Why Honeybees are important
Do you remember enjoying those long, lazy summers as a child playing in alfalfa covered fields, listening to the buzz of a distant bee on a flower? I have memories weaving flower crowns out of clovers, making sure to pick the few little white flowers that didn’t have a playful bee on top of it. With all of that time spent outside, playing tag or climbing trees, I got stung by bees. And it hurt.
Bees are popularly viewed as irritating pests buzzing around the yard with those unpleasant stingers. But these incredible insects are so much more than irritants in your garden.
Bees are imperative to the existence of humankind through the pollination of our food chain. Their immense value to our crops is something we all need to understand as the honeybee population is threatened by extinction.
Honeybees were brought here from Europe in the 1600s with Old World settlers. Some of the colonists who arrived at Plymouth brought bees along with them for their honey as sustinence, as well as sheep, cows and chickens on the trip across the Atlantic. Honeybees were brought with European settlers to spread honeybee colonies. Once the bees were introduced, they were able to increase their range by moving into new territory.
Today, Honeybees are transported to various regions of the country to pollinate an estimated $40 billion worth of the nation’s agricultural produce each year. If honeybees were to vanish, the estimated monetary loss to The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is a colossal $30 billion a year. This economic hit comes from lower crop yields and increased production costs and would result in loss of agricultural jobs across the nation.
One of every three bites of food Americans consume comes from a plant visited by bees. In fact, honeybees play a huge role in the production of over 90 different farm-grown foods, ranging from fruit to nuts to cattle. The list of crops that cannot grow without honeybees include common foods like strawberries, broccoli, cucumbers, onions, peaches, pumpkins, and carrots. In fact, honeybees are responsible for 90% of the production of avocados, apples, almonds, blueberries, oranges and watermelon.
Oilseeds like cotton, sunflower, coconut, groundnut, and palm oil, would wither away without bee pollination, eliminating more than half of the world’s diet of necessary fat and oil that our bodies need to survive. Dietary fats are essential to give our bodies energy and to support cell growth. In fact, about 20 to 35 percent of your calories should come from a variety and balance of healthy fats you can obtain from nuts, seeds and oils.
Honeybees aren’t just crucial to the production of human foods, but to the livelihood of plants and flowers in the ecosystems around us. Many of our trees, such as willow and poplar, benefit from the pollination services of honeybees, which help to preserve and spread our natural forests. The abundance of flowering plants that cover the prairies owe much of their existence to the visits of honeybees. To remove the bees from the environment would mean the fall of many species of flowers and plants that we take for granted.
In addition to providing beauty to humans and homes to animals, these plants contribute to the food system by feeding animals such as birds, insects and other woodland creatures. If the food source for these animals was reduced or lost completely, it would be detrimental to the entire food chain.
Honeybees are also crucial for ensuring alfalfa and clover for the meat and dairy industries. The production of most beef, lamb and dairy products consumed in the United States is dependent on these plants. Without the help of honeybees spreading the seeds of these plants, our country’s cows, goats and sheep would be at high risk.
Annually honeybees help provide 100 million bales of cotton due to their pollination of that crop. Cotton makes up 35% of the world’s total fiber use. Without cotton, we would be deprived of many different clothing and household items, including jeans, shoe laces, towels, mattresses, and high-quality paper products. Annual business revenue stimulated by cotton in the U.S. economy exceeds $120 billion, making cotton America’s number one value-added crop.
If the process of pollination were to stop, it would directly affect birds, squirrels, insect, farm animals, humans and all of the other animals that depend on plants for food.
When a bee lands on a flower, the hairs all over the body attract pollen grains through electrostatic forces. Stiff hairs on their legs enable them to groom the pollen into pockets on their legs and then carry it back to their home and to other flowers. Simply by doing what bees love most (flying from one plant to the next) honeybees cross-pollinate them and allow for these plants to spread their seed and grow – a term known as germination.
So, without even knowing the magnitude of their work, bees are proving ecosystems for a wide array of species, pollinating food for animals and human, and contributing to many important sectors of our economy.
Why are bees leaving?
Carlen Jupe, the secretary and treasurer for the California State Beekeepers Association warns that “If something is not done to improve honeybee health, then most of the interesting food we eat is going to be unavailable”. Meaning, imagine a grocery store or farmers market with only a small fraction of produce. Very little choices, less food supply, equal or increased demand with higher population leading to a skyrocketed price increase. Your favorite recipes would call for ingredients that may no longer exist or be accessible.
