decline for many years. I vaguely remember the first time I heard someone make a comment about “all those hippies” being worried about declining bee populations. The comment was overheard from a stranger, so I didn’t feel right replying the truth about the concern. This particular person seemed vexed as to why someone would at all be concerned with such an obnoxious pest. And yes, having been stung numerous times I can agree the bees can be annoying, even more so to those who have fairly severe allergies to bee stings. But I think the point this bee hating stranger was missing wasn’t the fact that “those hippies” were morally concerned about the eradication of a species, but instead the greater impact losing this species would have on our world as a whole.

There are three types of non animal reproduction. The first belongs to fungus, yeasts and molds. These organisms produce spores which are either carried via water or wind to the receiving party to start the reproduction cycle. These organisms evolved somewhere around the early Devonian period about 416 to 359 million years ago. As temperatures and water levels changed in the middle of the Devonian period,  plants evolved to need less water to carry out reproduction, which lead to wind pollinated plants. These include grasses, grains and large evergreen trees. These types of plants have to produce mass amounts of pollen and cones, hoping when the wind blows the pollen will be carried from pollen cone to seed cone and be fertilized. Flowering plants diverged in the Early Crustaceous period around 245-202 million years ago, by way of co-evolution with insects. Producing smaller amounts of pollen on flowers that are attractive to insects. This form of pollination allows plants conserve energy, while still being pollinated and insects get pollen or nectar to feed from.

There are many insects that participate in the joint benefits of flowering plants, but very few other than bees depend entirely on flowing plants for survival. And plants also depend almost entirely on the industrious bees to keep their reproduction cycle going. But remember the plants that depend so wholly on bees for survival aren’t just limited to daisies and roses. Angiosperms (flowering plants) are the most diverse and largest group of plants in the world, and the lists includes all deciduous trees (with the exception of a couple prehistoric stragglers), berry bushes, fruits trees, and all veggie plants. Literally 80% of the worlds plants and nearly all of our natural food supplies are pollinated by bees. It shouldn’t just be “those hippies” that are worried about the decline in bee populations worldwide. All of us depend on plant foods, we can’t survive without them.

(A map of the worlds forests that depend on inscet pollination)

So what is causing this decline? There are a lot of reasons. I’d say first and foremost,  deforestation or loss of habitat. There is also the less than humane practices of many honey farmers that ends in the death of the brood at harvest time. There are also some curious diseases that have become more common in recent years including many strains of foulbrood, stonebrood, chalkbrood, and nosema. As well as hive pests such as mites, hive beetles, and wax moths. Pests are a fact of life and can be controlled fairly easily by the hive and contribute to a slim number of actual swarm deaths. But the brood diseases are becoming more common and as they are fugal spread like wildfire once they have made their way into the hive. There are many parties researching the cause and spread of these brood diseases, but I think they will probably find like anything, when environments begin to change, new organisms develop. And while evolution is a natural order of life. It is still sad to see things fall apart quickly and more often than not because of human decisions.

There are many things that a person can passively do that will impact the fate of our vigilant pollinators. Organic farmers generally always have hives on their plots of land as they aid in yield sizes of crop. So by buying local organic foods you will be not only helping yourself and your local economy, you will also be promoting more hives in your local area. As more hives as set up, more plants will be pollinated and they will spread which in turn will mean the local ecology can support more bees. And also make sure when you buy honey it is from humane harvesters. Bee’s aren’t that scary and it is easy to subdue them long enough to extract honey without actually harming them, there is really no excuse for killing hives for harvest. Lastly if you have the space, the resources and the city you live in allows hives, you can always set up a couple on your own property. New York just passes a law allowing permitted individuals with safe environments keep hives within the city limits. And if a New York city urban rooftop farmer can keep hives I am sure there is space somewhere in your life as well.  

Parisian City Beekeepers

If you are interested in bees I highly suggest doing some research and learning more about them. I got a wonderful book for my birthday called The Beekeepers Bible and recently picked up The Back Yard Beekeeper from my library. Hopefully someday soon, I will be settled enough to adopt a couple hives. But until then, I will not kill bees, I will buy local honey and produce and plant as many flowing plants in my garden as possible. And even if you decide that beekeeping is too much work for you, knowing about bees and understanding their importance in the world at large is very important.

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