Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Secret Life and Death of Bees

Two years ago, my neighbor bought a package of honeybees online as well as a beehive. The bees arrived healthy and active. But shortly after spring started, the bees vanished. Jeff said he didn't see any evidence of dead bees nearby. It was as if the whole colony had taken off. 

It was a sad mystery for all of us. It wasn’t until recently that I started regularly reading about insects and gardens. I've learned such honeybee evacuations are a worldwide problem that has a name that sounds like a psychiatric diagnosis: Colony Collapse Disorder. 

In Maryland last year, the loss of bee colonies was 61 percent. This is  among the highest rates of bee loss in the US. Huge honeybee losses are also being counted throughout Europe and in 
South America and Asia. In China, so few bees are left in the massive agricultural belt that people are forced to hand-pollinate to have any apple crops. 

The British are desperate to preserve their native honeybee

Hand-pollinating apple trees in China

Many scientific studies have determined that CCD is largely driven by pesticide ingredients called neonicotinoids (aka neonics) introduced in the 1990s. Neonics go by names like imidacloprid, acetamiprid, clothianidin, and dinotefuran. Ironically, these pesticides are meant to kill borers, Japanese beetles, termites and other insects that damage shrubs and trees. Not honeybees. But honeybees make it their business to dine on flowering trees and shrubs. They won't fall down dead tasting a poisoned plant--but they lose the memory of where they need to go. And because they don't know the way back to the hive, they perish. I read more about this in some recent articles in The Washington Post and Mother Jones.

Ortho and Scott are two huge pesticide companies that have pledged to phase out neonics in their product lines. A recent search of Amazon’s garden category showed Bayer, Bonide, Dominion and other manufacturers have plenty of neonic pesticides for sale.

Apparently, it’s not just the sprays that are risky. Nursery plants grown from a seed or seedling treated with neonics, is also running the risk of poisoning bees. Even trace amount of neonics have contributed to Colony Collapse Disorder. You could make yourself crazy wondering whether any flowering plant you’re considering is a Typhoid Mary.

Last summer, I decided to start work on our largely ignored garden. The house is in a1890s city neighborhood where very few people use pesticides and fertilizers. Our neighborhood is a haven for birds, foxes, rabbits, raccoons, bats and other delightful wildlife. Of course, I wanted to do no harm. A 25-year-old memory of how I accidentally killed most of my Japanese garden’s camellia trees by spraying Round-Up on dandelions still haunts me.

I contacted Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay-Wise gardening program, a free teaching service aimed at reducing pollution flowing from the state into the Chesapeake Bay. After an email exchange, two friendly master gardener volunteers. Lynn and Debbie, walked me through my struggling garden. They checked off which practices were environmentally sound, and gave advice on where I needed improvement.

I'm an official Bay-Wise Gardener!

I was very surprised that years of benign neglect put my garden in the Bay-Wise certified category. The fact that grass clippings were left on the lawn after cutting, and water easily reaches the earth through the gaps between bricks in the path. The house gutters have long downspouts that allow rainwater to flow into the earth; all I need are rain barrels to perfect my water conversation. The master gardeners looked at all my weeds but did not criticize. However, they told me I'd better start pulling wild mustard that day.  Debbie and Lynn were concerned about invasive non-native plants, like English ivy, and had chemically free strategies for elimination. There were a few bees buzzing around, and the local trumpet honeysuckle vine was pointed out as a great nectar source for them and hummingbirds.

My biggest takeaway was that if every plant I added was a native one, I could become a farmer’s market for the butterfly, bee, insect and bird populations. I also got the sense I didn’t have to make my property look like a forest to go native.

an inspiring post from Thomas Rainer's wonderful blog, landscape of meaning

Ever since I saw charming cottage gardens filled with wildflowers and perennials in England and Australia, I’d secretly wanted one. No grass to mow—just flowers, shrubs and herbs waving in the wind.  I realized that if I were to remove the grass right in front of my house, I could fill the leftover space with many perennial plants and grasses that would be more than eye candy.

They’d become bee, bug and bird candy.

Let the planting begin!

The grass came out yesterday. Despite a looming book deadline, I’m working on installing two brand-new gardens: one in front of the house, and the other along the driveway, where English ivy once held a ruthless grasp.

The landscape doesn’t look like much now, but I am hopeful that the organically-grown native plants will be rooted and spreading by summer’s end. Just as I hope that the new Pollinator Protection Act banning commercial sales of neonic pesticides will be signed by our governor tomorrow, making Maryland the first of the United States to get serious about saving bees.
Lovely natural roses with insect-bitten leaves. Who cares?


  1. My uncle was a beekeeper and I always helped him with the hives during the holidays. But his son, who tried to keep the hives going after his death, says he's giving up. Too challenging to keep the bees alive and happy! It is very sad.

  2. GOOD FOR YOU, Sujata. I wish I could come and help. I hope the other states have the good sense to follow Maryland's example.

  3. What a wonderful story, Sujata, one to be proud of! I've just finished round one of a battle to reclaim much of my land from the invasive Russian olive and barberry hordes. It's been a month long battle using brush hogs, chainsaws, and brush pile burnings. My county forester said that we can go with Roundup next spring during the one week window that those invasives will green before the natives come out (plants, that is). I'm more partial to a plan of my buddy that that we let some tethered goats loose to do what they do best.

    Again, congratulations.

  4. Your efforts are truly praiseworthy, and I hope your neighbours all get with it.

    One of the pleasures of having a home near Cape Town (now sold) is that it is so easy to go native, as you put it. I planted a few proteas, restios, and ericas, and put my feet up. Unlike you, I expended virtually no energy. No grass to mow, no herbicides, no pesticides. And soon I had queen protea bushes with a hundred heads on each. Paradise for me, the birds and the bees.

  5. I'm now on my 5th year as a beekeeper. The neonics are definitely a bad deal for the bees. They not only harm the foraging bees, but those bees DO make it back to the hive (for a while, until they become too disoriented), and they carry the poisons back into the hive along with pollen and nectar, thus poisoning the entire hive.

    Additional problems for the bees:

    Varroa mites are little parasitic insects that live in the hive, reproduce in the cells along with the bees, and attach themselves to the bees by drilling little holes in their carapaces to suck their body fluids. But the real 'killer' of this (very much like mosquitoes) are the viruses that get into the bees in that manner.

    The third leg of the Colony Collapse Disorder is food. Too much of modern agriculture is mono-culture, hundreds, even thousands of acres of a single crop. Honeybees need a wide variety of pollens to make a healthy diet (just like humans need a wide, balanced diet), and they need pollen and nectar throughout the year. With mono-culture industrial farming, the pollen and nectar from that crop comes and goes in 1-3 weeks usually (if it's even consumable by the bees), and the rest of the year that entire area is a desert for the bees.

    I used to HATE Himalaya Blackberries, an invasive species that grows EVERYWHERE around here. After becoming a beekeeper, I now love it (as long as it's not consuming too much of my property... :-), as it provides about 75-80% of the nectar for the bees around here. The honey supers just fill up like from a fire hose for about three weeks, and that's happening RIGHT NOW.

    But, on a related subject: the blooming of all these fruit plants is at least two, if not three, weeks earlier now than it used to be. We harvested our first strawberries last week (an OLD strain, Marshalls) which always used to be in the first or second week of June (we'd pick them after school was out for summer). Climate change is rapidly becoming another factor that EVERYTHING has to deal with.


  6. PS. The varroa mites are also an invasive species, from Asia, that only appeared here in the States about 20-30 years ago, and they are probably the worst of the problems for the bees, as they can kill a colony in one year's time if not treated.