Printer Friendly

We can all help the honey bees.

Honey bees have done more to sustain humanity than we can possibly imagine. Besides making honey and pollinating flowers, honey bees pollinate 90 varieties of fruits, vegetables, and tree nuts--one-third of our food supply. Even meat-eaters depend on honey bees to pollinate soybeans, a major food staple in meat production. Corn, another important feed crop, is self-pollinating, but bees like to forage in corn fields to add variety to their diets. In fact, bees depend on a wide variety of wild and cultivated plants to supply the right balance of nutrients to ensure healthy bee colonies. (A broader discussion of honey bees appeared in the June 2008 issue of Townsend Letter in my column titled, "Where Have All the Honey Bees Gone?")

Over the past two decades, beekeepers have noticed a steady decline in their bee colonies, but the devastating losses of the past two years have everyone worried. Some commercial beekeepers suffered losses between 50% and 100%. Bees have been succumbing to parasitic mite infestation and viral infections, but more mysterious is the disappearance of foraging bees that abandon the hive without a trace. The unexplained phenomenon is called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and has gotten quite a bit of media coverage the past year.

A second mysterious occurrence is the lack of invasion by pests and the long delay in bees from other colonies robbing the collapsed colony. One researcher from Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) suspects the presence of a chemical or toxin may be keeping the usual invaders away. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), in conjunction with Penn State, will be looking at pests, pathogens, and pesticides as possible causes of the current problem.

Other scientists, along with health and environmental advocates, strongly suspect genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in crops such as corn, soy, canola, and cotton that bees like to feed on may be weakening their immune systems. GMO crops were introduced and heavily promoted by the Monsanto Corporation, which persuaded the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to forego the usual rigorous testing that would determine the health effects on humans and wildlife.

Electromagnetic radiation (EMR) from the widespread proliferation of cell towers and mobile phones is also suspected of contributing to bee disappearance. Landau University in Zurich conducted two small studies that found a significant impact on the behavior and navigational ability of bees exposed to electromagnetic radiation. The telecommunications industry is another powerful political force that avoids proper testing of electromagnetic radiation on humans and wildlife.

Legislative and Voluntary Support

Laws to protect bees are now being introduced by federal, state, and local governments. "The Pollinator Protection Act" (HR 1709) was introduced by Florida Congressman Alcee Hastings to appropriate funding to study the problem of CCD. (1)

Senate Resolution 580, "The Pollinator Habitat Protection Act," recognizes the importance of pollinators to ecosystem health and agriculture in the US and seeks to protect and sustain pollinators, declaring June 24-June 30 "National Pollinator Week." (2) In June 2007, the United States Postal Service introduced a series of Pollinator Commemorative Stamps. In 2006, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that landowners who spray pesticides on tree groves can be held liable for damages to neighboring apiaries. This landmark decision will set a new standard for protecting honey bees from toxic pesticides. New York recently passed a bill that requires all beekeepers to disclose their hive locations in order to assess the size and condition of the state's honeybee population. (3)

The North American Pollinator Protection Campaign with 90 affiliate organizations is dedicated to increasing the health and number of migratory pollinating animals in North America by reducing the use of toxic pesticides and promoting friendly land use practices. (4)

Thousands of acres of natural habitat have been cleared, seeded, mowed, and sprayed to accommodate the many golf enthusiasts around the world. The US Golf Association (USGA) is finally promoting environmental strategies that include making room for native pollinators and reducing the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. (5) Besides helping bees and other wildlife, reduced pesticide use benefits golfers, groundskeepers, and surface and ground water supplies.

Bee Economics

Beekeepers have been facing a reversed economic trend. A drop in honey prices due to cheaper imports from China, combined with bee losses, have greatly diminished beekeepers' incomes, while the cost of fuel and equipment has steadily risen. Many beekeepers are giving up rather than deal with an uncertain future or possible economic ruin. (6), (7)

The consumer is also cheated by cheap honey from China. Unethical practices of adulterating the honey with cheaper corn syrup, or honey contaminated with pesticides and other chemicals is very common. Some products labeled "honey" are merely rice syrup. (7) This is no surprise after learning about contaminated pet food and medical supplies coming from China.

