The Latest Buzz on Honeybees

Honeybees have seen better days, but efforts to boost their populations haven’t gone unnoticed.

  • Help honeybees by planting vacant lots to wildflowers.
    Photo by Kim Flottum
  • Avoid spraying with fungicides, pesticides, or herbicides. When a bee collects pollen from flowers, it will inadvertently bring the chemicals into the hive. Opt for essential oils when possible.
    Photo by
  • Beekeepers will sometimes supplement their bees’ diets with pollen or a protein substitute.
    Photo by Kim Flottum
  • Beekeepers will sometimes supplement their bees’ diets with sugar water when there are not enough flowers in close proximity.
    Photo by Kim Flottum

Almost everyone has heard about the current crisis with our honeybees, so let’s take a look at what’s going on. Much like you and I and every animal you know of, bees have an average life span. In the summer, once they reach adulthood, their lifespan is only about 4 to 6 weeks because they work harder and wear out; they have more close encounters with lethal enemies, like birds and mantids; and old age. But in the winter it’s closer to 2 to 4 months because they spend their time inside the hive where it’s safe and warm with no enemies.

That equation has changed recently. Here’s the gist of what’s going on.

Researchers all over the world have been looking at why that life span has recently become fundamentally shorter — by half or more. To begin with, they studied what they thought were the obvious problems. Looming large were agricultural pesticides encountered in the big world of food collection by all pollinators. But as persistent and as widespread as ag chemicals are, they aren’t everywhere. There are also those pesky mites chewing on both adult and baby bees, but they’ve been around for decades. So why now?

Fortunately, other researchers weren’t convinced it was this easy. They kept looking, and what they found has come down to what we call the “four Ps.”

Pesticides are part of the problem, for some bees and in a lot of places. Then there are those pesky predatory mites that are now, they’ve discovered, spreading viruses bees had never seen. Add in a new parasitic disease called Nosema ceranae, with neither symptoms nor a cure, and finally, the one that surprised almost everybody, there simply wasn’t enough good food readily available for every bee in the bunch. Pesticides, predators, parasites, and pasture. It’s that simple; and that complicated. Let’s look at these a bit closer.

The pesticide thing got messy fast for a couple of reasons. There are controversial new chemicals being used affecting not only bees, but also most other nontarget insects — soil dwellers, water dwellers, and plant dwellers. They are immediately lethal to those target pests when applied to crops early in the season, but they last the whole time the plant is alive. They seep into all the plant’s parts: roots, stems, leaves, flowers, pollen, and nectar. They wash away from the fields and swim with the fish, and they last for years everywhere they go. But in this afterlife they aren’t so strong as to be critically lethal. Sublethal is the term they use. These chemicals challenge immune systems, break down digestive systems, and slowly take their toll. Through consistent use over the past several decades, the residual effects continue in many corn, soybean, and cotton fields.

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