Honeybees are in crisis, a phenomenon that’s been in the news in recent years because of colony collapse disorder, a complex syndrome in which bees abandon their hives and fly off or mysteriously die en masse. The disorder has been decimating the commercial honeybee business for a decade.
Honeybees are super-efficient pollinators and are crucial to farming, particularly for Big Ag (industrialized agriculture), with California’s almond crop being a dramatic example. The state’s one million acres of almond orchards, which provide more than 80 percent of the world’s almonds, need at least one hive per acre, and there aren’t nearly enough honeybees to go around. So like growers elsewhere in the country, almond growers rent hives for pollination season, and from as far away as Pennsylvania and Florida. Managed hives go on cross-country tours pollinating various crops, from wheat fields in Grand Forks to pumpkin patches in Peoria. It’s expensive and adds to the cost of the produce.
And life on the road is not exactly healthy living for the bees—exhaustion is one of many interrelated causes of colony collapse. Traveling bee hives can also carry parasites and pathogens from one region to another. Even so, colony collapse and industrial farming are only one aspect of a wider problem, and it’s a problem that’s affecting the Capital Region’s bounty of apple orchards, berry fields and specialty farms: a drastic decline in hundreds of native bee species. “We had to start our own hives on the farm,” says Pam Schreiber, the owner of Eight Mile Creek Farm, a certified-organic farm in Westerlo. “About three years ago, I was having trouble with the fruits, and the tomato plants and some other vegetables.”
Then she had a really bad year. “We got hit hard with the tomatoes, and we couldn’t understand why. The tomato plants were beautiful, they had the flowers on them but they had no tomatoes. And that’s one of my biggest cash crops,” she says. “It was the bees thing.” The bees thing she’s referring to is the decline of pollen bees in the wild. After doing some research and talking to other farmers, she realized that pollination was at least one of the problems.
“So we started our own hives, and since then, I’ve seen a lot more honeybees, and a lot more bees in general. I haven’t had problems with pollination since.”
Those bees in general include bumblebees and other wild bees, which are also important to farming—and to almost all plants. “We grow a really large diversity of vegetables, and we plant wildflowers, we also plant cut flowers, I think that helps bring the bees,” Schreiber continues. Selling bouquets of cut flowers along with her other produce helps to offset the cost of being bee friendly: “We buy all certified-organic seeds and they tend to be more expensive.” Schreiber’s seed mixes of wildflowers are just the thing for bumblebees and other native pollinators such as butterflies, who prefer native species, and Schreiber happily reports that bees like sunflowers and daisies. “We have tons of daisies, the grass where the cows graze is full of daisies,” she enthuses. “Wild daisies are amazing.”
Eight Mile Creek is 250-acre farm that promotes sustainability through diversity: it contains 100 or so different vegetable varieties (“we’re getting into yarrow now,” Schreiber says) and its sustainability practices include rotating growing fields with grazing fields for livestock. Among other benefits, this diversity discourages pests and diseases. “We don’t spray anything so there’s no killing of bugs,” she adds.
In the monoculture of Big Ag, with its endless miles of mono-crops such as corn and soybeans, the solution for boosting the presence of pollinators is not so simple, and in fact, mono-crops are cited as causing malnutrition in honey bees, making them less resistant to parasites and fungus infections, and requiring more pesticides for the crops.
The European honeybee, which came to North America with the colonists, is known as the miracle worker of agriculture, and it has become even more so over the past 50 years after being selectively bred for pollination as well as for honey production. With colony collapse now at a fatality rate of over 50 percent, honeybee declines may have worse consequences than just a price hike for almonds: honeybees are responsible for 70 percent of New York state agriculture.
At the Nassau Country Value Ace Agway garden center in Rensselaer County, Mike Gardner answers with a firm yes when asked if local farmers and gardeners are concerned about not having enough bees around for their plants. And he is definite about what is reducing bee populations in the region: “Chemicals,” he says. “I attribute it mostly to the use of chemical pesticides. We’re trying to promote organic pest control for vegetables,” he says, adding that the store eliminated a product called Seven “which is very detrimental to beehives.”
Seven is a readily available home-garden insecticide that has been shown to be harmful to bees as well as birds, small mammals, and possibly humans. A recent national study revealed that home gardeners were on a par, per acre, with industrial farms for pesticide use. “We’re trying to get everybody away from chemical-based pesticides and herbicides and get them on an organic program,” Gardner says.
Another dilemma for the greater Capital Region is the development of forest areas, which destroys native bee habitat. To address the issue of bee scarcity, the Nassau Agway holds regular “bee clinics” (the next one is scheduled for March 25), conducted by a third-generation beekeeper from Berne. “They’re very informational,” Gardner says of the clinics. “It’s much better for plants when you have a honeybee population. You’ll increase your yields on fruit trees and vegetables dramatically. The pollination process is much more natural,” he adds. “Bees come from hives, but there are less and less beehives because of the emaciation of our forests.”
Though beekeeping for at-home honey production and beeswax continues to grow in popularity, keeping bees just for gardening and to sustain the local environment is also beneficial. Gardner recommends clover as a good forage plant for honeybees. A major culprit in honeybee mortality, research indicates, is neonicotinoid pesticides, the most widely used insecticide in the world. Ninety-four percent of all GMO corn in the United States is treated with neonics, and so are some of the Capital Region’s apple orchards. Neonics are believed to be a much safer alternative to the pesticides they replaced about 20 years ago, and are noted for their effectiveness and ease of application. Yet wild bees have been shown to avoid orchards sprayed with neonics, requiring the renting of managed honeybee hives for orchard pollination.
For now, honeybees are not imperiled. However, they are not the only pollinator responsible for propagating food plants and feed plants. The food chain depends on a variety of bees and other pollinating insects, such as butterflies, and also birds. Apple orchards rely on at least 106 different species of pollinating insects. Bumblebees are especially important because certain crops, such as blueberries, cranberries, and eggplant, depend on them, and also because they are part of an intricate dance of nature that involves multiple pollinators. This interrelatedness produces optimal yield quality as well as ecological stability across the food chain.
In response to the sharp decline in wild bees nationwide, last year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed the first North American bee for the Endangered Species list: the Rusty Patched Bumblebee, a flying fuzzball that was once abundant along the East Coast but is now on the brink of extinction. The listing was meant to lay the groundwork for protections for 50 other endangered bee species. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, half of all wild bee species are imperiled, with heavy habitat loss and pesticides among the major reasons, along with disease and climate change. Rusty bumblebees are still unprotected, however: they were the first casualty of the Trump administration’s regulatory freeze on the Endangered Species Act, enacted in January shortly before the Rusty’s USFWS-devised protection plan was to go into effect. The enormously successful Endangered Species Act (the single-handed reason we still have bald eagles), which has almost unanimous public approval, is itself endangered: the GOP could possibly invalidate it.
In New York state, a Pollinator Task Force led by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) assembled a Pollinator Protection Plan last year that includes best management practices and recommendations for increasing habitat quality on state lands. The role of neonicotinoids on bees is still under study by the DEC, though many national studies have proven that neonics are a contributing factor to honeybee and wild bee declines. Neonics have been banned in several European countries due to their association with pollinator die-offs. “This is a controversial issue, because it’s not only pesticides, it’s overall stress causing the honeybees to have trouble, and also for native bees, because they don’t have as much habitat,” says horticulturist Dr. Lily Calderwood, a senior resource educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension. She emphasizes that bee declines are a multifaceted problem. “There are insecticides and fungicides being sprayed that need to be handled carefully,” she explains, and some of them are critical, such as pest controls for honeybee colonies to eradicate mites. “Mites are a pest to honeybees that are such a problem,” she says. “Someone who keeps honeybees has to spray because the mites attack the honeybees, and spread viruses.” More research has to be done on how spraying affects wild bees, which are mostly solitary and don’t live in colonies, she adds, as well as the level of pollination that is being done by wild bees. For some crops, such as greenhouse plants, bumblebees are better pollinators than honeybees, she says, and bumblebees can be brought in much as honeybees are. A different bee stress that is especially problematic in the Capital Region, she explains, is temperature extremes. “Bees from around here, and honeybees raised here, it’s not so much snow, they’re used to the cold, but they are not used to temperature fluctuations. Going from 70 degrees to negative wind chill impacts them,” she says. “The Northeast has the most drastic change from what we consider the norm, and bee species are affected by it.” Bee problems for the region’s many different kinds of crops, Calderwood says, happens slowly, and is more about varying crop reductions than a crop loss. Her recommendation for the area’s farms and orchards is the same as for home gardeners: find some land to plant a variety of flowering plants for habitat and for an alternative food source. “People should improve habitat instead of just spraying,” she adds. Unlike most of the other extinction scenarios now occurring around the globe, preventing bee eradication is something that almost anybody can contribute to fairly easily. Backyard gardens and small parks make a difference, because bees can forage over a ten-mile radius. If you are lucky enough to have a bee nest on your property, leave it alone. Bumblebees and pollen bees are not aggressive and won’t sting unless threatened. Plant native flowers or flowering trees on whatever patch of ground you have available. Leave some dirt and grass clumps or wood scraps around, as many bees, including bumblebees, are ground nesters. Put out a bee watering station: a shallow bowl filled with water and marbles (so the bees don’t fall in). And don’t use chemical pesticides, even if it means developing some tolerance toward nuisance pests. As one gardener put it, “So the rose petals have a few nibble marks. It’s not the end of the world.” But if enough bee species become extinct, well, it just might be.