The escalating honey bee shortage means the agricultural industry has to pay higher rental prices for pollinators, which translates to higher food prices for the rest of us. Burt's Bees, purveyors of natural skin care products, is taking an active role in the current demise of honey bees. After all, where would Burt's Bees be without bees? The company is raising awareness with public service announcements and by funding research for a solution. Their "Honeybee Health Improvement Project" will focus on the following: breeding stock improvements, improving commercial beekeeping, promoting forage opportunities, improving nutritional resources, and giving out free packets of wildflower seeds to improve bee habitat. (For more information, please go to Burt's also maintains a list of local organic farmers who create pesticide-free, bee-friendly environments while producing healthy food for people. (8)

Bee economics is even having an impact on premium ice creams, particularly the popular fruit- and nut-based varieties. Haagen-Dazs has introduced a new flavor, Vanilla Honey Bee, to raise awareness of the bee problem, and is donating money to the bee research project. (9)

Wild Bees

Honey bees are an exotic species in the sense that they were brought here by the colonists. There are over a 1000 native species, or wild bees, that have always been here. They do not live in colonies like honey bees. Native bees make individual nests and do not produce honey. They do, however, pollinate a large share of vegetables, fruits, and nut crops, as well as most garden and wild flowers. Loss of habitat to suburban development in addition to pesticides used in agriculture, on forage plants along roadsides, golf courses, gardens, and lawns has taken a toll on the native bee population.

University of California, Berkeley professor Gordon Frankie is a specialist in the behavior of native bees and started a research project to track the number of wild bees in urban areas. He also promotes the planting of native flowers to encourage wild bee diversity.

Worldwide, there are over 20,000 species of bees that do not make honey, but nearly all the existing research has been done on honey bees. Laurence Packer, biology professor at York University in Ottawa, is intent on increasing awareness of the importance of native or wild bees as pollinators. He is promoting the Canadian Pollination Initiative to study the more than 800 bee species in Canada, which contribute greatly to the pollination of agricultural crops and native flora. "If the honey bees are in trouble," Dr. Packer believes "there are loads of other bees that could replace them, but no one is interested in them." (10)

The Great Sunflower Project

In response to the serious decline of pollinators in wild and agricultural areas, biologists at San Francisco State University have started the Great Sunflower Project to learn more about where healthy bees live. Very little is known about urban ecosystems, although 80% of the American population lives in urban areas.

The Project designers wish to learn more about healthy bees in urban, suburban, and rural settings. They are offering free packets of sunflower seeds to interested participants who agree to plant the seeds and make daily observations of visiting bees. This information will provide insight into ways we can help the little pollinators survive and thrive. To obtain a free packet of seeds, go to

We Can All Help

For thousands of years, with little notice and less gratitude, bees have been pollinating crops that we depend upon for food. In the past century, honey bee pollination has been commercialized to meet the needs of modern agri-business. The honey bees have been overworked, underfed, overcrowded, stressed, and poisoned. Chris Harp, the Naturalist Bee Doctor in New Paltz, New York, believes, "We have turned bees into a machine and ripped out their soul." (11)

We can all do a small part to help the bees survive and thrive, since they have done so much to help us survive and thrive. If you're not into plants, but like honey, support your local beekeepers and buy local honey. Even if you don't like honey, you can buy it as gifts for friends and family. Consumers always vote with their dollars. Avoid cheap imports from China. Golfers can remind their groundskeepers to reduce pesticide use and go native with plants and shrubs. Plant lovers have many options for making their gardens and yards more bee-friendly. Planting both for personal satisfaction and to help reverse the current demise of bees doubles the pleasure of gardening.

