Honeybees do a lot for us. We harvest their honey and put them to work pollinating our crops. Their beeswax makes great candles and furniture polishes, and is an ingredient in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. Propolis, the resins bees collect for hive building, is used in medicines for everything from gum disease to burns.
In recent years, however, honeybee populations worldwide have declined precipitously. Overdevelopment and fragmentation of open space, misuse of pesticides and herbicides, diseases and mites are the prime suspects. By some estimates, the honeybee population has declined by as much as 50%. The complete loss of honeybees would be especially catastrophic for farmers.
“The nation would be out about $14 billion worth of crops [annually], and your diet and my diet would change significantly because about a third of the food we consume every day is the product of honeybee pollination,” says Dr. Eric Mussen, an entomologist teaching at UC Davis.
But the situation is by no means hopeless. Researchers are studying how to control mites, prevent diseases and better cater to the nutritional needs of honeybee colonies. Major research facilities in public universities, state labs and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s honeybee labs are tracking the causes of the abnormal winter losses of colonies.
Homeowners can help, too. Mussen suggests there are three things you can do at home to help honeybees survive. First, he says, every honeybee colony needs the equivalent of an acre of bloom. “Most individual homeowners can’t offer that,” Mussen says, “but if lots of people in the neighborhood plant a variety of flowers, it can make a difference.”
In addition to providing abundant flowering plants, homeowners can help bees by making sure there is clean water available, Mussen says. This is particularly important in arid regions. “If you can install a water feature in your yard, or simply keep a birdbath filled, you”ll find that all sorts of bees will take advantage of it,” he says.
And being judicious with pesticides is another way for homeowners to support honeybee populations, preferably by avoiding the chemicals altogether. There are plenty of other ways to manage insect populations, Mussen says. And pesticides present a particular danger when plants are in bloom and bees are foraging.
The type of pesticide you use can also make a difference. Older pesticides worked on contact, but their effectiveness was short-lived. Newer pesticides, called nicotinoids, are systemic. They enter plants via the roots and act on the nervous systems of the insects that ingest them. Introduced in Europe in 1990 and brought to the U.S. in the mid-to-late “90s, they are not as bad as older pesticides for people, fish and birds—but they’re bad for bees because they stay active for longer periods.
“These products find their way into nectar and pollen. When the concentration is high enough, it intoxicates the bees and they can’t find their way home again,” says Mussen. “Imidacloprid, a widely used nicotinoid, is a big concern,” he says. “[But] it’s registered as OK for every crop in California.” Beyond being used on vegetables and fruits, imidacloprid is found in termite treatments and flea controls for pets.
Be Your Own Beekeeper
If you want to do more for your local honeybee population, consider bee-keeping as a hobby. The investment is moderate. An eight-frame hive with everything you”ll need to get started (except the bees) costs about $300. Aside from giving a home to thousands of honeybees and improving pollination in your neighborhood, you”ll be able to harvest your own honey after a couple of years. There are many local beekeeping associations to get you started.
It’s important to remember, Mussen points out, that honeybees aren’t the only insects working hard for us. A great deal of pollination is done by other bee species, as well as other pollinator insects, such as moths and butterflies. And many of these insects are in trouble, too. The Xerces Society maintains a red list of pollinator insects that are vulnerable, and is a great source of information for those interested in the conservation of pollinators.
Following the guidelines outlined above will also help non-honey, or native, bees survive, too. Although these wild bees don’t produce honey, they are important pollinators that live solitary lives and can be found in the densest cities. Leaving undisturbed piles of brush and leaves around the outskirts of your yard will give wild bees a place to nest. It’s important to remember that commercial crops aren’t the only ones endangered by the disappearance of the bee. Entire wildlife habitats rely upon pollination that takes place in woods, meadows, and even your own backyard.