It is no news to anyone that the honeybee population in North America and across the world has suffered significant decline over the last 15 years. What most people don’t know is that this species has been domesticated, was actually imported from Europe in the 1600’s. There are about 20,000 other feral species that are native bees in North America some are honeybees but others are not. As they may not be familiar to you, you may not notice these other bees of differing sizes and colors, often looking similar to a common fly. This essay focuses on the problems associated with the domesticated honey bee, and other methods of insuring the perpetuation of our pollinator population.
The experts have not come to a consensus, but feel that there are a number of contributing factors that likely play a role in what has been termed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Neonics is an abbreviation for a group of chemical pesticides thar are called neonicotinoids. These chemicals are placed on seeds by companies that sell seeds. As they are systemic compounds, they are absorbed by the roots of the plants, contaminating the entire plant, including flowers, nectar, and pollen. These compounds are neurotoxic, causing hyper stimulation of the honeybee’s nervous system. Manifestations of neurotoxicity are disorientation, behavioral and learning issues, and memory impairment. The honeybee may not be able to find his hive, and if he does, may be weakened from an extended travel. Being social creatures, honeybees live in colonies. When contaminated pollen is brought into the hive, it contaminates the entire colony, and contributes to CCD.
Other factors felt to be contributory to honeybee population decline is the predation of mites infecting honeybees. Tracheal mites (infect the breathing apparatus and lungs) and the blood sucking Varroa mite serve to weaken the honeybee. Various viruses are felt to be factors. Physical and immune system stress plays a role. In the past, farmers made a living off the sale of honey from bees. Cheap Chinese imports weakened that market and revenue was sought by transporting bee hives to orchards across America, pollinating various crops. As much as 50% of all honeybees are transported to California to pollinate many of our food crops. Industrialized agriculture,
where large tracts of land are devoted to the growth of single crops has led to pest resistance to typical methods of control. Crop rotation, healthy soil filled with microbes, and the planting of cover crops all encourage beneficial insects, that naturally prevent the overgrowth of marauding insects. The destruction of natural native habitats surrounding farmlands has contributed to the diminution of that symbiotic relationship.
Not all, but many of our food crops require that they be pollinated by the transfer of pollen from blossom to blossom. Nature has designed this so wind and insects as bees, butterflies, moths, and flies do the work. They break hibernation when certain species are in flower, perform their duty, reproduce, and repeat the cycle. Bees, however, are responsible for 85% of this work. One example of a remarkably efficient native bee pollinator is the Orchard Mason Bee (Osmia lignaria propinqua Cresson). Native to every state West and East of the Rockies. These bees are sloppy eaters, rolling about on the flowers collecting pollen on their abdomens, while the honey bee collects pollen in pouches along his legs. One source claims that the honeybee pollinates only 30 flowers per day, or 5% of blossoms, while the Orchard Mason Bee pollinates about 1900 flowers per day, at a 95-98% success rate. Non aggressive bees they rarely sting unless provoked. They are not boring bees, but build a nest in already excavated holes, or in holes you provide. They are small, black, fly like creatures that can be seen flying back and forth from plant to plant, and to moist soil, to their nesting hole, creating tiny cells in which they will deposit their pollen and eggs, which will go on to pupate and become cocoons. Ingeniously, there is a thicker wall of mud (hence mason bee) at the front of the cell to prevent against marauding birds and wasps, and thinner walls between cells, that facilitate the exit of the bees in spring. The male cell is positioned at the entrance in the first 2-3 cells and emerges first. The females are positioned in the rear, likely again to protect the species. Living just 2 weeks, long enough to impregnate the females, the male dies. The female will take 6 weeks to perform her duty of nesting, thus perpetuating the cycle.
Creating a nesting area for Orchard Mason bees is easily accomplished and various web sites, on line tutorials and books will give you all the knowledge you need. One recommended text is The Orchard Mason Bee: The Life History, Biology, Propagation, and Use of a North American Native Bee. One online source we’ve used is www.brushymountainbeefarm.com. This is a fascinating subject, and an amazing educational project for children, and we encourage you to investigate this further. Propagation is quite simple really. The bee needs a hole situated in an area that gets the warmth of the early morning sun. The emergence of the bee corresponds with the emergence of its food source, the blossoms. A nesting area can be a simple as an excavation in masonry, holes drilled into a block of wood, a milk carton or pail, in which you have placed paper or cardboard tubes”, or a nesting box that has been purchased on line. Importantly, if a Orchard Mason bee is exposed to a toxin, it only affects the health of the nesting cell the mother bee is working on, and does not affect the health of a whole colony or hive.
To encourage native pollinators, and a healthy environment, we encourage these best practices:
-avoid the use of pesticides.
-if you have to use pesticides, consider waiting the 6 weeks from spring that it takes the native bees to complete their life cycle.
-plant crops whose blossoms have an open form, like a dinner plate, making it easy for the bees to access the pollen.
-spray at night, when bees, and beneficials are not foraging.
-consider the use of dormant or natural oils, as Neem, instead of strong chemicals.
-consider if you can “live”with some insect damage.
-avoid broad spectrum herbicides whenever possible.
-use a water spray, water with dish soap to control damaging insects or hand pick insects as Japanese Beetles, and place them in water with a few drops of dish soap.
-work to achieve a natural balance in the environment. Plant native plants that attract beneficial insects and encourage natural predation.
-put up a birdhouse, and provide a water source, to encourage these creatures to naturally hunt insects. Yes, you may lose some bees, but it is all part of the natural balance of things.