Most of us think we know a thing or two about bees. First, that they help us grow food. And second, that they have recently become threatened by colony collapse disorder. Is there anything we can do to help? Well, yes.
You may have heard the statistics: one-third of human food depends upon pollination by bees. But such statistics may err on the low side. In a 2011 statement by Achim Steiner, head of the U.N. Environmental Program, the statistics are dramatic: “Of the 100 crop species that provide 90 per cent of the world’s food, over 70 are pollinated by bees.” And when we add other important pollinators such as birds, butterflies, and beetles, it becomes clear that our food supply is fragile.
Colony collapse disorder became a concern for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in October 2006, when some U.S. beekeepers were reporting losses of 30-90 percent of hives. The USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) describes a hive suffering from colony collapse disorder as having very few, if any, live adult bees. Even though honey, a queen, and immature bees may be present, such hives are not functional.
What’s the cause: pollution, parasites, pathogens, pesticides? Probably not one factor alone but a combination of them is responsible, but at present no one knows for sure. Colony collapse disorder has become a global concern, with reports also coming from Europe, China, Egypt, and Latin America.
The number of managed bee colonies in the U.S. has dropped by half, from five million in the 1940s to 2.5 million in 2011. These bees are trucked around the U.S. to pollinate crops such as almonds. They also pollinate berries, fruits, and vegetables. The collapse of managed bee colonies may signal future declines in populations of wild bees and other pollinating insects. Such declines would threaten other crops, even potatoes and soybeans.
The U.N. report recommends that incentives be given to farmers to use eco-friendly techniques, reduce dependence on insecticides, and restore habitats with native flowering plants that will attract wild pollinators. The ARS recommends that those who do use pesticides refrain from applying them at mid-day, when large numbers of honey bees are actively foraging. Farmers, then, have a crucial role in preserving bees.
But home and community gardeners can also do our part by:
- Cultivating plants, such as natives, that attract bees
- Allowing a few plants to flower and seed
- Reducing or eliminating pesticide use
- Welcoming bats for insect control
- Providing a home for mason bees
- Leaving some bare dirt for ground-nesting bees
Bat houses and mason-bee nests are available for purchase at many garden stores.
Observe the dance of the bees in your garden on a sunny day. You are looking at God’s Creation. Bees play supporting roles in the web of life by helping us grow healthy, fresh food. Surely we can find it in our hearts to help them, too.
Faith-based environmentalism has an important role to play in preserving and rebuilding the living systems of earth. Here is a published piece, informative and hopeful, about ways that modern humans could help do less harm to bees — from a mainstream, religious, American perspective. A longer version of this piece appeared in the OREGON EPISCOPAL CHURCH NEWS, Spring 2012.