The Vanishing Bees

“Colony collapse disorder is an immune system disorder. The bees’ immune system is compromised, which might be due to the stress [commercial beekeepers] are putting on the bees,” says beekeeper Diane Busch. “It’s big business. Colony owners might have 5000 hives and put them on flatbed trucks and ship them in early February — when bees should be warm and stay in their hives — and then they let them loose on almonds in Northern California. Because of Colony collapse disorder, California is low on hives.”

Last year the state had to borrow 250,000 hives from other states to supplement the existing 500,000 hives available in California. “For the first time in 50 years, last year the U.S. borders were opened to honeybees from New Zealand and Australia,” says Busch. “The fate of a $1.2 billion crop — more than half of all almond production worldwide — rests on the weary honeybee. Talk about stress.”

On Wednesday, January 23, Busch will speak at the Mission Hills Garden Club about the issue of disappearing bees and will offer suggestions for attracting bees to local gardens. Colony collapse disorder (when all but the queen and a few larvae of a 65,000-bee hive disappear) has been reported in 35 states. “The DNA makeup of these worker bees is to protect and take care of that hive, so for them to leave the queen and babies behind just doesn’t make sense. That’s what’s got everybody stumped,” says Busch. She wonders if perhaps the diseased bees somehow become aware of their illness and leave to protect the queen.

Die-offs of one sort or another occur about every six years. “Back in the ’80s there was the varroa mite.” Just as the stress placed on bees may be the cause of Colony collapse disorder, it was the desire for an increase in honey production that made bees susceptible to mites. As Busch explains, “About 20 years ago they started rolling out a foundation for beehives’ frames [with] a pattern of wax in beehive form — the kind you make candles out of. Instead of rolling it out at 4.9 [mm per cell], they rolled it out at something like 5.2 [mm]. It was a little bit bigger, so the bees made bigger comb, that held more honey, which made bigger bees. Everyone was excited because bigger bees, more honey. But the bigger bees now had a space between the thorax and abdomen that was big enough for a mite to get in.”

Mites and diseases are not the only challenges California beekeepers have faced in the past year. “We lost a lot of hives with the fire,” says Busch. “At San Luis Rey [Apiaries, located in the San Pasqual Valley], they lost 500 hives [in the Witch Creek Fire]. It’s devastating. I don’t know if they’ll start over again, because that was a family business.”

At least 30 percent of the food supply in America is dependent upon bees for pollination. According to a 2004 article in National Geographic, the domesticated honeybee population has declined by 50 percent in as many years. Some farmers, says Busch, are now attempting to attract native bees by allowing weeds to grow on a 6- to 12-foot stretch of land surrounding their crops. This effort may be enough to supply farmers’ markets, but Busch explains that large-scale commercial crops could never rely on native bees: “There just aren’t enough native bees, and it’s not in their nature [to pollinate immense fields]. The European honeybee is bred to do just that. They are wonderful because of their sheer numbers and diligence. And they like to go to one single flower per trip — unlike bumblebees that will go to a rose, then a strawberry, then an apple blossom, then go home, honeybees will go, apple, apple, apple, then go home. That’s why you can get things like lavender honey and clover honey.”

Although bee pollination leads to better seed production and healthier plants, home gardeners should be wary of drawing the wrong kind: the killer bee. Unfortunately, says Busch, one cannot visibly tell the difference between a European honeybee and an Africanized honeybee. “They’re exactly the same, except for behavior. A honeybee might chase you down the block and give up and go back to its hive, but a killer bee is relentless — if you dive into a pool, it will sting your lips when you come up to the surface.”

Some Texas beekeepers have had success working with Africanized bees (“they say they pollinate faster and are really good workers”), but Busch says if an Africanized bee colony took over one of her hives, she’d kill it. “You can put a black trash bag over [the hive] and seal it up with duct tape, and either [the killer bees] suffocate or starve to death. Or a lot of [beekeepers] spray the hive down with soapy water. The soap gets on their wings and they can’t fly. It’s caustic for them and they die. But the thing is, if you do that, then you’ve got soap on your equipment.”

— Barbarella

“Bees and Beyond” — a lecture with Diane Busch
Mission Hills Garden Club
Wednesday, January 23
6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
United Church of Christ
4070 Jackdaw Street (at Fort Stockton)
Mission Hills
Cost: $10 for guests, free for members
Info: 619-260-1588 or www.missionhillsgardenclub.org

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