They belong to all of us. And we need to start taking better care of them.
Consider this: every third bite of food you take, a bee is responsible for it. The reasons are pretty cut and dry. Almost every crop grown for its fruits, nuts, seeds, fiber, and hay require insect pollination. And without a doubt, the undefeated world champions of pollination are bees.
Whereas European honeybees are the most well known and managed, there are hundreds of other types of bees that play a part in pollinating the world’s crops.
In fact, bees are so important to humanity’s very existence, that without them, we’d likely go extinct. Furthermore, without them, we probably wouldn’t even be here.
And there’s no way an article of this magnitude is going to fit within a limited word count. So, as a reader, understand that there is A LOT more to say about this topic, and many more avenues of information, debate, and discovery surrounding this topic. We encourage you to look into it.
There are an estimated 10 quintillion insects on Earth (a 10 with 18 zeros after it) at any given time, and approximately 91,000 insect species in the U.S. alone. In all of that, the honeybee is the only insect that produces food that humans can eat.
The National Resources Defense Council estimates that cross-pollination from bees enables the existence of at least 30 percent of the world’s food crops and 90 percent of its wild plants. Remove 90 percent of wild plants from the earth and what’s left? What about 30 or more percent of our food? Imagine walking into your local grocery store tomorrow, and the produce section is pretty much gone—as well as almost half of everything else.
Without bees, almost all of the plants on Earth, as well as most of the food we eat (because the meat we eat eats plants—dah!), would vanish. And thus, we would vanish.
Here’s the problem: bees are vanishing.
Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) was the name given in 2006 to a predicament represented by a drastic increase in the number of disappearances of honeybee colonies in North America—defined as a phenomenon that occurs when the majority of worker bees in a colony inexplicably disappear and leave behind a queen, plenty of food, and a few nurse bees. From 2006 to 2013, more than 10 million beehives were lost, which represented nearly double the normal rate of loss.
And though CCD has been happening as far back as beekeeping records have been kept (think centuries), it’s just happening a lot more now. The most recent data available—via the Bee Informed Partnership—revealed that beekeepers across the U.S. lost 44 percent of their honeybee colonies between April 2015 and April of this year.
The primary cause of CCD is pesticides. Again, without committing to an additional article on who’s responsible, we’ll trust that you know (or can research) who we’re referring to. If nothing else, start with the “Big Six” and go from there: Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Dow, Bayer, BASF.
Whereas manmade changes in habitats where bees forage is also a major culprit, in a nutshell, decades of pesticide use all around the world and here in the U.S. have finally and seemingly caught up with us—in the form of vanishing bees.
Pesticides toxify the environment; bees bring the various poisons back to the hive and feed it to the larvae; and the next generation evolves with the chemicals in its DNA, which causes an overall disruption of learning and behavior. Bees lose the ability to recognize and then remember the nectar-rich flowers that are essential to the survival of the colony. And then one day, a beekeeper will walk out to a hive, and the bees will just be gone. Never to return. They will have forgotten how to get back to their hive—or simply died out in the fields.
“I’m concerned with homeowners, and decisions they make to tackle weed and pest problems—and not consider eco-friendly options,” said Curt Shade, of Shade’s Farm—a chemical-free produce, flower, herb, heirloom seed, and honey operation located on Sulphur Springs Road (Inwood, WV). “Conventional farmers aren’t the only folks spraying chemicals. But if someone is determined to use chemical sprays to combat ‘problems,’ it’s best to do so as the sun sets and the pollinators are returning to their homes. That way, they’re less likely to be directly contaminated.”
Shade added that a little research goes a long way. “The best thing, ultimately, is to find alternatives to conventional sprays and other contaminants. I’ve found that an effective recipe for killing weeds is a mixture of one gallon of vinegar, two cups of Epsom salt, and a quarter-cup of blue original DAWN dish soap. It won’t harm you, your pets, or our pollinators—and is best applied early in the morning after the dew has evaporated.”
Shade is a member of the West Virginia Eastern Panhandle Beekeepers Association (WVEPBA)—whose purpose is to promote the education of beekeepers and the public through monthly meetings, hands-on field days, speakers, and collaboration with other local organizations.
“Though there isn’t an absolute answer to colony loss, I’m seeing more interest and concern in chemical companies, and the corruption they use to gain approvals. At our farm, we aren’t spraying chemicals on our fields—so I’m certain that chemicals are not the cause for my own apiary’s winter loss. Instead, the mite is the likely culprit.”
A Double Dose of Danger
Indeed, the bees don’t always vanish—at least not in the literal sense. Yes, they’re gone (as in dead), but they’re just in piles on the ground, beneath the hive. Shade mentioned mites. In this instance, the culprit is the Varroa mite (Varroa destructor)—an annihilative parasite that literally attaches itself to bees and sucks their blood—causing a disease called varroosis—wreaking havoc on their physical and immune systems, resulting in death. They spread between hives, plant themselves in with the larvae, lay eggs everywhere, and can wipe out a colony of 50,000 bees disturbingly fast.
Whereas the Hive Beetle and Wax Moth are other predators of concern, the Varroa destructor is perhaps the greatest threat to bees at present. The combined team of pesticide-induced CCD and the Varroa mite represent a perfect storm of devastation for bees around the world.
“Part of the problem is that the Varroa mite also introduces other pathogens to the bees, which weakens them,” noted Marti Hersom, leader of the Bees Knees 4H Club in Gerrardstown (WV) and a lifetime member of WVEPBA, as well as the West Virginia Beekeepers Association. “They become infected with other viruses. In terms of combatting them, there are two different thoughts: you treat them with different kinds of medications that kill the mites and not the bees. Or, and this is new to the area this year, you implement mite-resistant bees.”
The mite resistance is looking like the way of the future for good reason, explained Mike Price, of Priceless Honey (Martinsburg, WV), and 2015 West Virginia Beekeeper of the Year. “After a while, the mites will grow immune to the chemicals used to kill them. So you have to change up your medication as well. The formulas have had to change over time. And it adds to the chemical problem at the root of CCD.”
And a lot of beekeepers don’t want to treat their bees, according to Hersom. “If you’re producing honey, then you don’t want to treat them because that’s just more chemicals in your honey—especially if you’re organic. And those chemicals stay in the ground, in the environment, for years. So there’s a lot of interest in the mite-resistant bees.”
What many people don’t understand is that they’re contributing to the problem even if they don’t realize it—through the food they eat, the clothes they wear, the products they use, the cars they drive, and more. Even the people they vote into office—which is, of course, where this conversation gets complicated.
“People have to understand that they’re contributing to the problem if they’re spraying Roundup or other chemicals in their yards,” added Price. “A lot of farmers don’t want to hear about that. Or know about it.”
Hersom agreed, “This isn’t a political issue—it’s a reality issue. Though many people have turned it into a political cause. But how do you change Big Ag? Big Money? People’s lifestyles?
“Rest assured, if there are no bees, there’s practically no food. At some point, we’ve got to start accepting that our lives impact the physical world. Billions of dead bees is not an agenda—it’s a colossal wake-up call.”
Collaboration vs. Collision
As you can imagine, the debate rages over this issue, with giant corporations endeavoring vigorously to suppress any mention of chemical pesticides as a cause, and environmental advocates, as well as beekeepers and organic farmers, pushing for action to prevent their hives and their crops from being poisoned by chemicals.
With the full scope and scale of the Internet behind both sides of the debate—in the form of endless research supporting each argument—this ready-made 21st-century standoff is likely immovable. But the reality remains, and can’t be denied: the bees are vanishing.
The approach to solving this hidden-in-plain-sight crisis is going to be different than the usual Red vs. Blue/Establishment vs. The People stuff. Ice melts slowly. Seas rise gently. Rivers flooding, droughts lengthening, megafires increasing, and pandemics accumulating can be focus-grouped and editorialized as part of something humans have nothing to do with—a natural cycle. Climate change happens gradually—leaving plenty of time for corporations and lobbyists to fund massive campaigns of interference—dividing the masses—often reverting to the positioning of an anti-American narrative towards all critics.
We’re seeing such strategies play out in real time with a certain presidential candidate—extolling a mythical time when America was apparently great (save for that pesky little civil rights snafu, colossal gender inequality dating back centuries, a gross lack of awareness or concern for the environment, an even greater lack of tolerance or advocacy for homosexuals, and a commercial congress that sold, and sells, itself, year after year, to Wall Street and the military industrial machine).
You might ask: what’s any of this have to do with the bees? Well, everything.
