The relationship between humans and honey bees goes back a long way. Cave art from an estimated 8,000 years ago shows a honey-gatherer risking life and limb in pursuit of a sweet reward.
Bees and flowers go back even further in their connection. They’ve co-evolved for over 10 million years. The flowers benefit from pollination, thus procreation, while the bees are rewarded with pollen and nectar, nutritional essentials in their life cycle.
Of the 20,000 bee species now known, less than 10 are honey bees. Yet after the common fruit fly, honey bees are the second most studied insect in biological research. Besides being super cool, why would this be?
Fast forward to modern day agriculture. Pollination is worth ten times the monetary value of honey.
An estimated 30 per cent of the food we eat depends on pollination. Pollination is the transfer of pollen from the male part of a flower to the female part. This enables fertilization, which results in viable seeds. Successful pollination typically increases fruit set, resulting in higher yields of better-formed, larger, more flavourful fruit that ripens faster and keeps longer.
Image: Woman gathering honey, watercolor copy by F. Benitez Mellado of a Mesolithic (c. 10,000/8000–c. 3000 bce) painting in the Cueva de la Arana, near Bicorp, Spain; in the Museum of Prehistory, Valencia, Spain. Credit: Instituto de Estudios Editoriales, Barcelona
While bumblebees and other natives are excellent pollinators, only honey bees can be managed in large enough numbers to ensure adequate pollination at the critical time for an individual crop bloom. We are losing native bees due to habitat destruction, insecticides, and monoculture crop planting. The honey bee (Apis mellifera L.) has become critical in managed pollination worldwide.
Given their essential role in food production, how can it be that honey bees are in decline? Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has been in the news since massive die-offs were noted in 2006. And are we any closer to understanding why? Is there a so-called silver bullet? Alas, no.
What we do know is that CCD is multifactoral, death by a thousand cuts. Happily, a few things have been ruled out, including cellphone transmissions, and my personal favourite, the rapture! What is surfacing through research and reports from beekeepers is the story of an insect and really a world under pressure.
Here’s where the irony comes in. Let’s look at three crops: blueberries, almonds, and corn. In our quest for the healthful benefits of antioxidants, super protein, cheap starch and sugar substitutes, plastic alternatives, and biofuel among other desirable attributes we’ve created monstrous demands for these commodities.
To meet these demands conventional agriculture has stepped in. In British Columbia alone, we generated $83 million in gross blueberry sales representing 56 per cent of total Canadian sales in 2010. In California there are 810,000 acres of almond orchards that require two million honey bee colonies each spring for pollination, most of which are trucked in from as far away as Florida. These orchards are monoculture moonscapes; nothing else grows alongside row upon row of these super nut trees.
And then there’s corn, both sweet and utilitarian (a.k.a. cow corn, most of which is genetically modified). While corn doesn’t require pollination, nearly 100 per cent of the seed in North America is treated with neonicotinoids, a family of neurotoxins that have recently been implicated as harmful to bees and other pollinators on a sub-lethal basis. Europe placed a three-year moratorium banning neonicotinoids this year. Canadian commercial seed companies are offering non-treated corn and soya seed for the 2014 planting season in response to honey bee poisonings that occurred in Ontario and Quebec last spring.
Many conventional beekeeping practices have compounded these problems by promoting the prophylactic use of chemical miticides and antibiotics in the management of commercial apiaries. These agents often leave residues in the hive’s beeswax, which in turn interact with outside chemicals brought in to the hive by the bees. The synergistic effect can be 10 times as powerful, and even lethal to the bees.
To finish the suite of honey bee threats, we must mention good ol’ Varroa mites and other bee pathogens like Nosema, plus viruses that are vectored when the bee’s immune system is compromised. Starvation, poor nutrition, genetic inbreeding, and stress round out the challenges.
Okay, it’s time to step away from the cliff. We’re in this together and there is some silver lining here. Stay the course; there’s both hope and things we can do as individuals and communities to turn things around.
Her take home message is simple and practical: plant more flowers for the bees. They will offer nutrition and biodiversity. Spivak is one of the true rock stars of the honey bee research world. For years at the University of Minnesota she’s studied and developed a line of bees that have natural hygienic behaviour, thus disease resistance.
