Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Help the Honey Bees

What’s the buzz? I’ll tell you what’s a happenin’! (Jesus Christ Superstar reference, awesome musical.) Daniel Payne, local bee keeper, joined our LIFE class to talk about the not-so-secret life of bees and how we can help save the honey bees, and thus our own economy.

Did you know that most bee keepers make about half their money renting their bees? Many crops are pollinated by bees, so farmers rent bee colonies from bee keepers. Bees are trucked all over North America for this purpose. The big risk in bee transportation is overheating the colony. You see, a bee hive needs to stay at about 94° Fahrenheit for the larvae to survive, so the moving trucks need to be air conditioned or well ventilated to keep the bees alive. One hive can pollinate about 1 acre. California has 2 million acres of just almond trees (not to mention the numerous other crops pollinated by bees), so the bee rental business is very lucrative.

So why are bees important? Well, it turns out that bees are very hard workers and contributing greatly to our economy. They pollinate over 100 of the fruits and vegetables that we eat every day. Put another way, they are responsible for about ¼ of all the pollination work at an estimated value of $10 Billion per year. Without bees, we would have to pollinate these plants by hand, which means we would eat mostly grains. Food prices would soar, plants pollinated by bees would die off and so would the animals that feed on them. Would mankind survive? Probably. Would our entire world change for the worse? Absolutely.

So what is hurting the bees? Unfortunately, many things we are doing every day such as using pesticides and genetically modified crops harm the honey bees. Bees already have many natural parasites, which seem to be on the rise, especially Neonicotinoids are a common chemical in pesticides sold in the US. The pesticides become systemic in plants, so a bug lands on the plant, becomes paralyzed and dies within hours. The trouble is, it has a similar effect on bees. France and Spain have banned neonicotinoids, and other countries are considering a ban, because they believe the chemicals have contributed to massive bee colony deaths. Some genetically modified crops (such as BT corn) have naturally bug-resistant bacteria bred into the plant to make the plant bug resistant, but studies show this bacteria weakens the bees when they pollinate the plant, and makes the bees more susceptible to mites and other parasites.

That’s the bad news. So how can we help our industrious honey bees? First, you can start by using fewer lawn chemicals and pesticides that have neonicotinoids. That is tough because they are so common, but there are brands available. Check the labels. Second, buy local honey. The US imports millions of pounds of honey each year; clearly we are not supplying enough honey to meet demand. Buying local honey helps the US honey industry and keeps your local bee keepers in business. Again, read the labels on the shelf. There are even imitation honey brands available now. The label should say “pure honey” and made locally, or made in Texas, etc… Unfortunately, local honey does not necessarily help out with allergies, as the rumor suggests. Bees pollinate fruits and vegetables, so if you are allergic to local fruits and veggies, then yes, local honey can help offset your allergies, since you will be ingesting small doses of those pollens. But if you are allergic to trees, grass and molds, you are out of luck as bees don’t pollinate any of those plants. Third, grow a bee garden in your yard. Check out for which plants are bee friendly.

With a little effort, we can help our hard working honey bees and keep our economy buzzing along!

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