Since 2006, honeybee populations have plummeted as much as 70%. The process of their decline is called Colony Collapse Disorder. This is where healthy bees simply abandon their hives en masse, never returning. Because honeybees play such a prevalent role in our food chain efforts to investigate and uncover reasons for this sudden global pandemic have been heavily researched. Here are 4 major reasons for Colony Collapse Disorder.
1. Pesticides – even at “safe” levels, pesticides harm bees. Bees take nectar and pollen that have been contaminated with these pesticides through the plant’s DNA back to the hive, creating a toxic living environment for all the bees in the colony. This toxicity builds up inside of the bees destroying the central nervous system, causing disorientation and bees ultimately can’t fly or make it back to their nest. This results in disappearing bees that never come back to the hive. When the hives are abandoned by bees honey is not produced and the bees without hives end up homeless and dying.
2. Genetically Modified Crops – By modifying the crops’ DNA, the plant is altered and given a new trait that wouldn’t occur naturally. The chemicals used to alter the crops are generating pollen with diminished nutritional value, so honeybees are left hungry without sustained nutrition for traveling to and from the beehive. When honeybees are left hungry and without energy they cannot accurately get to and from the beehive, so more and more bees are not able to return to the hive.
3. Parasites – The biggest cause of Colony Collapse Disorder amongst bees is the parasite, or mite, called the Varroa destructor, a type of mite found to be highly resistant to the insecticides that U.S. beekeepers have previously used in attempt to rid the mites from inside the beehives. This specific type of parasite is the number one honeybee killer in the U.S.. The Varroa mite was first discovered in the U.S. in 1987, and large chemical manufacturers like Monsanto, Dow and Bayer came into the bee industry selling genetically modified pesticides as a remedy for these parasites.
Ironically, the overuse of these chemicals only weakened the bees’ natural genetic defenses to fight off the parasite. The effect of these parasitic mites being treated by pesticides only creates a vicious cycle contributing to the rapid decline of honeybees. A bee that has been affected by parasitic mites has a shorter lifespan, and their offspring will be born with a weakened immune system, deformed wings and will rarely leave the colony. This behavior amongst multiple bees can lead to a collapse in the entire colony. Sum of Us is a campaign petitioning for Home Depot and Lowe’s to stop stocking their shelves with this type of bee-killing pesticide.
4. Climate Change – Scientists believe the effects of climate change may be exaggerating the growth rates of the Varroa destructor mites. In addition, the unusual hot-and-cold winter weather fluctuations caused by climate change are wreaking havoc on bee populations accustomed to more consistent seasonal weather patterns. In fact, The Northern Plains and Midwestern states that have regionally always produced the nation’s most honey have been severely hurt by the long harsh winters in the last couple years.
Honeybees are declining at such a rapid rate that commercial beekeepers, those with hundreds of thousands of bee colonies and produce millions of pounds of honey through pollination, are closing up shop because they are having problems producing honey. This is important because commercial honeybees are responsible for the pollination of an estimated 80% of all food crops in the United States.
For this reason, The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it will provide a $3 million subsidy in order to help save honeybees. This program is designed to entice Midwest dairy farmers and cattle ranchers to replant their fields with crops that honey bees love like alfalfa and clover. Farmers and ranchers only had until March 21st, 2014 to sign up and take advantage as eligible seedling recipients.
Humans, animals and insects are inextricably connected. Animals and insects bring life, love, and beauty to our planet, so it is vital that we do what we can to keep them as a vital, impactful part of the ecosystem. Insects and animals have an important impact to human life, and the inverse effect is true as well. Our actions have a direct affect on the Earth. Now is the time to do what we can to help, starting in our own homes, starting with our own action, to help save the honeybees.
1. Plant things that bees like
Bees prefer flowers that are blue, purple or yellow. Plant a variety of these through your yard to ensure a good supply of pollen through the warm months. Bee-yummy plants include: sage, salvia, oregano, lavender, ironweed, yarrow, yellow hyssop, alfalfa, honeywort, dragonhead, echinacea, bee balm, buttercup, goldenrod and English thyme. Have a greener garden by planting seeds, not starter plants, to avoid buying plastic that ends up in our landfills.
Pesticides are bad for humans and even worse for bees. Here are 3 things you can do to ward off pests without using pesticides.
a. Crop rotation– involves alternating the species of crop that a farmer grows on his or her land each year. Rotating crops helps prevent pests from getting used to the type of plant that is being cultivated. Did your tomato plant run its course? Pull it out and plant something different like snap peas.
b. Crop Diversity– In order to protect crops from pests, increasing the types of vegetables, plants, and fruits that are grown, makes each crop less susceptible to pests. Pests will find less acceptable plants to feed or lay eggs on in a garden or yard with various types of plants.
c. Compost– Swapping out fertilizer for compost soil is a great way to limit use of pesticides in your yard. Fertilizers are rich in toxic chemicals that ward off pests and insects. Keep it natural with compost! Compost provides nutrients and improves the quality of the soil. And this encourages earthworms and other beneficial organisms whose activities help plants grow strong and healthy.
