Could Urban Gardens Help Save the Honey Bee?

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Posted: Wednesday, January 2, 2013 9:36 am

How about a New Year's resolution for your city to become bee-friendly in 2013? Seriously! Bees are in big trouble here in the U.S., as well as in many other countries around the world. And I think that cities might be able to help with their survival.

Populations of honeybees and several species of bumblebees have declined in recent years – precipitously. The website BeeFriendlySanDiego.com led me into some interesting resources on the plight of bees. In fact, a PBS video entitled “Silence of the Bees”, states that if the honeybee decline continues, we won’t have them around by 2035. That is only a little more than 20 years away!

Can you imagine a world without bees to pollinate our fruit and nut trees, vegetables and flowers? They are said to pollinate approximately one-third of the food produced in America, with a value of more than $15 billion per year.

It is much preferred to have bees around to perform this essential duty of pollination than for man to do it by hand. This has been learned in a pear-growing region of China, where local residents dust pollen grains onto each of the several hundred flowers in each pear tree of their region. This is done due to the loss of honeybees from past long-term pesticide use. The cost would be astronomical in this country to pay for labor to pollinate the various orchards and other food crops that bees normally pollinate. An estimate in the PBS report was placed at more than $90 billion per year.

What has happened to the bees? It is not exactly known yet, but some experts point to a multitude of possible causes coming together to create the “perfect storm” that is wiping them out. It has been known for a number of years now, since around 2006, that honeybee colonies have been dying out due to a condition called colony collapse disorder (CCD). The colonies in beehives die out quickly, leaving little evidence around in the form of dead bees in the hives or on the ground around the hives. Essentially, the bees just disappear. This has hindered investigations to determine the cause(s).

Hypotheses regarding possible causes of CCD include (1) wildflower and habitat loss associated with farming changes that have occurred in recent years, (2) malnutrition of the bees due to competition, (3) parasites such as the varroa mite, (4) disease agents such as the exotic Israeli acute paralysis virus (IAPV) or single-celled fungi, (4) mortalities from direct contact with insecticides, (5) weakened immune systems due to sublethal contact or ingestion of insecticides, particularly the fairly recently registered systemic neonicotinoid insecticides, with resultant increased susceptibility to disease organisms, and (6) neurological effects due to environmental factors that affect their normal behavior patterns and ability to return to the hive after foraging.

While researchers from around the world are learning more about the causes and seeking solutions, the rapid population losses make it critical that the precautionary principle be applied with regard to possible causes, and proactive steps be taken to help reverse the trend. Application of the precautionary principle would appear to involve eliminating or reducing the use of specific insecticides in agriculture and in households that have been implicated in the declines until more is learned about their possible roles, examining and strengthening regulations involving imported bees that might introduce pathogens into healthy colonies, and destroying parasite- and pathogen-infected colonies.

Your community can take a proactive step to help the bees. Many cities and counties have wonderful flower gardens and plots of greenspace within their jurisdictions. Most cities already plant flowers, shrubs and trees in their boulevards. If not already being done, these areas can be made more bee-friendly by substituting types of plants that benefit bees for those that are not as beneficial. Small plots of perennial wildflowers can be planted in corners of city lawns that do not get much traffic. Excellent resources for bee-friendly, flowering plants of all types and sizes can be found on the Xerces Society's website.

Another proactive step would be to encourage the placement of hives at locations in the city that would allow bees to forage in the greenspace and find drinking water. Bees work hard and need a lot of water. It's important to place hives where the bees will not create a problem for local residents or be in danger of flying across busy highways. The PBS report highlighted the city of Paris. The French are particularly fond of honey and are concern for the welfare of bees. There, hives were placed on flat roofs of multi-storied buildings within the city. What a great idea for placement of hives!

It is conceivable that cities collectively could play a role in reversing the trend of declining bee populations. The diversity of flowers and trees in our expanding urban landscapes is greater than in the monocultures of modern farms in many regions. Such diversity of plants on which to feed may help to prevent nutritional deficiencies in the bees. The use of chemicals is also different in the two landscapes. These differences could contribute to healthier colonies in urban areas, at least in some cases. Perhaps cities with their diversity in flowering plants will represent safe havens, or refugia, for numerous scattered populations of bees that will help to preserve the greater gene pool of each bee species that is currently in trouble. What a remarkable accomplishment that would be!

And I predict that the uniquely distinctive flavor of the honey taken from the hives of each city will be a “fast sell” at the local farmers market.

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