Last night on a beautiful spring evening, I stood outside my hive and watched bees coming and going, their panniers packed with pollen. I felt this great sense of satisfaction and rightness. It was as if the backyard had a missing element all these months while the hive stood empty, and now the balance was back in my garden.
Last year we learned so much, but the failure of our hive to thrive was discouraging. It was hard to watch the bee numbers diminish to total loss. Whether it was a weak or older queen, or a symptom of nearby pesticide use, we don’t know. But all through the fall and winter there was a vacant feeling in our garden.
In past years, beekeepers expected a loss of hives in the single-digit percentage range. It was to be expected. This past year I have heard reports that beekeepers reported losses around 60 percent. 60 percent. That is an astonishing, heartbreaking, worrisome number. It is an unsustainable figure in any business, and unsustainable ecologically, as well.
Friends ask me what is causing the declining pollinator populations. With the ominous Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) making the news, I understand why they are asking.
It is believed that the Varroa mite is one factor. This pin-head sized mite is an external parasite that first arrived in Florida in the 1980s. According to an article from the University of Kentucky, varroa mites “suck the blood from both the adults and the developing brood, weakening and shortening the life span of the ones on which they feed. Emerging brood may be deformed with missing legs or wings. Untreated infestations of varroa mites that are allowed to increase will kill honeybee colonies.”
As if that wasn’t enough to contend with, honeybees also face devastation from pesticides and herbicides. In fact, Harvard University recently released a report linking the use of neonicotinoids (a class of insecticide chemically similar to nicotine) to CCD. The European Union and some non-EU countries have banned the use of neonics. The United States is dragging its heels…
All of these thorny issues are at the back of my mind as I watch our new colony begin to build comb, care for their brood, pollinate and gather nectar. I watch an undertaker bee drag a dead bee from the hive (worker bees generally live only about six weeks), carry her body a distance and leave it, then return to continue cleaning house. Forager Bees are carrying bright orange dandelion pollen into the hive, and I’m hopeful that the flowers they visited were not tainted with herbicides.
In talking with Colorado State Beekeepers Association President Beth Conrey earlier this spring, I learned about an initiative called “Bee Safe Neighborhoods.” Beth was pointing to urban beekeeping as one of the frontlines for giving bees cleaner foraging and brighter futures. While changing Big Ag’s approach to pesticides and herbicides is a huge ship to turn around, concerned urban communities can participate in Bee Safe Neighborhood programs that address the issue of chemical usage on gardens and lawns.
Here’s how it works:
According to the Living Systems Institute, “The goal is to have leaders from as many neighborhoods as possible solicit pledges from their neighbors to stop using systemic poisons. The minimum number of households required for a bee safe neighborhood designation is 75 in a contiguous block. If a neighbor on a particular street does not wish to participate, the boundary lines of the contiguous block will be configured to exclude that household. In other words, every neighbor on every street does not need to participate in order to have a contiguous block.”
Want to learn more or see how you can get involved? Go to the Living Systems Institute/Honeybee Keep page on Bee Safe Neighborhoods. There you’ll find information about specific chemicals that are a concern, and alternatives and options that are better for bees.
It’s easy—especially when faced with an empty hive—to get discouraged. But if we do what we can to make our yards and our neighborhoods safe for bees, we are addressing the issue locally and helping honeybees. And as we create cleaner neighborhoods, we are also making spaces better for not just bees and other wildlife, but also for our children, our pets, and ourselves.
A new beekeeping season has arrived, flowers and trees are blooming in my neighborhood, and once again my hive is humming. My garden feels complete again. And I am hopeful.