A Sticky Wicket Of A Problem … BEES … Or Rather A Lack Of … Part II

In Part 1 of this post, I wrote about the declining honeybee population and its significance to the survival of mankind.  There can be little doubt that honeybees are an important factor in food production, not only for humans, but for wildlife as well.  So, what is being done to reverse the trend of the dying bee population, what more can be done, and what is the likely outcome?

What each of us can do

bees-1Obviously, major changes in pesticide use, mining and drilling, and climate change must be made by farmers, environmentalists, and government regulation. But that does not mean we, as individuals, are powerless … there are simple things we can do to help:

  • Plant flowers! Even if it’s only a couple of window boxes on your patio, or a small garden, every little bit helps.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has provided a quite handy guide to which plants and flowers are best.
  • Limit the use of pesticides and herbicides while plants are in bloom and bees are actively foraging. Herbicides (weed killer) reduce the bees sources of pollen and nectar, while pesticides ingested by bees can be lethal.
  • When possible, buy locally-grown fruits, vegetables and honey to help support not only local farmers, but also local beekeepers. When I found out that most honey sold in the U.S. is imported from China and Latin America, I began buying only honey from a local farm we visit several times during the warm months. We also get most of our green beans, corn, apples and other produce there, and somehow it always tastes better than what is found at Kroger.

What NGOs are doing to help

There are a number of private organizations doing good work in the field, and one of the best seems to be the Keystone Policy Center, in conjunction with the Honeybee Health Coalition. Together, these institutions are working on four main areas: forage and nutrition, hive management, crop pest management, and public outreach.

Several other organizations around the world are making contributions to help save the bees. Among them are:  Avaaz, BeesFree, Inc., Burt’s Bees, Pollinator Partnership Honey Bee Health Improvement Project,  Center for Honeybee Research, Environmental Justice Foundation, Navdanya’s Biodiversity Conservation Farm, Save Honey Bees, Save the Bees, and others. (Sorry for all the links, but I thought you might want to check out one or two of them)

What is the U.S. Government doing to help?

bees-3Here comes the tricky part.  The short answer is: not enough.  The more complex answer is … do you want to know what we are doing now, were doing a year ago, or will likely be doing a month from now?  The Obama administration made some movements to try to help slow or stop the decline in the honeybee population by imposing regulations on neonicotinoid pesticides, but most felt the restrictions were not nearly enough.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has funded studies on bee diseases, and in 2014 provided a $3 million grant to help reseed pastures in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas with bee-appropriate plants like alfalfa and clover.

In 2014, President Obama set up a task force spearheaded by the USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with a proposed budget of $50 million annually, to research the causes and solutions to the declining bee population.  In 2015, the Obama administration set out a strategy that included managing the way in which forests burned by forest fires would be re-planted, the way offices are landscaped and the way roadside habitats where bees feed are preserved.

bees-2Environmental groups have been pressuring the federal government to ban neonicotinoid pesticides, which are already banned in Europe.  However, the best the EPA could come up with was a moratorium on approving any new use permits for these kinds of insecticides. They also imposed restrictions on what pesticides farmers can use when commercial honeybees are pollinating their crops. You can visit the EPA website  and see for yourself what they say, but keep in mind that the EPA site has been changed and curtailed under Trump’s orders, and I have no idea what may be missing that was included 2 months ago.

Last week, Scott Pruitt was sworn in as head of the EPA, an agency he has sued no less than 14 times.  There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that his mandate from Trump was to start hacking away at regulations that protect the environment. Companies like Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer, all of whom are involved in the manufacture or wide-scale use of neonicotinoid pesticides, are likely to lobby to lift regulations limiting pesticides.  Pruitt is heavily involved with the oil and gas industries, so it is highly probable that in the coming months we will see work resume on the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines, as well as an increase in mining, oil drilling, and other activities that damage the bee’s habitat, and also contribute to the ill effects of climate change, further damaging the bee’s habitats.

One last note

It looks and sounds like something from a sci-fi movie. Picture thousands of miniature drones working to pollinate a field … tiny electronic creatures going from plant to plant, collecting and depositing pollen.  Or think of stepping outside to water the flowers in your yard and seeing small electronic gadgets with whirring blades instead of wings attacking your hyacinths.  But this is not science fiction, these are bee-bots, and they are already functional, though not without bugs and not yet ready for commercial use.  In 2014, Harvard University researchers led by engineering professor Robert Wood introduced the first RoboBees, bee-size robots with the ability to lift off the ground and hover midair when tethered to a power supply. The details were published in the journal Science.

bees-4Pollination is complex task and should not be underrated. It involves finding flowers and deciding if they are suitable and haven’t already been visited. The pollinator then needs to successfully handle the flower, picking pollen up and putting it down in another plant, while co-ordinating with its team and optimising its route between flowers. In all of these tasks, our existing pollinators excel, their skills honed through millions of years of evolution.

Modern drones can already achieve this level of individual management. As they have the technology to track faces, they could track flowers as well. They could also plot routes via GPS and return to base for recharging on sensing a low battery. In the long run, they may even have a potential advantage over natural pollinators as pollination would be their sole function. Bees, on the other hand, are looking to feed themselves and their brood, and pollination happens as a by-product.

Although the technology is certainly fascinating, I hope that other solutions can be found to keep the living bee population from further decline.  I prefer nature’s creatures to electronic ones, which I find slightly disconcerting, to say the least, and I suspect the use of robobees would have a tremendous negative effect on the price of the food we eat.

I did quite a bit of research, much of it not necessarily reflected in this post, but it gave me a much better understanding of beekeeping, the role of bees, the causes of their decline, and what needs to be done.  I had no idea commercial beekeeping was so involved!  Nor did I realize how fascinating this topic is, which explains why I spent so much time researching … I became engrossed and devoured much more material than was necessary to write this post.  But alas, knowledge is never a waste of time.

bees-toon

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