The Natural Resource Defense Council makes the following suggestions to support native bee populations:

* Bee Diverse: Diversity attracts different varieties of bees and gives them a range of flowering plants throughout the growing season. Plants should vary in color, size, and flowering times.

* Bee Open to Pollen: Pollen is bee food. Genetically engineered pollen-free plants starve bees. (Flower pollen is not a major cause of most allergies.)

* Bee Pesticide Wary: Natural pest controls in the garden are healthier for children, pets, and bees.

* Bee a Hive Builder: Building a hive is easy and fun. Creating a wood nest is a good starter. Choose a non-pressure treated block of wood and drill holes 3/32 inch to 5/16 inch diameter, approximately five inches deep and wait for the bees to arrive. Wood-nesting bees don't sting. (12)

Grai St. Clare Rice, co-founder of Honeybeelives with Chris Harp, recommends the following forage plants in the Northeast US to encourage good honey bee health. The small list that follows is in order of their bloom period. (A good garden shop can recommend appropriate plants for other regions):
Winter Hazel Witch Hazel
Willow Acer Maple
Flowering Quince Poplar
Black Locust Catalpa
American Basswood Sourwood

Dandelion (Don't kill them. Eat them.) Milkweed
White Clover Purple Loosestrife
Joe Pye Weed Golden Rod

Crocus Jacob's Ladder
Poppies Salvias
Thymes Mints
Anise Hyssop Coneflower
Sunflowers (13)

Planting each flower variety in mass attracts more bees.


More information on Colony Collapse Disorder and how to help bees is available at the following sites: (Chris Harp, the Naturalist Bee Doctor) or (NAPPC, c/o Pollinator Partnership, 423 Washington St., 5th Fl., San Francisco, CA 94111-2339) (Organic Consumers Assn., an online and grassroots non-profit public interest organization campaigning for health, justice, and sustainability.) (Natural Resource Defense Council, a public interest advocacy organization.) (American Beekeeper Federation.) The Great Sunflower Project [free seeds] = 15572 (US Department of Agriculture) (Burt's Bees) (Haagen-Dazs)

Earth Day Award

This year, the Cancer Awareness Coalition, Inc. has selected Chris Harp, the Naturalist Bee Doctor of New Paltz, New York, to receive its Earth Day Award for his outstanding devotion to protecting honey bees, promoting healthy beekeeping, and conducting beginner and intermediate classes in natural beekeeping.


(1.) Pollinator Protection Act. Available at 110:H.R.1709: Accessed February 7, 2008.

(2.) Senate Resolution 580. Available at Accessed February 7, 2008.

(3.) NY State Assembly Bill Summary--A07543. Available at = A.7543A. Accessed March 15, 2008.

(4.) North American Pollinator Protection Campaign. Available at Accessed February 7, 2008.

(5.) USGA. Available at Accessed February 7, 2008.

(6.) Brumfield L. The honeybee hunt. 12/5/07. Available at: Accessed January 28, 2008.

(7.) Ponn J. Mite threatening bee population here, nationwide. High Springs Herald. December 13, 2007. Available at: Accessed January 28, 2008.

(8.) Save the disappearing bees. Available at: Accessed March 10, 2008.

(9.) Great Sunflower Project: Bee study needs help from you. Miami Herald. March 1, 2008.

(10.) Strauss S. The buzz on bees. Canada's University. February 2008.

(11.) Frisch T. What the bee said. The Valley Table. Aug/Sept 2007.

(12.) The bees' needs. Natural Resource Defense Council. Available at: Accessed February 4, 2008.

(13.) Rice G. The puzzling plight of the honey bees. Hudson Valley Green Times. Autumn 2007; 27(3). (PO Box 208, Red Hook, NY 12571; 845-486-7070).

by Rose Marie Williams, MA
COPYRIGHT 2008 The Townsend Letter Group
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Health Risks & Environmental Issues
Author:Williams, Rose Marie
Publication:Townsend Letter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2008
Previous Article:Travel well naturally with homeopathy.
Next Article:Massage Therapy aids people with cancer.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters