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|May 22-28, 2008
The big sting
Colony Collapse Disorder is putting honeybees at risk and, with them, our food supply
by Dana Logan
When she starts talking about bees, Julie Finley’s face lights up. Her voice comes alive.
“They’re like watching a river go by or a fire — you can just get absolutely mesmerized… Aren’t they captivating?” she says.
Finley, the garden director for Boulder’s Growing Gardens, has been keeping bees for more than 10 years. As the teacher of a series of hands-on classes to encourage members of the Boulder community to experience the culture of the honeybee, she helps beginner beekeepers learn the basics. But she thinks the real teachers are the bees themselves.
“There isn’t anybody who knows more about making honey and pollinating than these guys,” she says.
But as enthusiastic as she is, she’s also worried. And with good reason.
Since November 2006, there have been reports of honeybees flying away from their colonies and disappearing. Not one or two bees. Not even 10 or 20. Beekeepers are reporting losses of between 30 and 90 percent of their hives. No one seems to know exactly why the bees, which are normally very social creatures that rely on their colony and their queen, aren’t returning to the hive. But the phenomenon, termed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), is more than alarming — it’s being called a global crisis.
So why is it a crisis? Why should humans even care what happens to the honeybee?
“Because they like to eat,” says Tom Theobald, owner of the Niwot Honey Farm and founder and former president of the Boulder County Beekeepers Association.
CCD, which is affecting honeybees across North America and throughout the world, is a major threat to the continued viability of our food sources. More than 90 species of plants are pollinated by honeybees, from apples and avocados to cucumbers and strawberries. The list of U.S. crops that rely, in part or in whole, on honeybee pollination goes on and on. Almonds, for example, must have honeybees for pollination. No bees equals no almonds.
The USDA puts the agricultural value of honeybees as pollinators at more than $15 billion. Furthermore, every third bite of food that you put in your mouth relies on honeybees. So if honeybees disappear, the variety and quality foods that Americans eat will be drastically different from what we have now.
“This food doesn’t just come from the grocery store,” says Theobald. “One-third of our food is at risk if this collapse continues.”
“People should be concerned about the health of honeybees and the economic viability of beekeepers. They are what I consider a keystone to the food system,” says Kelly Simmons, director of Boulder Sustainability Education and an organic beekeeper who teaches beekeeping classes in Boulder and beyond.
“To me, almonds and blueberries and raspberries are really important,” she says.
So, what is causing honeybees to vanish?
“Everybody’s got their theory,” says Theobald.
Some say that it’s pesticides and insecticides. Others claim that genetically modified crops are to blame. Perhaps it’s the stress of traveling that’s lowering their immune systems and putting them at risk for mites or diseases. (Many commercial beekeepers rent their bees to farmers for pollinating crops and, in some cases, their hives travel to farms all across the country with little reprieve.) Or maybe it’s a yet-to-be-identified virus or bacteria. Some have even posited that cell phones could be the culprit, though that theory is not widely accepted.
While Theobald dismisses some of these theories as unlikely, he is like many beekeepers, farmers and scientists who suspect that there’s not one single cause, but rather a convergence of several factors that is triggering the problem.
Simmons agrees. “It’s my view that it’s a cumulative situation,” she says.
While she also agrees that there probably isn’t one single reason for CCD, Finley speaks of the problem as a tipping point issue.
“There’s only so long that you can ask an animal to disown and disrespect its instincts,” she says. “One of the things that is really astounding about Colony Collapse is that they’re leaving their babies. They’re leaving their queen. OK, they never do that,” she says. “So at some point, it feels like, we separated an animal far enough from its instinct, we’ve pushed it so far that it will leave its babies and its mother.”
And Finley thinks that such a situation calls for a holistic approach.
“Once you dissect something so it’s so small, it’s down to mapping the genome, getting it all down to this complete understanding of it,” she says. “In some way, you miss a bigger picture. What we need to do is stop and look and listen. And then make an intelligent, holistic response.”
Many scientists and beekeepers are moving toward the idea that hobbyist or so-called backyard beekeepers may well be part of the solution, in part because bees raised by hobbyists won’t be exposed to many of the stresses imposed on commercially raised bees.
As a result, wild bee populations may flourish and the pollination issues that threaten agriculture as we know it could be less severe.
Additionally, as Americans start looking to eat more locally grown and produced food, areas like the Front Range of Colorado will need a healthy supply of bees to pollinate the local crops.
