Conservation Biology Institute
Bridging conservation science and practice
Photo Credit: Ken Ferschweiler
September 16, 2013

Who Will Speak for the Bees?

A Few Practical Steps for Helping

The nets have finally been taken off of the trees in the Target parking lot in Wilsonville, Oregon.  I hope the trees are really no longer lethal; like a giant bee-zapper smelling of pollen.  If you haven’t heard, our bees are dying at an alarming rate, and so far no one is able to stop it.  Researchers have been looking for the magic bullet to stop the “colony collapse disorder”- examining specific pathogens, specific pesticides.  And progress is being made.  Meanwhile, our global food supply is being threatened.  In China, pear farmers are already forced to pollinate by hand because the bees are gone (see these images and this article).

I stumbled upon the site of the largest known bee massacre in history on a normal day in June, going to pick up mybees two year old son from visiting his grandparents.  Wilsonville is the halfway point between my house and grandma and grandpa’s house.  So if my son is visiting them, we often do a hand-off in Wilsonville.  I had heard a brief blip on the radio about a bumble bee die-off in Wilsonville, but didn’t know where it happened.  Unbeknownst to me, the die-off took place in the exact location where we were doing the kid-swap.  I pulled into the parking lot, and saw this strange futuristic landscape of plastic-looking trees.  (insert images).

An article by The Xerxes Society reports over 50,000 bumble bees were poisoned, impacting an estimated 300+ wild bumble bee colonies.  And what great need necessitated this largest poisoning ever on record anywhere?  Aphids in the linden trees were getting sticky stuff on cars in the parking lots.  So they were sprayed with a neonicotinoid type pesticide called Safari.  And 50,000 bees died.  Then, to Wilsonville’s credit, the trees were wrapped with netting to prevent more bees from dying.  A couple of weeks later I stumbled upon the wrapped trees.

It is one thing to hear about tragedies on the radio.  It is another thing to happen upon the very site of a tragedy with my two-year old asleep in the back seat.  What will his future be like?  Will there be any bees left?  Will my son need to hand-pollinate his garden?  Will there be more parking lots with wrapped up trees?  Or will the trees just be plastic altogether by then?  According to H.R. 2692, Saving America’s Pollinators Act of 2013, during the winter of 2012-2013, United States beekeepers, on average, lost 45.1 percent of the colonies they operate.  Let that sink in.  We lost nearly half our bees in the U.S. last winter.  While I pondered this, I watched oblivious shoppers team in and out of the box stores, bags in hand.  Rushing somewhere under the netted trees.

While researchers have been looking for the magic bullet to save honey bees, recent research points to the disheartening truth that it is not one chemical or pesticide that is causing colony collapse disorder, but the whole cocktail of them combined.  This is more disheartening because it is more difficult to fix quickly enough to avert disaster.  The multitude of chemicals that bees are exposed to weakens them, and makes them more susceptible to the gut pathogen Nosema ceranae.  In addition, the researchers were surprised to find that fungicides, which were previously thought to have little impact on bees, were correlated with higher incidence of this pathogen as well.  This leaves farmers in a difficult position.  Most farmers are highly dependent on pesticides and fungicides to produce their crops.  But they are also dependent on bees for pollination (H.R. 2692 notes that pollination services are worth $20,000,000,000 to $30,000,000,000 in agricultural production annually in the United States).  In order to keep the bees, they need to reduce the chemical load; most are afraid of losing their crops to pests if they do.

For more information on this issue, you can watch the PBS film “Silence of the Bees”.

If you are like me, these giant problems can make you feel a little helpless.  Left with a lot of pathos, and no direction to act.  So I would like to leave you with a few practical things you can do on your own to help the bees:

1. Do not use Neonicotinoids.  These are what killed the bees in Wilsonville, and have been found to be extremely toxic to bees.  They absorb into the plants, and stay in them for a long time after you spray, killing any bugs that come into any kind of contact with them.  Even bees collecting pollen.

2. Do not buy plants that have been treated with systemic pesticides.  It is a common practice for plant nurseries to treat plants with systemic pesticides which also absorb into the plant tissue, including the pollen.  This keeps the plants looking nice so people want to buy them.  But if you buy an apple tree with systemic pesticides in it, after you plant it in your yard you will be killing the very bees who are pollinating it.

3.  Plant lots of flowers for bee food that don’t come into contact with pesticides, and make sure the variety of flowers you plant bloom throughout the entire growing season.  Before we landscaped and farmed most of the landscape, the native plants bloomed throughout the entire season.  Many plants we may now choose bloom all at the same time.  Help bees have food early and late in the season when there is less available.  (For more in-depth information on landscaping for bees, see Xerxes Society’s publication “Conserving Bumble Bees”).

4.  To help scientists learn more about pollinators and what is happening to them, you can participate in a nation-wide citizen science program called The Great Sunflower Project.  People across the nation record information on pollinators visiting their yards, and submit it to the project.

About the author:
Katie O'Connor, M.S.
Project Manager, Facilitator
Katie is a Facilitator and Project Manager who focuses on promoting enhanced data collection, collaboration, and policy decisions for land managers and citizen science.
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