Plight of the Bees

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Bees are endlessly intriguing, as is the intricate structure of their collective. The honeybee will fly about 800km in her working life and produce just half a teaspoon of honey. A honeybee hive consists of tens of thousands of bees, each with their own mission that is determined by the bee’s sex, age and time of year. Each hive usually has one queen, hundreds of drones, and thousands of workers. Queens can live up to seven years, while other bees live for only weeks or months. Worker bees are responsible for feeding the bees, caring for the queen, building comb, foraging for nectar and pollen, and cleaning and guarding the hive. The drones serve the queen, who is responsible for reproduction laying 250,000 eggs each year. In the winter, the bees cluster around the queen and the young, using their body heat to keep the temperature inside the hive steady. I think this is such a powerful show of a collective working in-tune.

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Above photo of a bee hive in nature

If bees disappeared, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to grow much of what we eat. Bees pollinate crops ranging from apples, zucchini, blueberries, almonds and many many more. They seek out pollen, which they use along with nectar to feed the hive. In the process, they transfer pollen from the male part of one flower to the female part of another, fertilising plants so they can develop seed-carrying fruits. Plants produce nectar to attract these pollinators-bees, butterflies, bats-who are necessary for successful plant reproduction.

Native bees are more effective pollinators but the demand for mass pollination in mono-cropping farms, as well as the desire for huge amounts of commercial honey, means that the honey bee is the generally the only variety of bee bred now. It now has an extremely small gene pool,  which comes at a risk when there is mass disease outbreaks-which is the case currently. 

Colony collapse disorder has wiped out millions of hives over the past decade, with pesticide use, parasites and poor nutrition looked at as likely culprits. CCD is the spontaneous abandonment of hives by the honey bees, killing  30%- 70% of the bee population every year for the last 8 years.

WHY?

The bees are constantly exposed to chemicals, pesticides, antibiotics, which in my opinion actually weakens the bees to then be more susceptible to the current outbreak of varroa mites, unnatural living conditions, genetic manipulation, and stressful transportation. In the winter time, instead of feeding off their hard-worked-for honey, large commercial operations replace the rich honey with a cheap sugar substitute, such as corn syrup, that is obviously not as nourishing. It's a hard battle for the little bee these days!

It is ironic because the modern methods of growing food are killing one of our biggest helpers in food production. The main pesticide that evidence is pointing to is neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids are synthetic copies of natural nicotine, which is very toxic to nearly all invertebrates. These pesticides are used to coat seeds before planting or they are sprayed on crops. They are absorbed into the plant and attack insects when they land on the plant to feed off it. When dead bees were collected and tested by Health Canada, 70 per cent were found to have traces of neonicotinoids on them. The EU has placed a 2 year ban on their use on "bee-attractive" crops in attempts to help the collapse of their populations.

Scientists from the University of Maryland and U.S. Department of Agriculture recently found pollen collected by honeybees was contaminated with a toxic mix on average of 9 pesticides and fungicides. Even if this is not the only cause of the bees dying in their millions, surely it is not a good thing! Pesticides are designed to kill insects...So obviously they can't be helping the bees? Scarier-what are they doing to the humans that eat them-even in small amounts, consistently over a period of years?

A report, produced by the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, is the work of 50 independent scientists from around the world who spent four years analysing more than 800 peer-reviewed scientific studies.

The lead author, Jean-Marc Bonmatin of the National Centre for Research in France said:

"Far from protecting food production, the use of neon's is threatening the very infrastructure which enables it, imperilling the pollinators, habitat engineers and natural pest controllers at the heart of a functioning ecosystem."

AUSTRALIAN BEES

Australia is currently one of the few places in the world where honey bees are still mainly disease free...(but for how long?) For years Australia has even been shipping millions of bees to the States to help them meet the surplus in demand (something that also doesn't sit well with me as it is not addressing the cause and must cause suffering to the little Aussie workers!). However we do use a hell of a lot of pesticides in our agriculture, including neonicotinoids, so why hasn't the bees been effected in the same way here?

Overseas beekeepers make a living by dragging their hives from mono-crop to mono-crop, feeding their bees on one single nectar and pollen source, and then moving them on to the next. Due to the high number of wild bees here,  a smaller portion of agriculture producers manage the process through paid pollination. So in my eyes, one of the main reasons is that most of the bees in Australia are living naturally in the wild,  which results in healthier, stronger bees as they are not being completely manipulated genetically and medically.

The other thing we don’t see in Australia is the varroa mite; a nasty, tick-like creature that latches onto a bee’s exoskeleton and sucks the life out of the bee and eventually the colony. Certainly it is very lucky Australia does not have this tick, but just like any disease/parasite, with animals or humans, if there is a healthy enough immune system, generally we should be able to fight them/it off and hopefully if Australian bees stay wild and strong if exposed to the mite, they will be able to do so.

Natural bee-keepers also report that they do not experience the same problems with the mites as commercial bee keepers do. Regarding the claim that the mite is the only reason for the deaths, when you watch many of the documentaries and read articles, many bee keepers whose bees suffer from CCD claim they are sure they are not suffering from mite infestations....

Interestingly when you dig a little deeper though, there does seem to be some Australian bee keepers reporting the beginnings of problems. Such as Jeffrey Gibbs, writing on Australia's bees and beekeeping in his article To Australian Beekeepers from an Australian Beekeeper,

“Last October, I was helping Jack Alt of Deepwater, New South Wales shift a sizeable load of bees, from a NEONIC seed treated canola plot at Premier NSW. We were shifting the bees back onto clover, closer to Jack's home. Although the bees had been on a bumper crop of canola, Jack was disturbed that his load of 250 hives had suffered premature swarming, loss of queens, loss of bee numbers and dead outs. Jack then replaced queens, kept working the bees (as we all would), and kept the load on clover for the next few weeks. I observed the same hives later on a Silver Leaf [Iron Bark] flow. In my opinion they were half the bees they should have been, or less.  This was Jack’s second Adverse Experience with his bees foraging canola over the last two years. I asked Jack “Do you think that this may be because of the seed treatment on canola?” Jack replied, “I don’t think we’ll be working canola anymore.”

Interesting....

Ultimately I believe we should not be messing with mother nature as we do. Modern day agriculture come with a plethora of problems that arise and bite us on the bum. Bee keeping can be done in a natural cruel-free manner, without such interference. Pesticides are unnecessary when organic farming practises are used and with a variety of crops being grown.

For the individual how can we help the bees!?

1. Choose pesticide free foods.

2. Look into the honey you buy. What type of bee keeping procedures were involved? (I will highlight differences in next blog)

3. Plant bee friendly flowers and plants.

4. Don't use pesticides in your gardens, its better for the insects and your families health! Check out great alternatives.

5. Have a bee hive at home. Keep bees for the bees’ sake and value them as pollinators first, and honey producers second (if at all). Allow the bees to reproduce naturally by swarming (this also helps break the varroa cycle).

There are some great docos on the bee situation, including Queen of the Sun, check out below.

http://youtu.be/ekoeQodrVoM

For some great sources of information on the bee check out this website.