Monday, April 23, 2012

Vanishing of the Bees: What You Can Do

Honeybee Pollinating an Apple Blossom
(Image credit: Jasmina)

As my readers know, I love those bees. It's rather odd, given the whole allergy thing, but hey, I love their buzzing and flitting around and the feeling of life they add to a garden. I also happen to love a lot of what bees help me eat. Grains are not my friends, as you guys know (Celiac!), but fruits and vegetables have been a life-long passion. I can't imagine a world in which I couldn't afford to bite into a crisp apple, a lush ripe pear, or enjoy my favorite berries. And cooking a stew just wouldn't be the same without carrots, parsnips, onions, peppers. It's said that a third of every bite of food we eat in America is thanks to a pollinator. The list of things pollinated by bees, either to produce seeds (reseeding is so vital in agriculture it is impossible to overestimate it) or to grow from seed to produce fruit or vegetable, is incredibly long. You can take a quick look hereAnd that's not all... I don't know about you, but I rather like my cotton clothing. Thank you, bees.

Last year there was a quiet little documentary making a big splash at some of the environmental and wildlife festivals. Vanishing of the Bees, narrated by Academy-Award nominated actress Ellen Page, takes a hard look at what the real causes are of Colony Collapse Disorder, the suspects, and how the different approach of the European governments- that of cautious appraisal (did you know that France saw CCD as early as 1994?) vs. that of the US- put it out there and get back to us if there's a problem- may have a lasting impact on our environment. Systemic pesticides last a long, long time. And bees are the sentinels of our food web. Their demise heralds problems with our food supply, with our environment and, potentially, with our survival. Presaging the now increasingly dire peer-reviewed findings on a class of systemic pesticides called neonicotinoids, Vanishing of the Bees lays it all out there in a lean 87 minutes. These recent findings in France and in Great Britain indicate that longterm exposure to pesticides decreases foraging and hive survival in honeybees and retards colony growth and birth of new queens in bumblebees. (While we're talking about bees here, one can wonder, as well, what it does to humans who are ingesting the food that came from these treated crops....) But bees face other perils, including the Varroa mites, Nosema apis fungus, and the Israeli paralytic virus. Put it all together, and it's a miracle that bees survive at all.

Vanishing of the Bees will also introduce you Chinese fake honey (what beekeepers call 'funny honey'), in case you missed the excellent Mother Jones article about it last year. In their article Honey Laundering, they follow the work of investigative reporter Anthony Schneider, who writes for Food Safety News. Cheap Chinese honey is what has made it look as if, in spite of this great collapse of the bee industry in the US, honey is still widely available and dirt cheap! So cheap. Only... it isn't honey in those cute little squeeze bears, or maybe not even on your honeyed cereal. Chinese honey might have some honey in it. But it may also have high fructose corn syrup, antibiotics like chloramphenicol (hello, aplastic anemia) or heavy metals like lead. China is not alone. Indian honey has also been identified with these contaminants and in fact, Asian honeys were banned in the 27 countries of the European Union in June of 2010. Our old friend Michael Pollan, also makes an appearance in this documentary, decrying monocultural crops and the ultimate impact of these crops on beneficial insects, food and agriculture. And the issue of a growing lack of diversity and terrible practices in bee breeding is explored as well.

Here's the video trailer for Vanishing of the Bees:

You can see the full 87 minutes on line with a streaming three-day rental of the film for only $3.99 (They use PayPal) by going to their pay per view site. Or, if you want to watch on DVD, you can email me about borrowing one of my copies of the DVD (I have two!), in exchange for making the modest contribution to the Save the Honeybee Foundation in Kilauea, Hawaii (on the island of Kauai!). Save the Honeybee and Vanishing of the Bees want to be able to make educational materials and copies of the DVD available in schools for children in grades 5-11, so that they can teach children about how to help rather than fear bees. This film is really worth your time.

I've written a fair amount on the blog about bees, but the issues involving colony collapse and bee health remain no less complicated than when I first started blogging on the topic. Colony Collapse Disorder remains a devastating problem in the agricultural industry. Yet there is so much that YOU can do to help, however. We talked about it before on this blog but there is more information and there are more resources than ever.

Don't use systemic neonicotinoids on your farm or urban landscape. Ask, if you have a contract for fertilizing, etc. with a tree or lawn service company, if they are using a systemic pesticide. Chances are that they are. I've cancelled my service because they were using Merit (imidacloprid). 

Buy local honey. That way, you're sure it's really honey, and you're helping bee keepers by supporting more than just their pollination services.

Buy organic produce whenever you can. Yes, it's expensive, but remember that the experiment of these pesticides on bees isn't going very well. Those same pesticides on plant products your eating constitute an experiment on you, as well. Can't afford organic? If you have the space, try growing some of your own vegetables, even if it's on your apartment's balcony or window sill.

Plant bee-friendly gardens. You can find suggestions for temperate zone plants here, and some for tropical plants here and here (pay special attention to plants that are bad for bees). Also, check out The Melissa Garden for additional things you can do to help bees in your home garden. (This sanctuary is literally a stone's throw from my father's stomping grounds, in Healdsburg, California!) And hey, don't forget The Great Sunflower Project, mentioned on this blog at least once before. Participate in the Backyard Bee Count with them!

Encourage solitary bees by making bee houses available. (Resources include Gardener's Supply and Kinsman Company, just two among many.) Especially if you have a garden with fruit trees, nut trees or a vegetable garden, consider ordering some mason bees. One resource is Crown Bees (sold out for the year, except in the West) or get information from their sister company, Hunter's Mason Bees about attracting more mason bees.

Speak up about bees. The more people talk about bees, the more people will care about bees. But be an informed source of information. Check out the Natural Resources Defense Council's info, for instance, in their downloadable PDF, Bee Facts: Why Do We Need Bees? The NRDC has been instrumental in protecting bees and pushing the US to identify the underlying causes of CCD. You can write to the USDA about your concerns through the NRDC here. And signify your interest to bee stories in the media by tuning in. For instance, check out the National Radio Project's half-hour long program explaining the intricacies of bee history, including an interview with Hannah Nordhaus, author of The Beekeepers Lament. (Really good discussion on fake honey, too.)

And finally, the next time you see a bee, even if you're allergic like me, don't panic. Move away, or if it was confused and got inside (bad sign....) try to get it out without swatting it. Remember these bees are what keep all the color (and a third of our food) on our dinner tables. Whatever you're eating, bees were there for you. Be there for them. Bees have rebounded in France and Germany. If we give them a chance, they will rebound here, too.

Honeybee Pollinating a Plum Blossom
(Image credit: Bosca78)

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