That’s especially true in the face of a situation that puts local commercial beekeepers like Theobald at a high risk of going under.
“I’m probably not going to make it,” says Theobald, who’s been raising bees in Boulder County for 33 years now. “I’m going to go belly up. As much as I love it, I just can’t afford it unless I get some answers. And I’m typical of what’s going on.”
The losses that beekeepers are seeing means having to replace colonies in order to stay in business. But that becomes a costly endeavor, and most commercial beekeepers simply can’t afford to continue replenishing their hives.
However, most backyard beekeepers don’t see Colony Collapse in the same way that commercial beekeepers do. It’s not that it isn’t happening, but the scale is different, and it’s easier for a hobbyist to replace one colony every few years than it is for commercial beekeepers to replace several colonies every year, explains Theobald. He calls hobbyist beekeepers the “pollination connection.”
It’s an important role, but who should play it?
Simmons explains that space isn’t much of an issue. All you need is enough space to put the box down. Some people, she explains, even keep bees on rooftop porches. And it’s not a ton of work, either.
“Having a pet dog is a lot more work,” Simmons says.
The real work is just in educating yourself. Theobald’s advice to someone who is thinking about keeping bees as a hobby: go to the library. Learn everything you can about bees. And when you’ve exhausted the resources at the library, finding one of the many classes on beekeeping in Boulder is a great next step.
Simmons says, depending on the type of hive you want to use, the costs are not exorbitant. Under $500 in startup costs will get you a Top Bar hive (one of the simpler bee boxes, especially appropriate for backyard beekeepers), a colony of bees and the other basics that you’ll need. Once you’ve got an established colony, there’s little more in terms of expense or maintenance.
And the rewards that the backyard beekeeper reaps are great. In addition to being part of the solution to a dire situation, one of the most satisfying things about keeping bees, says Theobald, is the connection with nature.
“Bees are a fascinating window into the natural world — almost without parallel. It’s magic,” he says. “It’s a rare opportunity to participate intimately with that biological system.”
For Finley, the opportunity to witness that “magic” is part of the appeal. Oh yeah, and the honey.
“They’re harvesting light. They’re creating food. They’re creating this whole system of community and communication that is, you know, we would do well on any given day to get even remotely close to that level of sophistication,” she says.
“We get sort of egocentric,” she says. “But what we really need to talk about is the bee. It’s not what she does for us; it’s not what we do for her. It’s that, there’s this creature here.”
And that creature has a way of capturing people.
“That part where you open up the box and you remain calm and you don’t freak out and you have that feeling of just, ‘oh, my God,’ just being honored by it. Yeah, you’re totally stuck. You don’t have a prayer,” Finley says.
For Theobald, it all started with an ant farm he had as a kid.
“That probably doomed me to be a beekeeper,” he says.
In Simmons’ case, the connection goes back even farther.
“There’s some kind of ancient memory that we have about these creatures and about how special they are,” she says.
And part of what makes them so special, Finley explains, is that they really force you to be in the moment.
“When you’re working a hive of bees — when you’re really in there — if your attention drifts, they will let you know. That’s when they’re going to sting you,” she says. “If you bring your attention back and are kind and respectful and thoughtful about what you’re doing, they know that… We spend so much time talking about this disease, this system, how they feed us, that we don’t look at them.”
And Finley believes that’s exactly what’s happening. We’re working the bees, but we’ve misplaced our focus. We’re not really seeing them for what they are, but rather viewing them as a commodity. And we are getting stung.
“Any time you have a relationship — and humans have a relationship with honeybees and have had for a long, long time — when you’re not seeing the other being in your relationship, when that isn’t your focus, there’s something ill in that relationship,” Finley says. “When the relationship is just focused on what you’re getting out of it… Ever been in a relationship where you feel like, ‘You’re not seeing me, you’re not hearing me and you’re not listening to me’? If you have any sense at all, you leave something like that.
“Look at this relationship,” she says. “I’d leave, too.”
“Human beings have had relationships with honeybees for a long, long time,” says Simmons.
But if we are going to continue to have a relationship with honeybees — and with some of our favorite foods, for that matter — it’s up to us to insist that we get answers.
And until we find those answers, Simmons says that there are a couple things that people can do, even if beekeeping isn’t for them: work to end the use of pesticides and support local beekeepers by buying local honey and beeswax.
Theobald adds that the people ought to “raise hell with their representatives. Forget about my future as a beekeeper.”
This is about something much bigger.
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