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Did you know that saving the honey bee is crucial? Numbers have been declining since the late 1990’s, with beekeepers noticing the mysterious disappearance of bees as well as the decline of bee colonies. Since 2006, over 40% of honeybees have been lost in the U.S. You’ve probably heard or seen lots of stuff about how we need to save the bees. But why are they so important? And how do we help save them? Let’s explore…
Why Are Honey Bees Important?
We all tend to take insects like the honey bee for granted but they are incredibly useful and play a vital role in the ecosystem. They are key to supplying us with a varied and nutritious diet. The honey bee pollinates our fruit, veg, and even the crops that are used for animal fodder. Pollen is carried on the branched hairs called ‘scopae’ on their legs. The bees carry the pollen between plants, thus pollination occurs. A third of the food that we eat depends on pollinators like bees, with food such as zucchinis, apricots, and almonds depending on insect pollination. It is too time-consuming and labor-intensive to pollinate by hand, as well as being too expensive. The economic value of the work done by the honey bee is over $303 billion annually across the world.
Causes in the Decline of the Honeybee
Although many people are happy that they are no longer being stung when outside, the decline in the number of bees leaves the insects with an unpredictable future. There are several reasons that are thought to be behind the decline in the number of bees.
Insecticides and Pesticides
The main reason for the number of honey bees declining is the use of insecticides. As the name suggests, they are designed to kill insects and are used throughout the world, particularly in areas where crops grow. Bees ingest these insecticides whilst pollinating crops, causing them to lose the ability to navigate, preventing them from being able to reproduce, and damaging their central nervous system. Studies show that organic bee colonies that are situated away from where chemicals are used are not being affected in the same way. Neonicotinoids are a particular cause of concern in the loss of bee colonies. They have a similar molecular compound to nicotine and when originally introduced it was believed that they had a low toxicity to bees and certain other useful insects. It causes disorientation and can affect the smell of the bee. This can cause rejection when the bee returns to the colony or the bee could even be killed. If a large number of bees left to go foraging and became affected, it is easy to see how a colony could become wiped out quickly. Neonicotinoids do not kill the bee, so it can return to the colony and effect all the other bees. These insecticides also weaken the immune system of the bees, making them more susceptible to mites and viruses.
The recent increase in atmospheric electromagnetic radiation is the possible cause of the honey bees losing the ability to navigate. The increase in cell phones and communication towers gives off radiation which interferes with the Earth’s natural electromagnetism, which is what bees use to navigate. A study in Germany saw that when cell phones were placed in the vicinity of their hives, the bees refused to return to them. However, the study does not represent world exposure and further testing is necessary.
Loss of Habitat
With urban development on the increase, there has been a large loss in pollination-friendly habitat. This means that bees have lost the diverse food sources that they require in order to sustain a healthy diet. Since World War 2 we have lost approximately 97 percent of our wildflower meadows. Bees need safe places for them to nest as well as flowers to forage, all of which are being lost due to increasing land development. With the loss of many nesting areas due to city growth, there’s increased competition for colony space. Nest sites have been fought over, leading to the death of fighting queens.
The winter months are becoming both warmer and wetter, and the shift in seasons means that the bees are becoming confused as to where they should be and at what time. Climate changes are causing the bees to change their nesting behavior and the time they emerge after winter. The timing of flowering plants that the bees rely on for food has also been disrupted. Although some species of bees are able to adjust to these changes, it is believed that not every species can. Some trees, such as the apple tree, are now producing blossom at a different time from when the bees are active. This, unfortunately, means that bees miss out on the food and the trees are not pollinated.
Varroa mites are a major cause of colony loss. These mites are also known as Varroa destructor and they are known for sucking the blood from the adult bees and the developing brood. They are especially keen on drone blood, and this shortens the life of the bees. If infestations of Varroa mites are left untreated, the numbers will increase and possibly kill the colonies. The key to successful Varroa mite management is regular inspections. If the mites are left unnoticed, then the destruction of the colony may be put down to queenlessness or winter deaths.
What You Can Do to Help the Bees
With all the concerns about the number of bees left and the rate at which they are disappearing, there’s still lots we can do to help them. This doesn’t mean we all have to become beekeepers, although that would be pretty awesome, but if we each do just a little, we stand a good chance of saving all remaining bee species. Remember–be the change you wish to see.
