I am touched by finding in my fellow human beings an almost universal, affectionate desire to help the honeybees.
But I am equally dismayed by how rarely that generous impulse translates into action.
That doesn’t sound very nice, does it? Dinna fash! I think the reason most people fail act upon their laudable concern for bees is that they simply don’t know what to do. And the good news today is: there are all kinds of things, big and small, easy and hard, free or expensive, that anyone can do to help honeybees and native pollinators.
Let me tell you a little story first. Well, a few stories. Many of you will have viewed the Dan Rather segment “Buzzkill” on YouTube, which documents the crisis in this spring of 2013 when the California almond orchardists realized there would not be enough bees available through mobile pollination services to pollinate all the California almond crop. Almond growers have outsourced their pollination needs to pollination service providers, who truck in thousands of bee colonies to pollinate the almond crop.
But outsourcing is a funny thing. It may look great on the balance sheet…outsourcing allows you to escape risk and expense by buying the services you need rather than maintaining them in house. But in the case of almonds, as in most other businesses, that decision to outsource sets off a self-destructive chain reaction.
By planting acreages of almond trees with no apiaries, and no season long bee forage, almond orchardists have literally bet the farm that pollination service providers will somehow manage, every year from now until the end of almonds, to keep bees well enough to be able to truck them into California on demand.
But forcing the bees to live far, far away is really hard on the bees, who are not good travelers. And it adds all kinds of expense into the simple act of making bees available to the almonds. All kinds of non-sustainable expense, like petrochemicals to fuel the tractor transports, manufacturing and maintaining those transports, and the folk who must drive them. Because the bees die by the millions in the course of being trucked all over North America, the beekeepers must push their reproduction rate to the roof, and are heavily reliant on imported bee packages. Which arrive courtesy of jet fueled aircraft.
Because the bees are so stressed by travel and industrial colony management and breeding techniques, they need all kinds of medications. Medications which find their way into the bees, the wax and the honey (along with all the agrichemicals bees are exposed to in the fields). When they turn out the lights in the grocery stores, the honey shelf practically glows in the dark.
The trucks run on gasoline, which in North America is 10% ethanol, a biofuel that derives from corn. Corn, because of its new value as a component of biofuel, is subsidized and profitable, and is taking over massive tracts of agricultural land. But corn is not good for bees. They will, when desperate, gather corn pollen. But corn pollen is not a complete or healthy source of nutrition for bees, particularly systemic insect toxic GM/seed treated corn pollen, and as a wind pollinated plant, corn produces no nectar. Corn fields are cleared and planted margin to margin, driving down the healthy biodiversity of hedgerows and wild spaces, and giving bees little choice but to collect the less attractive, and now toxic, corn pollen. Corn fields are sprayed with all kinds of nastiness, most of them petrochemical based fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides. All bad for bees (let alone all other creatures, people included).
Runoff water from sprayed fields is contaminated with agrichemical residues, which at least in the case of neonicotinoids appear to persist and concentrate, making standing water toxic to all insect life. This chain reaction is being blamed for songbird declines.
So among other things, outsourcing of bee needs by almond orchardists drives demand for gasoline, which drives demand for biofuels, which means more and more corn, which means more petrochemicals to grow it and process it into biofuel, and more agrichemical sprays. The demand for outsourced bees drives a lot of things that harm bees. And may ultimately doom them (and perhaps us) to extinction.
Many beekeepers, understandably, boycott almonds. But if we all stop buying almonds, there will be a massive failure of pollination service contractors, and far fewer bee colonies will be kept in North America. Bee numbers are already in steep decline thanks to urbanization. All that is increasing is the difficulty (pests, agrichemicals, GM crops, stress, cheap/fake imported honey) of keeping bees successfully or profitably.
On a more local scale, bee-dependent farms in my area rarely maintain their own apiaries, which makes them careless of the impact of their field spray regimes, which imperil survival of all local bees – not just hobby bees, but the bees raised and provided by the pollination service companies these farms depend on.
On an even smaller scale, while it is possible to find owners of acreages who want to have apiaries on their land, they are unlikely to agree to plant swathes of bee forage to provide those apiaries the season long, varied forage bees need.
…the deliciousness that is clover…
There is a profound disconnect, on every level, and on every scale, between our concern for honeybees, our love of bee-pollinated foodstuffs, and our actions.
What can we do? At times the problem seems overwhelming, as it was to one entomologist I questioned. What, I asked, were the very best, most nutritious plants I could put into my urban garden to provide optimal, season long forage for honeybees? The answer I got back was “one garden will not make any difference”. Hardly an answer to my question! But it points up a defeatist attitude which has become distressingly common.
Odd, and sad, because there are so many things we can do to help the bees.
1. Buy only locally produced raw honey, thus killing demand for cheap, adulterated international imported honeys (often obtained through dirty agricultural methods using exploitative farm labour practices)
2. Buy organic, which is better for your body, and will support the transition of agriculture from our present toxic, agrichemical and petrochemical dependent industrial farm methods to local, sustainable, and non-toxic to bees and other living things
3. Plant. One garden may not save the bees, but many gardens can and will. Bees already do better in urban areas thanks to bee friendly municipal plantings, and the wealth of flowering plants in home gardens. The key is, we all have to plant the same things to give bees enough of any one nutritious species that they can fill their tummies and pollen baskets on any given foraging trip (bees, on each trip out of the hive, will only forage on one species…on that fact rests their success as pollinators…so there need to be lots of any one species in their forage range). Mercifully, we already tend to plant the same things, but bees would be happier if we boosted their smorgasbord by planting in every city garden or unused corner, the following simple cocktail of season-long bee deliciousness:
- spring flowering heather
- Borage, which is delighfully self-seeding
- California lilac (Ceanothus)
- Catmint (not catnip!)
- Caryopteris (BlueBeard, a small and pretty, late summer blue flowering shrub)
that is Joe Pye Weed in the back of this magnificent border
There are lots of other things you can plant (clovers, thymes, salvias/sages, dill, fennel, rosemary, lavenders, daisies, sunflowers, hyssops, buckwheat, sainfoin, dandelions), and lots of information on how to go about that. Locally we have the wonderful Feed the Bees organization, and you can also check into the Spikenard Honeybee Sanctuary site for more information. But if every garden had the 7 plants above, bees would be a lot better off.
You can plant any or all of these plants in pots, so every urban balcony or patio can also be a sanctuary for bees!