The State of Bees

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Imagine a living thing that has an effect on almost every food you eat. It also plays a role in the trees you see, the weeds you pull, and the coffee you drink each morning. Our entire ecosystem would be radically changed if these beings were to disappear.

Bees are the tiny, hard working, often pesky pollinators that so graciously play a part in maintaining the delicate ecosystem we share. We need them, desperately, to be able to do their job: pollinate.

But bee populations have been decreasing at an alarming rate for decades, and scientists still don’t completely understand why. This problem extends from our small corner of Southeast Michigan all the way across the U.S. and to other parts of the world.

We share this ecosystem with the bees, and it’s safe to say that we play a large and unclear role in the reason that their population is in decline. It’s our job as cohabitants of this world to do the best we can to support them.

Every winter, on average, we lose 30 to 50 percent of our bee population in Michigan, says local apiarist Meghan Milbrath. Most apiarists, also known as beekeepers, say that a sustainable loss rate is between 10 and 15 percent. In January through March 2016 alone, Michigan lost an estimated 46% of its bee colonies, according to data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

[Asked why] the population of bees is declining at such a rate, Milbrath mentioned Colony Collapse Disorder, but emphasized other factors playing a part as well: poor nutrition, pesticides, pathogens, and pests.

Central to the problem is a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), in which most of the bees abandon their hive, leaving their queen bee behind. The disorder is primarily affecting the apis mellifera (the western or European honey bee). This has been reported in colonies throughout the entire world and began gaining public recognition around 2006. The cause of CCD is still unknown, but some evidence points to neonicotinoids, a chemical in many insecticides that is deadly to colonies.

CCD isn’t the only issue bees and their keepers are facing.

Milbrath, owner of The Sand Hill, an apiary in Munith, has been keeping bees since she was a child, beginning as a project with her father. It wasn’t until 2011 that she started keeping bees as a business. She did her research on bees at the University of Michigan and her postdoctoral work at Michigan State, studying honeybee transmission.

When asked about why she thought the population of bees is declining at such a rate, Milbrath mentioned CCD, but emphasized other factors playing a part as well: poor nutrition, pesticides, pathogens, and pests.

A particular pest that has been raiding hives is the Varroa mite, which has been with us since the 1980s, Milbrath said. Once this mite gets into the hive, there is a 96% death rate for those bees. The USDA released a study in May 2016 in which they surveyed over 23,000 beekeepers. Approximately 3,300 beekeepers with five colonies or more reported the Varroa mite as the leading stressor affecting their colonies. Of the 20,000 beekeepers surveyed who had less than five colonies, the Varroa mite was also the leading stressor.

Bee colonies are also falling prey to diseases, like viruses, fungus, and bacteria. And new diseases are sprouting up each year.

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Quite possibly the most surprising cause of bee decline is malnutrition. “Lots of colonies die because of not enough food,” says Milbrath — in other words, a lack of enough pollen-producing plants to feed the pollinators. Colonies with poor nutrition are at a further disadvantage to fight off pests, pesticides, and diseases.

Big farms are planting right up to the road, without any uncultivated strips of land where wild pollin-producing plants can grow. Not enough big farms are incorporating pollen-producing plants into their land. Rows and rows of corn mean nothing to a hard-working bee, because farm crops like corn do not feed bees.

The native pollinators [such as wasps, butterflies, and moths] — including about 465 other types of native bees in Michigan — are the ones that are at greater risk…They are not mobile, they do not have caretakers (like beekeepers), they have to depend on natural habitat, and they do not fly as far.

In addition, much of the landscape in Southeast Michigan is sod (grass) and pine trees, which equates to a “food desert” for bees. Bees might fare better in a city, where at least flowers dot yards throughout a neighborhood.

So what will happen if we continue this way? What will our shared ecosystem look like if we continue to lose pollinators year after year? According to apiarists and scientists, that outlook could be grim.

“We wouldn’t lose all our food, but we would lose all of the good stuff,” Milbrath said. “We would still have corn and wheat, but no apples, no blueberries, no tomatoes…” No peppers, pumpkins, or pawpaws. About 70 percent of our food crops rely on pollinators.

Also, our prairies and forests rely on bees, which pollinate many plants in that ecosystem, which in turn provide habitat for many animals. Therefore, not only our diet, but also our landscape would drastically change if we lose our pollinators.

Milbrath wants to make clear, honey bees aren't in danger of going extinct, yet. “It’s just much more difficult to keep them alive and healthy. The native pollinators — including about 465 other types of native bees in Michigan — are the ones that are at greater risk. Some are doing fine, but other species are endangered.”

Native pollinators specifically are often forgotten about, or simply overlooked in the public discussion of plant pollination. Wasps, butterflies, and moths are all native pollinators that are often shaded by the honey bee. But honey bees can’t do the work of pollinating the world’s plants by themselves; they need the help of the other species of pollinators, too.

Before honey bees were brought to North America, we used to depend on native pollinators to do all the pollination. “Since about the 1940s, however, we began changing the land in ways that don't support native pollinators, and began to depend on honey bees for our food crop pollination,” said Milbrath.

These other pollinators also help pollinate food crops. “However, they can't always replace honey bees — they are not mobile, they do not have caretakers [like beekeepers], they have to depend on natural habitat, and they do not fly as far. That means that there has to be land that can support both their nesting and food needs and be located close to a crop in need of pollination. The issue is not that we don't have other pollinators that are up to the task; it is that there is not land that has enough consistent food for them and adequate nesting spaces that are safe from pesticides.”

