The Busyness of Bees
LAST FALL , A PART-TIME BEEKEEPER AND long-time customer at our Manhattan Greenmarket stand asked me if he could bring a couple of active hives from his rooftop aviary in Hoboken to our farm. “Yes,” I told him without hesitation, “the more bees the better.”
While we were winding down our fall harvest in early December, he visited the farm to scout a good location for his hives. He had several criteria: dry, level ground with easy access; a southeastern exposure (so the hives would warm up early in the day); partial shade (so the bees would not get overheated in the midday sun); close proximity to one of our ponds (bees use water to cool their hives in hot weather and to dilute honey that is too thick); and, finally, it was important to place the hives clear of our field-access routes—no tractor operator wants to anger a colony of working bees. We identified a couple of locations that met each of his requirements and he headed back to Hoboken and his bees (but not before presenting me with a jar of excellent honey).
In March, we set a date to transport the bees from Hoboken to their new country home, but then came disturbing news: All his bees had died over the winter. All he could do at the farm was to place “swarm traps” in the hope of enticing some local bees to relocate to one of his vacant hives.
Bees are among the most important of all plant pollinators. Call them sexual facilitators if you like.
Nor was he the only beekeeper to lose his bees this past winter. Bee numbers nationwide declined by nearly a third over this past winter, following a pattern of plummeting populations going back to 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There’s even a term to describe this phenomenon: colony collapse disorder. If you like to include fruits, vegetables and nuts in your diet, this widespread loss of bees is disturbing news, indeed.
No one knows exactly why so many bees—both honeybees (imported from Europe in the seventeenth century) and our own native American bumblebees—are dying. There are several oft-quoted hypotheses: Parasites, malnutrition, monoculture, loss of natural habitat, climate change and diseases transmitted by mites all have been blamed. Each may be a contributing factor in the population decline, but another likely, though more contested, cause is the widespread use of agricultural insecticides, especially a relatively new type known as neonicotinoids. Used to control a variety of sucking and chewing insects, as well as some that live in the soil, neonicotinoids are powerful and prevalent nerve agents that affect receptors in the insects’ central nervous systems (and, to a lesser extent, those of mammals), resulting in paralysis and death.
Bees are among the most important of all plant pollinators. Call them sexual facilitators if you like—they fly from one flower to another, collecting pollen to feed their young and touching male and female germ cells, known as gametes, as they go. When this happens, pollination and fertilization occur and seeds are produced. (Some plants, like lettuces and carrots, do not require pollination in order to produce food, but they do need the services of a pollinator to produce seed.)
In an attempt to stem the dramatic decline of bee populations in Europe, the European Union in April banned the use of neonicotinoids on flowering crops there, but—bees or no bees—farmers in the U.S. still use neonicotinoids. And they’re likely to continue doing so, given the very loud voice that pesticide manufacturers have in our government.
So far this year, the crops on our farm seem to be growing well—I’ve noticed both bumblebees and honeybees in the buckwheat and wild dandelion blossoms and in the flowering sage and thyme. Though they have not obliged as yet, perhaps some honeybees will set up shop in one of Anthony’s swarm traps. Meantime, we steer way clear of neonicotinoids and their ilk.