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August 4, 2021

What’s the buzz on honey bees?

Lions and tigers and bees, oh my! They sting and they’re scary. We avoid them if possible, and we try to shoo them away if they come near us. If they sting it hurts, and for people who are allergic, a bee sting can be fatal. It is not unreasonable to not want them around.
But bees serve a critical, though largely unseen, role in our environment. Bees are responsible for pollinating (and thus producing) one-third of all fruits, vegetables and grains grown in the United States and around the world. Not only are bees responsible for much of the food we eat, without bees many farmers and food production industries would go out of business.
Without bees, the strawberry fields in Monterey County would be gone, apple production would come to a halt. The prunes that named a shopping center in San Jose could not be grown. My family’s favorite summer snack, watermelon, would no longer be available. There would be no almonds to satisfy the munchies. Dairy products would be difficult to find as the protein-rich alfalfa fed to cows would no longer be available. Who can survive without their morning cup(s) of coffee, which is also pollinated by bees? The men and women who produce all these foods for our tables would be out of work.
Here is a quick primer on how pollination works: “Pollination is the transfer of pollen grains, the male sex cells of a flower, from the anther where they are produced to the receptive surface, or stigma, of the female organ of a flower. Honey bees are good pollinators for many reasons. Their hairy bodies trap pollen and carry it between flowers.” Without pollination, flowers cannot develop into fruit.
While honey bees are especially good pollinators, there are hundreds of other species of bees that also pollinate our crops. Bees, of course, are a different species than yellow jackets, a more aggressive insect that is useful for its role keeping pest insects in check. How can you tell the difference? Bees are generally fatter and fuzzy looking. They will usually attack only if their hive is threatened. Yellow jackets are thinner and shiny, not fuzzy.
Sadly, since 2006 the American bee population has been in dramatic decline. The phenomenon, called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD,) causes honey bees, which are responsible for much of the pollination of our crops, to disappear from their hives. The situation is so serious that in February the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it is investing $3 million into efforts to learn the cause(s) of CCD and protect honey bees.
There are many theories about the causes of CCD, and it is not the purpose of this column to advocate for one theory or another. It is a complex issue, involving the power of large agribusiness and pesticide manufacturers and strongly held opinions on many different sides of the issue. In the United States, some very important research into this problem is being done by Dr. Marla Spivak, the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant and Professor of Entomology at the University of Minnesota.
Spivak believes CCD is caused by a combination of factors which have come together to create a perfect storm of threats to bees.
Bees need flowers to survive. They need pollen for protein and nectar for carbohydrates. The first problem is the use of herbicides (plant killing chemicals), which have sanitized agricultural fields so that there few flowering plants growing in places they used to, such as nearby ditches, along road sides, under power lines and in fields unsuitable for crops. No flowers, no food, no bees.
The second is the use of pesticides (insect killing chemicals), especially a group of pesticides called neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids can kill bees if a sufficient quantity is sprayed directly on them, but its active ingredients also move to the nectar and pollen of the flower, so that the pesticide is actually ingested by bees. Ingestion of the pesticide, if it does not kill bees directly, makes them more susceptible to parasites and pathogens. It can also be carried back to the hive and kill the babies there.
A third problem is globalization, which has resulted in the inadvertent transmission of blood-sucking parasites, mites, viruses and other bee pathogens, which also weaken bees’ immune systems and make them even more susceptible to lack of adequate nutrition.
Spivak has two simple suggestions for people who want to help bees. First, plant flowering plants attractive to bees. Go for plants that are native to your area and select a variety of plants that bloom at different times of year. A good list of these plants can be found at many nurseries or online. If you don’t have a garden, get yourself a large pot and put a plant or two in that. Every little bit helps.
Second, be conscious of your use of pesticides and herbicides. Think of all possible alternatives first. Don’t use them unless you absolutely have to.
Spivak believes that “dying bees scream a message to us that they cannot survive in our current agricultural and urban environments.” If we want to continue to enjoy our fruits, coffee and dairy products, we should listen to the bees.
Amy Randall Yee has lived in Santa Clara County for 35 years and has volunteered at WERC for six years. She is the president of the Board of Directors of WERC.

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