I heard about the recent decline in honeybees, and I wanted to find out if there was anything that homeowners could do to support local bee populations. I interviewed two apiculture professors (that’s professors of bee science) and found out that there’s a lot that homeowners can do to help local bee populations thrive.
What’s going on with bees?
“The honeybees have been declining since the 1940s, so in some sense it’s nothing new,” said Dr. Keith Delaplane, a professor at the University of Georgia’s Honey Bee program. “What is new is the rate of that decline. In the past three winters, we have seen just a precipitous drop that really caught our attention. It’s kind of a bad thing gone worse,” he said.
Dr. Delaplane attributes a few factors to the sudden decline in honeybees. One is “the results of global mixing of organisms. It’s very easy for somebody to travel to France and bring a honeybee queen back and use it to re-queen one of their beehives back home. It’s illegal, but it happens quite a bit. It’s very easy to imagine how new viruses and parasites can be transported around the world that way. I think that is one of the leading things. We’ve had decades of that with beekeepers traveling around the world and bringing back bees and restocking their hives with a queen from Timbuktu or something. It’s not the bees, per se, it’s the viruses they accidentally introduce that way.”
“There’s all sorts of bee viruses and diseases that are global,” said Dr. Delaplane. “They’re pretty much everywhere now because of the manifested movement. So we have exotic bee parasites from Asia, and bee parasites from Europe, and they’re all here on our bees now.”
One of these parasites is the Varroa mite, which Dr. Zachary Huang of Michigan State University studies. “I study how to control mites, which is a major pest, probably the number one,” said Dr. Huang. “They basically suck the blood from bees. It’s like a tick. In sucking the blood from bees, it also transmits other viruses that make the bees sick. The bees get immunological disease just like the HIV virus and they lose resistance to other diseases.”
Another disease that is wiping out bees is Colony Collapse Disorder, which makes the bees disappear. “You can’t find the dead bodies,” said Dr. Huang. “The adults are gone. Immature stages are left behind and the queen. It has been happening for four years now. We still don’t know what causes it,” he said. Dr. Huang said, “Right now there are very few feral bee populations, bees that are not managed. They’re slowly coming back. But almost 90 percent of the bees that you see on the flowers are managed. There used to be a lot of wild bees, but the mite came in and wiped out everybody. That’s why we rely on managed populations right now for pollination.”
Feed the Bees
Drs. Huang and Delaplane both cited nutritional stress as a reason that bees are disappearing. Delaplane cited, “Monoculture and agriculture, soybeans that don’t produce any nectar. Corn that doesn’t produce any nectar. Wheat that doesn’t produce any nectar. So you get bees that are suffering from malnutrition, and you’ve got on top of it these other stresses, and I haven’t even talked about pesticides yet. What you have is a perfect storm of many diverse factors all coming together at once to really pound our bee populations.”
What homeowners can do is use their landscapes to feed local bee populations. Dr. Huang suggested, “Plant flowers that could provide bees with nectar and pollen. In general, that would increase the biodiversity for other bees, not just honeybees.” He continued, “If you have a lot of flowers, native or not, they provide nectar and pollen. Unfortunately, we are so hooked up with keeping a nice green lawn, which doesn’t really do much ecologically. It doesn’t really do anything for bees and other organisms.”