Other rock stars worth noting and Googling include Sue Cobey of Washington State University, who is importing honey bee germplasm (drone sperm) from isolated pockets in Europe where there are sub-species of honey bees that display desirable, heritable traits. Sue’s specialty is honey bee breeding including artificial insemination. She spoke to a captivated audience at the 2013 BC Honey Producers Association conference held in Kelowna last fall.
One of the best writers about honey bees is Dr. Eric Mussen who joined the UC Davis Department of Entomology faculty in 1976. I was fortunate to hear him speak in October at the Western Apiculture Society (WAS) meeting held in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Eric is retiring next year; he will leave both a formidable legacy and a vast void. Pragmatic and brilliant, Mussen has lived in the hub of California agriculture development for decades and has seen an array of pesticides come and go. Here are links to both his Bee Briefs and the WAS Journal.
In BC we have University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Dr. Leonard Foster, one of many prodigies from rocker Dr. Mark Winston’s famous and now defunct bee lab at Simon Fraser University. Foster and his team at UBC in partnership with Genome BC are spearheading the search to identify honey bee populations that are naturally resistant to pathogens. Using sophisticated proteomics they are well on their way to teasing out protein markers associated with Hygienic Behaviour and Varroa Sensitive Hygiene. In the foreseeable future queen bee producers will have a tool that helps confirm if their bee stock is hardy and worthy of propagation: www.chibi.ubc.ca.
Another exciting trend in apiculture these days is the emergence of urban beekeeping. Kudos go out to Mayor Kerry Cook and the Council of the City of Williams Lake who last September voted unanimously in favour of urban beekeeping. Hobbyist beekeepers have an important role to play. Not only can they keep the gentle art of beekeeping alive, but they can also be stewards to newly developed honey bee genetic stock.
For sound educational information and inspiration, Heather Clay of Vernon, BC runs the Urban Bee Network. Well qualified, Heather is the former Canadian Honey Council CEO, and spent years as the apiarist for the province of New Brunswick. You can learn more about keeping honey bees in cities, managing bees on a small scale, tips for planting for bees, facts about pollination, and how to help save our special pollinators at urbanbeenetwork.ca.
A word of caution: to those who wish to keep bees, or are new to beekeeping, it’s very important to learn the basics. Sadly, many venture in and fold after the first two or three years of keeping bees. This makes sense, as when you acquire your bees you’re benefiting from the knowledge and management of whomever you bought your bees from. Many “newbees” want to keep their bees naturally. This is admirable, please don’t get me wrong! However, statistically, natural too often turns to neglect. It’s imperative that a beekeeper can identify diseases and parasites, and monitor for them. If found, then the same beekeeper must decide how to best keep these infestations from killing a colony or worse—putting neighbouring apiaries at risk. Worker bees can forage as far as five kilometers from their hives; drones go even further looking for love! Please practice safe beekeeping. ‘Nuff said!
If you’d like to create bee habitat in your garden, there are several bee-friendly plants that do well in our zone three climate. One of the best books on the subject is by Jane Ramsay of Victoria, BC. “Plants for Beekeeping in Canada and the Northern USA” was first published through the International Bee Research Association (IBRA). They’re sold out, but Ramsay has some of her books for sale. Her phone number is 250-598-4415.
Humankind’s relationship with bees has come a long way since the time of honey robbing. From rock art to research rock stars we’ve developed an understanding, an appreciation, and a codependency that isn’t about to weaken any time soon.
Diane Dunaway has kept bees since 1998. A Master Beekeeper, she runs close to 100 colonies from her Bee Happy Honey farm in the Soda Creek valley of the Cariboo. Diane produced and edited BeesCene, the BC Honey Producers Association (BCHPA) quarterly journal for five years. Dedicated to the health and welfare of honey bees and the environment that supports them, she advocates for organic integrated pest management methods. Recently she became a BCHPA Certified Instructor of Introductory Beekeeping, through a partnership with the BC Ministry of Agriculture, Apiculture Branch. When she’s not chasing swarms around the countryside Diane can be found at home with Dave, her husband of 22 years, and their menagerie of rescue animals.