The plight of the honeybee
By Randa Wagner
Many of the things we take for granted and use in our modern world have had a significant effect on natural resources, weather and nature itself. The meek, industrious honeybee is no exception. If the honeybees’ biggest challenges are not reduced or eliminated soon, the results could be grim.
Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has begun claiming honeybee colonies around the world in recent years. This syndrome is characterized by the disappearance of all adult worker bees in a hive, leaving only the queen, drones, immature bees and honey. During the winter of 2006, beekeepers reported losses of 30–90 percent of their hives. Losses during the winter aren’t unusual, but losses of that magnitude are. Since that time, a third of the hives in the U.S. have died off or disappeared.
Scientists studying CCD are challenged because the problem is worldwide rather than in a selective area. That fact makes it difficult to narrow down the culprits and makes the problem a complex issue. Some researchers attribute the losses to systemic pesticides, particularly neonicotinoids, which affect a bee’s neural pathway. Farmers and gardeners use a variety of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and chemical fertilizers on crops. Neonicotinoids were banned for use in France and other countries in the 1990s. Other challenges honeybees face are airborne pathogens, genetically modified seed, invasive pests (parasitic mites) and poor hive management.
As developers pave and build their way across the country, they eliminate areas that once provided pollen-producing plants honeybees harvested. As streams, ponds and rivers become polluted, clean drinking water sources become less abundant for animals and bees alike. This year’s drought in the U.S. has affected the number of flowering and blossoming plants bees rely on for nectar and honey. Honey is, after all, the honeybee’s main source of food.
A perfect cyclical system
Honeybees live lives of complete subjugation. They are devoted to the hive and its function. In a hive, whether natural or manmade, there is one queen, several hundred male drones and 40,000–60,000 female worker bees. The worker bees gather pollen and nectar and defend the hive against enemies. They fan the hive inside to keep it cool in summer and create heat in winter by huddling close together and shivering to radiate heat.
The queen lives in the center of the cluster and is kept at a constant 92 degrees. When she starts to lay eggs in February, adjustments are made in the cluster to accommodate the growth and keep the temperature steady. The queen can lay 1,500–2,000 eggs a day at 30-second intervals and is responsible for the repopulation of the hive. A colony cannot survive without her. Her only two functions are to emit a chemical scent to regulate the unity of the hive and to lay eggs. She cannot feed or groom herself, so ‘attendants’ take care of that task. She has only one mating period that occurs 30–300 feet in the air as far as a mile away from the hive in her two to five years of life. After the mating period, she remains in the hive.
Honeybees have an unusual method of communicating with each other. The location and distance of a food source is transmitted by a bee through a ‘waggle dance’ that uses turns, circling and angles to triangulate a location for fellow bees to follow. The geometry of the dance changes as the distance changes. It’s a sophisticated method unique to bees.
The honey we all enjoy eating is a marvel in its production. Foraging bees carry pollen from blossoms and flowers in ‘baskets’ on their back legs to be used as food for developing bees. Nectar is sucked through their proboscis, mixed with enzymes in the crop, and carried back to the hive where young worker bees collect and deposit it into cells. An enzyme is added to the nectar and bees fan the cells to evaporate the water and turn the nectar into honey. Building a new comb requires six times the amount of energy to produce than honey does and may require bees to fly over 150,000 miles to gather enough pollen to make just one pound of wax. A honeybee works continuously until it dies in a few short months.
Their problem is your problem, too
Honeybees are critical for pollination of 130 high value crops such as berries, nuts, fruits and vegetables. They also pollinate the legumes and grains meat and milk-producing animals eat. About every third mouthful of food and beverage we consume requires the presence of honeybees. No honeybees means no pollination of 80 percent of our crops, which means no fruit, no vegetables, no seed. The population of the earth is growing exponentially and the demand for adequate food supplies has never been greater.
The decline in honeybee populations in this country means we now import 80 percent of the honey used in foods and sold on store shelves. Much of the product is what beekeepers refer to as ‘funny honey’ because it has been altered and supplemented with sugar syrup or high fructose corn syrup which, until recently, was undetectable. The FTC imposed stiff import tariffs on China in 2001 to stop them from flooding the market with cheap, diluted and heavily subsidized honey that is often contaminated with chloramphenicol and other illegal animal antibiotics. To get around this, China sent the honey to other countries, which then sold it to U.S. companies to use. The U.S. imported 208 million pounds of honey from 2010-early 2012 and almost 60 percent of it came from Asian countries. Forty-five million pounds came from India alone.
An investigation into the honey market found 76 percent of honey purchased in grocery and drug stores has been treated with a process called ‘ultra-filtration’ which removes all traces of pollen along with impurities, like wax. Ultra-filtration is expensive and many experts believe that it doesn’t necessarily improve shelf life. The presence of pollen is a way to trace honey’s origin (location), and some believe the process is a shady way to mask the origin of the honey. The less expensive, off-brands in the store are the likeliest ‘funny honey’ suspects.
What is the solution?
Individually, people can plant native wildflowers, hedges, shrubs and choose natural methods of deterring pests over chemicals. You can install top-bar (pollinating) hives on your property if your area is conducive to supporting a bee colony. Buy your honey from local beekeepers. If you must use insecticides, choose targeted ingredients with the least harmful formulations (i.e. granules). Apply on dry evenings soon after dark when bees are inactive.
More information is available from the Honeybee Conservancy at (419) 947‑9436, where this information was obtained.
Randa Wagner is editor at The Morrow County Sentinel.