3. Natural pest solutions for your home
Remove garden killing pests organically by introducing predatory bugs like ladybugs or predatory mites to your yard. They will eat the irritants right up!
Insects such as ants, mites and little flies are a common part of any garden, but you don’t have to use harsh chemicals to ensure they won’t eat your plants. Here are some natural, pesticide-free ways to control insects and pests around your garden and household to maintain a bee-friendly yard.
Cockroaches a problem? Keep a spray bottle of soapy water around, spraying roaches directly with soapy water will kill them. For pests and insects on your plants, use landscape paper or mulch to prevent weeds from recolonizing cleared areas. Insecticidal soaps are another nontoxic way to rid insects. They are most effective against many soft-bodied pests such as aphids, mites, whiteflies, thrips, caterpillars, mealybugs, etc. Find more natural remedies!
4. Buy Organic!
Organic foods and fibers, like cotton and hemp, are made without the use of commercial pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Buying organic products means you are supporting the development of bee-friendly products and practices. An easy way to tell if the food or fibers you buy are organic or not is to look for the organic certification logo.
When buying produce it is important to know what has been produced without the use of pesticides. The Environmental Working Group releases a yearly list of the Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen; a list of foods that are covered in pesticides and a list of foods that have managed to avoid pesticide use.
5. Let Your Veggies Bolt
If you tend to a garden this is a great way to encourage pollination. Instead of clipping your plants after harvest, allow a few leafy vegetables to “bolt,” or go to seed. Seeding plants are a bee’s best chance to stock up on food before the drastically colder months of winter caused by climate change. This will keep them sustained until they emerge back in spring.
6. Support your local beekeeper by eating more honey! (Now this is a sweet one!)
Want to swap out artificial sweeteners for a natural option? Maybe you simply have a sweet tooth or enjoy baking? Or perhaps you prefer natural home-made beauty products?Make sure you are buying it from a local beekeeper rather than a big honey corporation. Local beekeepers tend to be much more concerned about the health of their bees than they are about their profits. And their products do not have to travel far to reach your home, either. You are likely to find local honey brands being sold at the local farmer’s market.
7. One of the best things you can do is to take a tour of your local beekeepers hives.
See what opportunities your local community has for you and your kids to get involved in saving bees. What a great way to get the whole family off the couch and outdoors interacting with insects than to check out your local beekeeper for a hands-on experience. Other outdoor activities this summer for the whole family!
8. Getting your kids involved with science
Teaching children the interdependence of living creatures is something which will stay with them forever. Kids using science to question something in nature and to care enough to make a change is an invaluable experience. Check out our (kids) Science Pinterest board for resources and experiments that are kid friendly.
9. Take the Bee Kind survey to see how bee friendly your garden is
Once you take the Bee Kind survey, you will know if the flowers in your garden are attracting bees or repelling them. Once you know how your garden scores, Bee Kind can recommend some other flowers that you may want to plant – to really get your garden buzzing.
10. Open your garden to the public
If your garden is a haven to bees, why not share it with others by having an open garden day? Share with others the types of flowers you have in your yard, your natural methods of riding pests from the garden and inspire them to adapt the same methods. You could start small with friends and neighbors and gradually work up to a public opening, charging a small fee at the door to donate to a bee conservation effort.
11. Sign petitions to support bees
One of the best actions you can take to help save endangered honey bees is to sign a petition that supports bee-friendly actions. Greenpeace.org has a petition to convince the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to pose a ban on neonics; powerful chemicals used in pesticides that are known to kill bees. Take the Bee-Safe Garden Pledge; declare your independence from bee-killing pesticides and pledge to only purchase neonic-free, organic garden plants and seeds. Find a list of organic retailers by using Beyond Pesticides’ Pollinator-Friendly Seed Directory! Save Our Bees is a social campaign gathering speed as 32,122 people have signed the petition asking President Barak Obama to protect bees from pesticides. The campaign’s goal is to have 90,000 signatures before being sent to The White House.
Please comment with a link to another petition we should be aware of to help spread the message!
Honey bees are a precious part of our world as they contribute so much to our lives simply by existing. It is our responsibility to make sure we do our part to let them thrive. Share your bee-friendly actions with us!
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