Anyone who likes to eat should care about honey bees.
Besides providing us with honey, they are responsible for pollinating about a third of the food supply in the U.S., including 100 percent of the almond crop and 90 percent of the apple and blueberry crops. But honey bee populations in the U.S. are declining to the point that food prices may start increasing because of it.
Scientists are hard at work to determine exactly what is causing the decline in the honey bee population, also known as Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD, but have yet to pinpoint a single factor or determine a solution. They do know the number of managed honey bee colonies in the U.S. has decreased from about 5 million in the 1940s to about 2.5 million today.
One of the most significant losses of honey bees occurred in the 1980s when a bee parasite known as the varroa mite was accidentally introduced into the U.S. Varroa mite is still a problem today and is considered to be among the web of causes for CCD, along with a number of pathogens, pests, disorders, nutritional issues and environmental stressors.
In the last few years, a class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids has been at the heart of the debate on honey bee decline. Neonicotinoid insecticides are frequently sold to control lawn, garden and landscape pests and are very effective because of their long residual and systemic nature.
To date, scientists have been unable to confirm a direct link between neonicotinoid insecticides and honey bee decline. Some research suggests that bees who consume pollen and nectar with neonicotinoid residues may become more susceptible to other pathogens or have detrimental reactions to their nervous system. Other research suggests this research fails to replicate natural environmental conditions. One of the most cited reports uses bumble bees for the study rather honey bees.
USDA reports that other insecticides may pose just as much and sometimes more risk to bees than neonicotinoids. In the 2012 report on the progress of Colony Collapse Disorder, researchers state that pyrethroids, a class of pesticides generally thought to be safer than others because they mimic a natural pesticide, “pose a threefold greater hazard to bee colonies than neonicotinoids.”
If you want to do what you can to help the bee population, the answer is going to be more than pointing the finger to one class of pesticides. Avoid using any insecticide on or near bee-pollinated plants while they are in bloom. Something as simple as a grub control treatment on the lawn can be taken up by nearby trees, flowers and clover growing in the grass and pose a risk to bees. Also, if the insecticide has a residual, avoid using the insecticide in a period that will coincide with the plant (or nearby plants) blooming. Always read the label to help determine risks.
Another helpful practice is to incorporate plants that bees like in your landscape. The decline of habitat for bees and other pollinators is a likely contributor to CCD, especially thinking about how the landscape has changed over the last 70 years. Look for plants labeled for pollinators or research pollinator and butterfly gardens. Milkweeds, monardas, asters and other native species may benefit a number of insects.
If the honey bee population continues to decline, bees may be trucked longer distances to pollinate crops than they are now and increasing production costs. Bee shortages in Japan have led to some crops being pollinated by human workers with tools, increasing production costs that are passed on to the consumer.
Honey bees were brought to North America from Europe during early settlement. They are preferred in commercial production over native pollinators simply because they can be managed more easily. They are also generally more prolific than native species.
— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation. She is the host of “The Garden Show” and has been a gardener since childhood. Send your gardening questions and feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.