This is all part of the same story—a story of apathy. A story of manipulation. Of greed. Of power. Of distraction. Of excess. Of convenience. Of willful ignorance and planned obsolescence. This is the story of how our way of life is finally catching up to us.
For the same reason that many people around the country and the world just don’t care about this issue, the world’s greatest link to the sustainability of the food we eat is in grave danger.
The pesticides we use to mass-produce food—mostly genetically modified food (which comes with it’s own laundry list of chemicals dangerous to both bees and humans)—or to keep our lawns looking better than the neighbors’; the chemicals used in plants to mass-produce fiber for what is being coined Fast Fashion (Google it); the endless chemicals and toxins used within the energy and fuel industries; the poisonous, disruptive byproducts pumped into the environment by various pharmaceutical mega-companies; overflowing toxic landfills—a result of our lust for, and disregard of, material things of all form and function; all of these factors and many more—no matter who denies it or campaigns against it—are accelerating CCD.
And the cherry on top: climate change is allowing the Varroa destructor to find hospitable temps pretty much wherever its unknowing, unfortunate host will carry it.
But again, this will play out differently. This is how we eat. The vanishing of the bees will affect us more quickly. More acutely. We won’t be able to deny it, or pass it off to some other generation—or blame some group for overreacting and pushing an agenda.
“Food prices will start to go up first,” explained Hersom. “People should expect that. The almonds will be the tip of the iceberg. Just educate yourself. It’s just not scary enough yet. Not serious enough. This is definitely going to happen. Almonds, apples, blueberries … prices will start to go up and up, and then they’ll become less and less available. There will be a point when people won’t be able to purchase the food they want. That might be the point when they finally accept that this is real. But it still might take longer, because they’ll expect someone to fix it—and things to get back to normal.”
Price agreed that almonds are definitely the indicator. “Farmers actually truck bees out to the West Coast to pollinate the almonds. They’ve lost that many bees. From there, they truck them around the country, which also stresses the bees out.”
Price lost a good amount of his bees last winter to CCD. “It was chemicals,” he noted. “There are some cornfields and soy beans close to me, and the bees would come back, and they’d just be crawling on the ground—like they were lost or confused, or too weak to fly back into the hive.”
He compares CCD to a similar time in America when it, ironically, almost wiped out the bald eagle. “We almost lost the bald eagle to DDT years ago, and this is similar, but worse. The bald eagle didn’t directly contribute to a third of our food.”
He added, “What a lot of farmers don’t realize, or don’t care to realize, is that by not having the bees, it hurts everyone—especially them, their crops.”
Continuing the Conversation
In the U.S., bees pollinate over $15 billion worth of crops annually—and bee venom is also rapidly becoming a potential weapon against some pretty colossal diseases. A toxin in the venom called melittin may actually prevent HIV, according to Washington University in St. Louis. Melittin can kill HIV by poking holes into the virus’s protective envelope while not harming neighboring healthy cells.
Researchers at the University of Sao Paulo have found that bee venom eases pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis, as well, by increasing the body’s level of glucocorticoid—an anti-inflammatory hormone.
And then there’s Lyme Disease—rapidly approaching epidemic status in this region of the country, with experts approximating its comprehensive spread throughout the U.S. within the next decade. To save space here, it’s just more efficient to say that the research out there on the power of bee venom to mitigate and/or outright destroy Lyme Disease is immense, to say the least. (Side note: if you’re suffering from Lyme—look into this. It’s real and it might change your life.)
“Having an interest group is central to strengthening a goal,” said Shade—a member of both the WVEPBA and the Mountain State Beekeepers Association. “I’ve helped with community outreach—showcasing honeybees in schools and public events to increase honeybee awareness and spark interest in possibly becoming a beekeeper. It’s a great group of beekeepers from around the region, each with varying opinions, methods, and outlooks. Collectively, when we meet monthly to discuss an array of topics, we are sharing knowledge and securing a sustainable future for honeybees. Individuals should feel welcome to attend meetings and reach out to local bee clubs with their curiosities, questions, and support.”
The WVEPBA meets the second Thursday of each month, unless otherwise noted on their website. Representing beekeepers from Jefferson, Berkeley, and Morgan Counties, meetings are held at the Hospice of the Eastern Panhandle (330 Hospice Lane, Kearneysville, WV, 25430).
