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How can I help save the bees?

Published October 6, 2008 10:59AM (EDT)

Dear Pablo,

I am still haunted by colony collapse disorder (CCD). I know the scientists are studying it, but is there anything that I and other individuals can do to help the bees?

The mysterious disappearance of honeybees in North America has been truly disturbing. According to some sources, over 40 percent of honeybee colonies have vanished each year since 2006 (30 to 90 percent according to the United States Department of Agriculture). While no one knows for sure what is causing this alarming trend, there are several theories, as well as some steps that you can take to help protect the bees yourself.

Besides converting nectar into deliciously sweet honey and making wax that we can use in candles, bees serve a much more important purpose: pollination. Bees pollinate about one-third of the crops we eat, including grains, nut trees, fruit trees and even watermelon. The pollination of crops is an ecosystem service that has intangible value. When you add up all of the ecosystem services that we enjoy, such as a stable climate, a supply of fresh water from rain, and a source of cellulose from trees and other plants, the collective value of our natural ecosystems is said to equal the "Gross World Product." Similar to the GDP measure of the U.S. economy, the GWP represents the value of the world economy. Recognizing that our economy is wholly dependent on the ecosystem services of this planet puts the importance of environmentalism into perspective.

Consider for a moment the Biosphere 2 project in the Arizona desert. The fully sealed structure housed several scientists for long periods of time to see if a self-sustaining ecosystem could be maintained. The project cost $200 million but was unable to provide sufficient food for the scientists and several outside injections of pure oxygen were required. Now consider the value provided by bees and other pollinators. Imagine if they were to disappear completely and humans had to manually pollinate crops all around the world. Not only would the cost be prohibitively expensive, but non-food plants would remain unpollinated and become extinct. So you can see how important bees are to our economy and how important it is to save them.

CCD doesn't simply mean the complete death or disappearance of a hive. The USDA says that "the main symptom of CCD is simply no or a low number of adult honey bees present but with a live queen and no dead honey bees in the hive." According to the USDA, "A perfect storm of existing stresses may have unexpectedly weakened colonies leading to collapse." These stresses include pesticides, a pathogenic gut microbe called Nosema, and the frequent relocation of hives as the beekeepers migrate with the crops. Most recently, researchers are examining a virus called Israeli acute paralysis. Climate change has not been ruled out as a possible cause, or at least contributor to CCD. A gradually warming climate allows parasites, competitors and predators to move north because of less severe winters or the absence of a heavy frost where it was once common.

So what can we do to support the struggling honeybees and to avoid the disastrous effects of their complete disappearance? The USDA suggests that "the best action you can take to benefit honey bees is to not use pesticides indiscriminately, especially not to use pesticides at mid-day when honey bees are most likely to be out foraging for nectar." You can also plant native plants in your garden that require minimal watering, don't require the use of pesticides and that provide food for bees. These plants include red clover, foxglove, bee balm and Joe Pye weed.

In a stirring new book, "Fruitless Fall," author Rowan Jacobsen presents several tips on creating a bee-friendly habitat in your backyard. If you want to try your hand at backyard apiculture (beekeeping), he recommends getting a kit from Betterbee. But if you don't want the responsibility or don't want to make this investment, you can at least make your landscaping into a bee buffet. Start by avoiding flowering plants that were bred for showy features, such as sunflowers or tulips. Instead focus on a wide variety of native plants that blossom in succession, rather than one plant that blooms all at once. This provides a more constant supply of reliable food for the bees. Also keep in mind that good housing is hard to find for bees, so consider providing some options such as a specially designed bee house (check your local wild bird store or garden supply) or a bare patch for bees that prefer nesting in burrows.

In addition, support your local beekeepers by buying locally produced honey at a farmer's market or natural foods store near you. This will help keep the important profession of beekeeping financially viable. Finally, you may want to support businesses that are actively creating awareness of CCD, such as Häagen-Dazs and Burt's Bees, which makes personal care products using beeswax, supports the Honeybee Health Improvement Project, and sent out 50,000 packets of wildflower seeds to individuals for signing up on its Web site.

By Pablo Plastic

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