1. Avoid Harmful Pesticides
We’ve learned that pesticides and chemicals harm the bees. Avoid using them wherever possible. Use beneficial insects in your garden, such as ladybugs and praying mantises. Make sure that plants that you buy have not been treated with neonicotinoids, as these plants will cause huge problems in local bee colonies. Control the pests in your garden by companion planting or making your own natural remedies that do not kill bees. Companion planting stops you having to use chemicals and can also encourage useful insects and birds to your garden.
2. Plant Bee-Friendly Gardens
Make your garden really bee-friendly by growing flowers and plants that bees love. There are certain flowers that bees find irresistible and that encourage the bees to come and collect the pollen. Bees need a diverse diet and like patches of flowers so they can focus on one type of flower at a time. Avoid hybrid flowers, as they have little or no pollen and are of no real benefit to the bee. Try to make sure you have flowers blooming for as much of the year as possible. Use heritage varieties with colorful flowers.
Don’t be afraid to leave some weeds in your garden. Bees love weeds and dandelions so let your garden live a little!
3. Buy Local Honey
Local honey is prepared by local beekeepers and by buying local you are reducing food miles and keeping costs lower for beekeepers. Raw local honey is not treated with any chemicals. This probably means it will have a shorter shelf life, but will taste completely different from mass-produced honey. Go and visit a farmer’s market–these will normally have a local beekeeper who can tell you about how the bees are treated and can explain the process of getting the honey to the jar.
4. Understand Bees
Bees are not out to harm you, they are vegetarian and simply want to forage pollen up to about three miles from home and take home some food. They do not plan to sting us but you should try and remain still and calm if one lands on you. They can smell pheromones on you that are caused by fear and anger so don’t panic. Try not to stand in front of a hive opening as the bees race back and forth to their home. Don’t get confused between wasps and bees. Bees will die if they sting you (but not if they sting another bee). Wasps will not die if they sting you and they are carnivores.
5. Make a Bee Bath
Bees get thirsty too! Place a small bowl outside with some small pebbles or a cork in it so they can sit on them and have a drink. Make sure it’s not too deep though. It’s hard work foraging all that pollen! Try and place your bee bath in the shade so they can stay cooler.
6. Make Some Cocktails
Not for you…..for the bees! Fill a small egg cup with a mixture of two tablespoons of white sugar and one tablespoon of water. Place the egg cup amongst some of the bees’ favorite flowers. The bees can then get a burst of energy if they are getting tired. Don’t overdo it though, as too much sugar is bad for them. A small egg cup is best to stop birds from drinking it all. Don’t be tempted to use honey. Much of the honey is made abroad and contains chemicals that can harm the bees.
7. Become a Beekeeper
OK, so not that simple, but for some people it is possible. Imagine being able to have your own honey, produced by your own bees. It’s full of nutrients including niacin, copper, iron, zinc, and potassium. It can be used for many conditions including coughs, colds, allergies, and dandruff. You can use the wax to create your own candles and lip balm. Beekeeping is very low-maintenance. Once your hive is set up, it would take less than an hour a week to keep it up and running.
8. Don’t Burn Dead Stalks
Hollow plant stalks often have small bees and other insects in them over winter. So when you are tidying your garden for the winter don’t burn the stalks. Instead, leave them on your plant over the colder months or tidy them away at the bottom of your garden until the following year.
9. Don’t Leave Honey in Jars Outside
There was once the idea that near empty jars of honey should be left outside for the bees to feed on. Jars of honey that have been shipped in from abroad often have bacteria and spores that are dangerous to the bees. Once the bee is infected it can travel back to the hive and infect the whole colony.
10. Create a Herb Garden
If you only live in an apartment building and don’t have a garden then consider planting a herb garden. Not only will this help the bees but you also have the benefit of having fresh home-grown herbs. Bees are especially fond of chives, fennel, lavender, mint, and oregano.
So there are plenty of things you can do that are inexpensive and easy to do that will help save the bee – we all just need to do our bit. You don’t have to spend huge amounts of money or make any major changes – just planting some chives is great, as is supporting your local bee keepers by purchasing their beautiful raw honey.
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