By Annie Woodhull Gazette Contributing Writer
Bees are very small, but they have an enormous effect on the world as we know it. One third of the world’s agricultural production relies on bees. Yet bees have declined precipitously— 60 percent since 1950. This has huge implications for humankind.
Thirty-five years ago, my husband and I kept bees. We learned to love and appreciate their ability to communicate, dance, gather nectar, pollinate, live well in a community and, of course, make that miracle honey. When they died we did not replace them, but we were permanently in love and noticed them everywhere; their buzz was a real comfort for us.
Every year we planted annual flowers among the vegetables, especially Shirley poppies. When the flowers were in bloom, we could hear the sound of the bees, even before we got to the garden—humming, landing, quivering the flower as they worked, getting their “baskets” full of different colors of pollen. Then, one day in 2002, as I went to the garden expecting to hear that sound, it was quiet. There were no honeybees.
I read that disease was killing them, but thought it could be part of a natural cycle and they would come back. But they didn’t, and it nagged at me.
A few years later, my colleague Shelley Rotner, a photographer and children’s book author, and I set out to write a children’s book about honeybees and the problems they face. It turned into an extended bee adventure.
We met some wonderful people. We visited several small beekeepers, including one in Deerfield, and eventually found our way to Dave Hackenberg, a commercial beekeeper in Pennsylvania. He went to his hives one morning in 2006 and the bees “had just flat out disappeared.” he told us.
He began contacting other beekeepers who’d had similar experiences, then he took the facts to an entomologist at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture who, along with others at Pennsylvania State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, began researching the phenomenon that came to be called Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD.
The bee is a complicated creature with many skills. It has a relationship with humans going well back into prehistory. Of course we know the bee makes honey, but it also does something immensely important for the whole world: it pollinates. Bees pollinate not only the vegetables and fruits that we eat, but clover for the cows, goats and sheep that make milk and cheese, and cotton plants for the clothes we wear. There are also many kinds of wild bees or solitary bees that pollinate, and they too are suffering great losses. But the European honeybees (brought here in the early 1600s), which live in colonies of up to 60,000 individuals, in such incredible order, are the master pollinators. Bees are responsible for one out of every three mouthfuls of food we eat.
So why are they disappearing? There are many hypotheses and some answers. In a study of the bee genome, scientists at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston discovered that the bee has a delicate immune system, which may be compromised by agricultural chemicals and other pollutants. Habitat loss is an important factor in the decline of wild bees. Beekeepers can also lose hives because of mites, viruses, parasites and a bacterial disease called foulbrood. CCD losses are often reported by large-scale beekeepers who truck thousands of hives all around the country following the crops. (For example, it takes
1.5 million hives just to pollinate California’s almond groves.) They found the bees affected by CCD had many viruses attacking them—some now call it the AIDS of bees.
Our children’s book, The Buzz on Bees, reports the unhappy news about bee decline, but we also learned and described what individuals—including children and their families—can do to help. Keep bees if you can. Buy local. Buy organic. Plant wildflower meadows instead of lawns. Support your local beekeepers. Steps like these can make a difference. The loss of bees would mean drastic reduction in food production and loss of plant varieties throughout the world. The disappearance of bees carries a message so much larger than their tiny bodies.
Annie Woodhull lives and writes at Bramble Hill Farm, part of the Larch Hill Collaborative along with the Hitchcock Center.
Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.Click here to return to full list of Earth Matters articles.