The warnings that bee populations are dropping, hive collapses catastrophic, and our crops at risk for lack of pollination have been widely written about and discussed over the past few years. And while much has been said, there’s very little follow-up on how things are going.
Well, things are still very tenuous – not only for bees, but for all pollinators around the globe. So what is being done to stabilize bee populations?
These questions and others for improving backyard environments to help bees make a living were expertly discussed when the Sippican Lands Trust in partnership with the Marion Garden Group hosted local beekeepers and cranberry growers Paul and Linda Rinta at the Marion Music Hall on September 30.
Linda’s presentation explored how modern agricultural practices, habitat loss, diseases, and climate change have collided, causing bees and other pollinators to suffer a mass die-off. She also gave the audience an education in apiology or the study of honeybees and their local cousin the bumblebee.
Rinta said 75 percent of all flowering plants require pollinators. That figure goes up when discussing fruits and vegetables produced in New England; therefore, dependence on bees to keep food production high is critical, she explained.
Delving deeper into the subject of types of bees, Rinta said honeybees were imported from Europe during the 1600s and, although that was centuries in the past, “They are not native … they are a tropical insect.”
According to Rinta, early settlers used the honey for brewing purposes, and honey has been used as a preservative and medicine for centuries.
In the small universe of the honeybee colony, there will be one queen to care for and the bees will aggressively protect her and the hive, Rinta said. “They have ‘group think’ and act as one body,” she said.
To highlight that point, she said that one time she had a small hole in her beekeeper suit. “One bee found that hole and communicated its location to the others and then they were all trying to bite me.”
She said honeybees have specialized jobs, a division of labor that is geared towards building hives or colonies larger and larger and protecting the queen.
Continuing with the history lesson, Rinta said beekeeping began around 2400 B.C. and was used in mummification processes. “It’s anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, and won’t spoil.”
Of the humble bumblebee, Rinta pointed out that they are a local species. “They are cold climate insects that have evolved and adapted to our climate.” She said bumblebees don’t live in colonies, don’t communicate as one unit, and don’t winter over. “Bumblebees are more solitary and much less aggressive,” she said.
So what happened to bring these important worker bees to their knees? A perfect storm of problems, Rinta explained.
In the 1970s, farms were smaller and more diverse, Rinta said, but by the next decade the honey market had taken a dive. New pesticides were introduced, industrial farming expanded, diseases attacked colonies, and “…there were fewer and fewer migratory beekeepers.”
Add to that list the negative influences of climate change, a lack of floral diversity, and habitat loss.
“Well, bad things happen even when intentions are good…” she concluded. “In the 1990s, hives were decimated.”
Rinta said of the 4,000 different species of bees in North America, all are struggling and some have become extinct. And it’s not just the bees, she said. It’s the butterflies, too.
So what can we – the average homeowners, the average backyard gardeners – do to help endangered insects? Floral diversity.
Rinta said that by giving bees a variety of flowering plants throughout the growing season, gardeners are helping to provide bees with nutrition. She said plants considered weeds by landscapers are actually critical plants to bees, such as milkweed and golden rod. She said forests are poor environments for bees. Bees need fields and meadows with a variety of plant types in order to thrive. And, gardeners may also keep bees.
Rinta was clear that beekeeping does not have to be a large-scale endeavor. While she and her husband have eight hives that they manage year round next to their cranberry bogs, the average homeowner can install small mason bee boxes that are non-intrusive.
“Mason bees have a range of about 100 yards and fly for only 30 days, then live in tunnel nests – they are easy to manage,” she told her audience.
When selecting plants for flowerbeds, Rinta said, “Assume everything as [having] been triple sprayed with insecticides.” She said to talk to nursery owners and select plants that may have been more organically raised.
As for commercial honey consumers, honey found in chain grocery stores, Rinta cautioned, “Those are blended, heated … all the good properties have been removed. Some honey is coming from China where insecticide controls are poor… Know your beekeeper.”
One final word from Rinta regarding beekeeping: “You will get stung!”
There is plenty of help available to anyone interested in learning more about planning a more bio-diverse home garden and/or raising bees.
The Marion Garden Group is a good starting point for locals. They can provide a variety of resources for those interested in expanding their knowledge base. Kristie Marshall of MGG said the group is currently sponsoring two hives in their Bee Benefactor program.
Marshall also handed out resource cards that listed the following websites: beekeeper schools www.plymouthcountybeekeepers.org, www.bristolbee.com or www.massbee.org, along with The Xerces Society www.xerces.org, The Pollination Home Page www.pollinator.com, Pollinator Partnership www.pollinator.org, and Million Pollinator Garden Challenge www.millionpollinatorgardens.org.
Marshall also said that fall is the season for casting seeds into meadows and fields and that MGG can offer guidance on how to plan for spring and summer flowering and what types of seeds to select. Visit their Facebook page for more information.
By Marilou Newell