It’s the largest club in the state, with around 100 members—at least 50 of whom typically attend the meetings. Shade mentioned securing a sustainable future for honeybees—which also means securing a new generation of beekeepers—an issue that has also risen to the surface recently.
Alex Hersom (Marti’s daughter) is the current WVEPBA president. Both she and her mother originally took an interest in beekeeping because the club sponsors a scholarship program, and Alex won it. As a testament to the benefit of the program, Alex involved herself in the club to the extent that she became its president at just 21 years old.
A card-carrying millennial, she’s highly aware of the need for young people to take an interest in beekeeping if its going to survive another generation, while also understanding why so many people her age aren’t interested.
“Most of the people I know started in beekeeping because a relative introduced them to it,” she said. “There’s a significant age gap in the beekeeping industry, and it’s threatening the future from a more passive standpoint—young people aren’t as attracted to it, and most beekeepers are older.”
Marti added that it’s definitely cause for concern. “When I attended the spring state meeting of the WV Beekeepers Association, one central question concerned attracting the next generation—younger people—to beekeeping. Fortunately, we have a pretty thriving young population in our own club here—and it has a lot to do with the WVEPBA scholarship program—but as I talked with other groups at the state meeting, I discovered that almost none of them were doing anything like this to attract young people.”
Which saddles up to an additional social concern—Gen Y and Z, and their seeming lack of interest in various conventional means of work and/or hobbies. With numbers dwindling on the surface, and no numbers filling in when previous generations cycle out, the future of beekeeping, and the resulting pollination of potentially a third of our food, could face a threat even more daunting than mites or colony collapse: indifference. Human beings, within literally a couple generations, may simply lose interest in beekeeping.
“It’s definitely not cool enough for a lot of young people,” admitted Alex. “And it’s probably too labor intensive. What’s concerning, however, in addition to the lack of manpower that beekeeping is facing in the future, is that there will be less people advocating for bee safety—less people creating an awareness of the dangers of pesticides. Less people visiting schools and young people and speaking to the public about all of the beneficial roles that bees play in our lives.”
As far as addressing one problem at a time, Alex believes that localizing the beekeeping industry could go a long way towards helping to alleviate some of its current issues. “Localizing—encouraging more of the food industry to source from local beekeepers—would keep outside viruses down and also increase interest in beekeeping as a sustainable living.”
She speaks to one of the major items on many “How to Save the Bees” lists: buy local. Be on the lookout for local organically grown fruits, vegetables, and honey that help support beekeepers in your area—and also promote the reduction of pesticides.
Alex’s younger sister, Jessi, is following in her sister’s footsteps in some ways—with a keen interest in both the current state of bees, as well as her generation’s lack of concern for it.
“You might hear a lot about the bee problem on social media, or the news occasionally, but it’s almost always just talk,” she observed. “No one really seems to care enough to want to do anything about it. Or they assume someone else will fix it.”
Jessi is just 18, and though she’s a member of a generation that most people would roll their eyes at concerning a topic like this, she’s the first to admit that it’s time for every generation to step up to the plate and do their part.
“I actually do see some interest from my generation. But I think the bigger problem is that we see a lot of information about it—the ‘cause,’ so to speak—but no one really wants to step up. I really hope that when I’m older, I can keep bees and educate people about bees. It won’t be long—when I’m a little older—there may be just a fraction of the bees we have now, which is just a fraction of the bees we had a couple generations ago. We need to keep having this conversation, before it’s too late. ”
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There are tons of ways to learn more about this topic and get involved. Two very easy ways, if you’re interested, is to make an effort to buy local whenever you get the chance, and join a local beekeepers club (start right here).
The Charles Town and Shepherdstown Farmers’ Markets offer an enormous amount of local-food options, as well as introductions to local farmers and beekeepers.
And check out this guide for just about every local food source you could ever want.
As mentioned, the amount of information that’s out there on CCD is vast, and easy to research. But here are two very impactful documentaries to get you started: Vanishing of the Bees and More Than Honey.
Another way to get involved is to donate. If you’re interested, The Pollinator Partnership is the world’s largest nonprofit organization dedicated solely to helping protect and promote pollinators like bees. Find it here.
And finally, here’s a charming little top-ten list of ways you can personally advocate for, and actually save, our vanishing bees.By Victoria Kidd