Friday, December 17, 2010

Bee havens

Grist has a fairly damning article of the EPA's role in the epic honeybee decline over the last decade - the rise of colony collapse disorder and the decline of free pollination of thousands of crops, one of the many services that Nature provides. Apparently, the EPA granted Bayer "conditional registration" to sell the profitable pesticide clothianidin, despite warnings from the EPA's own scientists that the pesticide was "persistent" and "toxic to honeybees."

Scientists have not fingered clothianidin as the smoking gun of colony collapse disorder. No doubt loss of habitat, mono-cropping, other pesticides, and a host of other factors play a role. But does it make sense for the EPA to allow a pesticide that is extremely toxic to honeybees to be sold on the open market, even when the pesticide residues are expressed in the pollen and nectar of the flowering crops? Only in a world where we don't want to eat oranges, apples, pears, peaches, and plums, to name just a tiny percentage of the fruits we eat that are freely pollinated by bees.

So, as with most environmental issues, saving the bees is a matter of saving human food (although hand-pollination is an option, and even practiced in parts of China where the bees have vanished, it is hard to imagine.)

How do we "save the bees?" It seems like giving the EPA a swift kick in the behind might be a good start, but for all you non-political types (like myself), you can also do something at home. Here are three steps you can take to support bees - at least on your own property.

1. Create a bee-friendly environment by offering them plants that flower throughout spring, summer, and fall:

- Plant an insectary with flowering plants that bees love: lemon balm, borage, tansy, goldenrod, echium, mint, heather, salvias, lavender, coriander, thyme, elderberry, heirloom rugosa roses, and willow. Many of these are also medicinal or herbal plants.

- Plant a clover lawn, which has the added benefit of needing less fertilizers, pesticides, and mowing.
- Perhaps you could even let your dandelions flower - they are an important source of nectar and pollen early in the season, as well as being an edible medicinal "weed."

2. Stop using pesticides that harm bees (and encourage your neighbors to avoid them), and

3. Become a beekeeper. Bees don't need a lot of room, since they roam freely; and you have the added benefit of excellent pollination of your own crops and a steady, renewable, organic source of sweetness.

At my home, we have only taken the first two steps. We have a clover/dandelion backyard filled with flowering medicinals and herbals, and a front yard that has peach trees, catmints, salvias, and thyme. We don't use any bee-toxic pesticides on our property. At this point, I can only aspire to become a beekeeper. But who knows what 2011 might hold? Honey would certainly be a space-efficient, highly tradeable, multi-purpose, and valuable food to be able to produce.


esp said...

Around here, anything that gets planted that can't be eaten needs to be food for pollinators or other wildlife.

Just signed up for a beekeeping class today. We're not sure if we'll be getting bees this year, but we wnat to start taking the steps towards it.

Diane at Patchwork Economics said...

There's no doubt about it, without bees, we and many other species on the planet wont last long.

Another plant to ass to your list that bees adore is Sedum 'Autumn Joy'.

And, in the heat of summer always have fresh water available - for the bees and every other creature in your garden.

Kate said...

Nice piece. Thanks for putting in a word for the honey bee, and for the reminder to add more nectary plants for them next year. It will, after all, soon be time to place seed and seedling orders. I strongly suspect that there will never be any smoking gun for CCD. My sense is that it's a concatenation of insults to their habitat and food that are so badly affecting the bees. But your suggestions are good ones - about the only things most of us can do.

SharleneT said...

I should take that extra step and become a beekeeper. Check my extension service to see if they give classes... Really missed the bees in the past few years.

Hope all is well and that you expect to be having a fantastic Holiday Season... Come visit when you can...

don bates said...

Add chives to your list. Mine are always swarming with bees.
And check out mason bees. I made some crude mason bee houses from an old 2x4, and sure enough, they were immediately populated.

Bytesmiths said...

Yes, the European Honeybee is a great creature, and honey is good to have around, but all is not doom and gloom.

Beyond what the EPA and chemical companies have done to make things unpleasant for the honeybee, we farmers and consumers bear a lot of responsibility for creating a monoculture in the honeybee.

Honeybees are trucked around the continent, from farm to farm, performing pollination services. This is industrial farming. It's energy intensive and a non-resilient, brittle system.

Better yet: encourage local, native pollinators. A local apple orchard is entirely pollinated by mason bees, which are easily encouraged by simple blocks drilled with holes.

Local, native pollinators don't make honey like the invasive exotic European Honeybee. But if we had a diverse mix of pollinators, the honeybee would not be in such trouble!

Anonymous said...

For anyone considering beekeeping, check out natural beekeeping with Top Bar hives. They are smaller and easier to maintain, and much less expensive to get into. I am new at this as well and I purchased one this Fall and plan to set it out this coming Spring, along with a small electric fence (solar charged) around it. You can see them here at these sites, and also there is a lot of good information and how-tos:

kjmclark said...

Beekeeping is a lot easier, but more expensive, than you might think. It's also a heck of a lot of fun. Full of all sorts of arcane knowledge. You'll never look at an insect on a flower the same way again!

We did the Betterbee 8-frame starter hive starting three years ago. We're now up to four hives, one at our city house and three at our little organic farm. We lost one hive once when we lost a queen over the winter and ended up with a sterile queen.

We've probably spent about $2000 over the past few years on bees and beekeeping equipment (including a small extractor this year), but this year we got a gallon of honey, and next year we should be able to double or quadruple that (just split hives this past year). Compared to a lot of people's hobbies, that's pretty cheap.