It’s important to plant and use the space that you have to support pollinators…“A lot of people think you have to be dramatic or create this hippie wonderland yard,” said Milbrath. But you can keep mowing your lawn, and you can create a beautifully landscaped yard that’s also incredibly bee-friendly.

Eileen Dickinson started Bee Safe Ann Arbor in 2016, a canvassing effort to get neighbors to pledge against using certain chemicals that are harmful to pollinators. Areas and yards that follow the guidelines can be designated as “Bee Safe” by the organization.

Dickinson started beekeeping in 2010. Early on, she had a colony exposed to a pesticide and, she said, “It was very hard to witness their struggle. After taking some workshops at Spikenard Farm in 2011, I knew I needed to follow their model of beekeeping. They are in a pristine area in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, surrounded by small farms — mostly grazing — and an organic farm. The bees thrive there.”

When Dickinson heard about some folks wanting to establish Bee Safe in Ann Arbor, she joined in. “I am convinced that if bees and other pollinators are no longer exposed to so many insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, et cetera, they will thrive,” she stated.

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Bee Safe uses three main tiers of requirements for areas to be designated “Bee Safe.” The first is a pledge against using pesticides, specifically ones with neonicotinoids in them. This chemical, similar in compostion to nicotine, is taken in by the plant and comes out in the nectar and pollen. The second tier is to not use any fertilizer or fungicide that is commonly used on lawns. The third level is to pledge to plant pollinator-friendly plants. Abide by at least two of these requirements and your yard can be considered “Bee Safe”!

Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti are considered “Bee Safe” cities, and Normal Park in Ypsilanti was the first neighborhood to receive this certification in Michigan. Dickinson took to the streets to make Wurster Park Ann Arbor’s first Bee Safe neighborhood and, since then, the organization has educated many people throughout Washtenaw County about how they can better support pollinators. By the end of their first year, they had 75 contiguous neighbors who had signed the pledge to be “Bee Safe.”

Canvassing movements like these are becoming more and more prevalent around the country, and both Dickinson and Milbrath have seen an uptick in interest in pollinators since they have been involved with bees. Interest may not always yield immediate results, but it is a first step toward helping bees. “It’s cool to see people learning about their food systems and the native pollinators,” said Milbrath.

There are several clubs in Ann Arbor where locals can get involved, get educated, and take action to protect pollinators in our area: Ann Arbor Backyard Beekeepers, UM Bees, and the Southeastern Michigan Beekeepers Association. The Michigan Beekeepers Association is a very active organization, under which there are many local groups throughout the state. Regular meetings can be attended by the public, and most groups are very open to new members.

As the public learns more about pollinators and bees, we’re also learning that beekeeping isn’t the only thing we can do: it’s important to plant and use the space that you have to support pollinators. This last tier of the Bee Safe movement — to plant pollinator-friendly plants — is what Milbrath argues is our most powerful resource. As pollinators struggle to find food, it’s up to us to provide it for them. And it doesn’t have to take much effort.

So what will happen if we continue this way?...“We wouldn’t lose all our food, but we would lose all of the good stuff,” Milbrath said. “We would still have corn and wheat, but no apples, no blueberries, no tomatoes…”

“A lot of people think you have to be dramatic or create this hippie wonderland yard,” said Milbrath. But you can keep mowing your lawn, and you can create a beautifully landscaped yard that’s also incredibly bee-friendly; the two can easily go hand-in-hand. Wait to mow the goldenrod until after it’s bloomed, choose a basswood or other pollen-producing tree instead of something ornamental, let some of your herbs go to flower. Changing your own landscape to be more bee friendly doesn’t have to be a complete overhaul like many think; it just takes a few efforts on all our parts.

Dickinson would like to see people planting their lawn extensions with pollinator-friendly plants. “It’s kind of wasted space you have to mow,” she said. Even planting lots of one type of plant that benefits pollinators is helpful. Putting lavender in place of your lawn extension is not only a feast for bees, but a patch of color added to your yard.

To truly provide a haven of food for pollinators, though, it’s best to plant several different types of plants, so that something is always in bloom. Bees like variety, and having different food around throughout the seasons will not only benefit them, but also keep your own garden alive. And, if you really have the space, plant trees.

“Trees are important because they flower at important times of year,” said Milbrath. One tree alone can produce 1000 flowers, a tremendous amount of food for bees. Maple trees, basswood, sumac, black locust, and willow trees are all pollen-producing. Basswood trees are the biggest nectar producers in Michigan, and just two trees can provide an immense amount of food for bees.

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The awareness is spreading beyond your neighbor’s yard. Large organizations like the University of Michigan are making moves to dedicate specific portions of land for developing pollinator habitats. Parts of UM’s North Campus outdoor areas are being left unmowed in order to provide more pollinator food sources. Even auto giant Ford has contacted Milbrath looking to make their land more pollinator-friendly.

It’s a slow movement. Businesses and neighbors are just beginning to wake up to this issue. The price of honey is beginning to rise — surely this will not go unnoticed. But the “save the bee” movement is showing signs of success when large corporations try to pitch in. And as is the case with many environmental issues, this will start, very literally, from the ground up.

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Posted on May 1, 2018 and filed under Animals, Farms, Issue 69.