Sunday, June 8, 2014

Bee Sweet

When we lived at the Ranch, we grew strawberries along the front skirt of our deck. Going out in the early morning and foraging for a few strawberries to put on pancakes was a little slice of heaven. We thought life among the strawberries was good, but then our neighbors across the road started keeping honeybees. The quality of our strawberries increased exponentially during the first year that the neighbors kept their bees. You had to see it to bee-lieve it.

You would have to be living under a rock to be oblivious to the critical importance of bees to survival on the planet, survival of humans as well as many other species. Without our primary pollinators to keep plant life procreating, our food supply would swiftly vanish. Almond growers, for instance, rely entirely on honey bees to pollinate their orchards. California, which produces 82% of the world’s almonds, imports honey bees from other states for the bloom to sustain the $2.3 billion-a-year crop.

These days, there is much concern over the health of bees, on whom our lives depend. In 2005, beekeepers began to see hives collapsing and bee populations disappearing overnight. The twitter version of why this has happened is that toxic chemicals in our environment are killing off the bees. Beekeepers believe that the main culprit is a class of chemicals called neonicotinoids. These chemicals were approved for market in 2000. They are applied to corn, America’s #1 cash crop. It is estimated that 90% of all corn seeds in the U.S. are coated with German agro-chemical manufacturer Bayer’s neonicotinoid pesticide. With the rise of neonicotinoid use, there has been a steep drop off in honey production in the Corn Belt of the U.S., where bee populations are disappearing rapidly. Predictably, Bayer and other chemical manufacturers deny any correlation between neonicotinoids and the widespread collapse of bee hives. They blame it on bee diseases. Some of it is probably caused by bees getting sick, but one of the reasons why their immune systems are compromised is their exposure to neonicotinoids.

Bees in the Midwest are dying off at a faster rate than those in California because the farmers of the Midwest are blasting their crops with far more insecticides. Not only are the crops in the Midwest blasted with more pesticides, but farmers have abandoned traditional crop rotation practices, instead planting singular crops, like corn or soybeans. Jeff Anderson, a commercial beekeeper with bees in California and Minnesota, says, “The environment has become toxic and sick bees don’t make honey. Most of it is pesticide-related, but when you also just have a field of soybeans and dirt, or corn and dirt, or wheat and dirt, unless that particular crop is actively in bloom, you have a forage desert for pollinators.”

We all know that bees carry pollen from flower to flower. In this way they help all manner of plants reproduce, including trees. It takes about two bee hives, or 60,000 bees, to pollinate one acre of orchard. It is estimated that bees and butterflies are responsible for one out of every three bites of food Americans eat. (Earthjustice, 2014.) Honey bees in particular are responsible for pollinating many of our “super-foods,” such as berries, nuts, avocados, and other colorful fruits and vegetables that are the most nutrient-rich and healthiest parts of our diet.

It’s not just the use of insecticides by commercial agriculture business that is killing the bees, it’s also insecticides on our backyard plants. Here it comes my friends, the reason I decided to write today about bees and the insecticides that are killing them. Pesticide-doused plants that people unknowingly plant in their gardens are killing the bees. Many of the plants that backyard gardeners buy at stores like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Lowes, hardware stores, or garden supply stores have been treated with neonicotinoids. Us amateur gardeners think we’re helping the bees by planting flowers when actually we’re planting poisons and killing the bees. Even though bees have no interest in grass, the lawn can kill them as well. Lawn fertilizers frequently contain weed-killing toxins (often it says this on the package but not always) that remain in the soil for years and spread to plants that bees like, such as clover.

I feel pretty secure that the bees in my yard are thriving. I watch them come and go all day in the bottle brush tree outside my window. They love the lavender and sage that I have planted in my front yard. Most of the plants that I have added to my yard since I moved to this house are bee-friendly. But the previous owners regularly saturated the ground with Roundup and fed the lawn fertilizers with weed-killers in them. I can only hope that my organic gardening has managed to reverse some of the toxicity and damage the previous owners caused on this little half-acre.

Oh yes, one other thing, if you want to help protect the bees then buy honey from your local small-time beekeeper. Honey is one of the top three best sweeteners you can use for your health (maple syrup and molasses are the other two – organic of course).

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