My Enchanté column from July 4, 2013
By Mark Bergin
Bees fascinate me. Always have. I could watch them for hours. It’s a mesmerizing process. There’s something very meditative about watching a bee.
Fortunately, I have no allergy to bees and despite many stings I still love them. Perhaps it ties in with my love for honey. I’m such a bee freak that while studying wildlife biology at the University of Guelph (pre-career change), I took apiculture courses.
Many people receive stings they think are from bees, but are from yellowjackets or hornets. Such stings typically hurt far more than bee stings.
Most of us know the phrase, “If you ate today, thank a farmer.” But one can take it deeper into the production process and say, “If you ate today, thank a bee.”
Bees are responsible for much of the food in our kitchens. In fact, they are responsible for pollinating a lot of plants. These fuzzy little farmers do some heavy-duty work. Between 75% and 95% of the Earth’s flowering plants depend on pollination for survival. Bees do a lot of that legwork, or, wingwork. It’s estimated that bee pollination is responsible for about a third of the food we eat.
In a single hive, there are tens of thousands of bees.
There are three kinds of bees: queen, worker and drone. The queen lays eggs, about 1500 of them a day. The worker bees (all female) do the hive work. They clean the hive, feed baby bees, care for the queen, fan and cool the hive, and get pollen and nectar into cells.
The females also gather nectar and pollen from flowers. They collect water and propolis, a sticky substance found in tree buds. Bees use it to weatherproof their hives. Propolis, like honey, has antibacterial properties.
The drones (males) have an important job: mate with the queen. They gather in congregations (they don’t pray).
If you’re stung, a male didn’t do it. Males don’t have stingers. On the other hand, if you are stung, you’ve got instant revenge. When a worker bee uses her stinger, she dies.
Honey has more than one colour and taste. Each depends on the flower from which nectar is gathered. Buckwheat honey tastes quite different from clover honey.
More than honey comes from a hive. Bees have special glands that create and secrete wax. A bee chews the wax to shape it into the well-known honeycomb. We humans use beeswax to create luxurious candles.
Worker bees secrete royal jelly from glands in their heads. It is fed to all larvae in the hive. But, after three days, it is discontinued for workers and drones. Only the queen larvae continue to receive royal jelly after the first three days. Royal jelly is reported to have health benefits. Current research is finding evidence that royal jelly may have cholesterol-lowering, anti-inflammatory, wound-healing, and antibiotic effects in humans. However, only use it under medical supervision as it may cause allergic reactions. These may range from mild hives, to asthma or fatal anaphylaxis.
Bee propolis has antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. For centuries, it has been used in natural ointments to heal wounds. Some believe that it promotes healing and regeneration of tissue as well as improving energy levels and stamina.
There’s a problem. A big one. Bees are dying. Rapidly.
Sadly, bees now serve in the role of the modern day canary, working as an alarm system warning us that our ecosystem is stressed.
In 2006 and 2007, colony-collapse disorder (CCD) made news. Beekeepers noticed complete colonies disappearing or dying. If each hive is worth about $200, the cost is enormous. About ten million hives have been lost since 2006. That’s an economic cost of two billions dollars. That cost does not include the effect on crops.
Just as great a concern as CCD is the fact that the cause has not yet been found. It would be more accurate to say that several factors seem to lead to CCD.
The numbers are alarming. In 2012, the Swiss government announced that half of the bee population had died over the winter. The parasitic varroa mite was the main suspect. But scientists are discovering that death may come, not from one agent, but from combinations. For example, pesticides may weaken a hive’s health, making it an easy target for a parasitic, viral or bacterial attack.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) notes that there are several likely culprits.
Pesticides are high on the list. In fact, the European Union has banned certain pesticides (neonicotinoids), because of their potentially lethal effects on bees. The European attitude seems to be a wise one: Don’t wait until these toxins have been shown conclusively to harm bees. Ban them until they’re found to be safe. Seems so simple and logical. Sadly, simplicity and logic rarely walk hand-in-hand with politics.
Another cause of CCD may be the bees’diet. In the wild world, bees dine on a diverse range of plants. But in our monoculture corporate agriculture scene, bees may have access to thousands of acres of one kind of plant. Ugh. Imagine eating nothing but green beans, soup or ice cream your entire life.
One of the newest suspects in CCD is the food offered to bees. Research at the University of Illinois has found a possible link between feeding commercial honeybees high-fructose corn syrup and CCD. Since the 1970s, beekeepers have been feeding bees high-fructose corn syrup instead their natural staple, honey. It’s now suggested that this feeding practice compromises bees resistance and immunity to pesticides.
In other words, two wrongs are making matters much worse.
We know that high-fructose corn syrup has many potentially dangerous effects on humans, especially in terms of heart and stroke development. Imagine what it’s doing to bees who receive this as a primary food source.
It’s also been propsed that cell phones contribute to CCD. Bees don’t have their own little network of cell phones, but the ones humans use, and the towers/transmitters to relay messages, do emit energy waves that might have something to do with bee mortality.
In other words, there are lots of possibilities, but so much remains unknown. And we should be concerned.
What can we do to help these wee-winged buzzers. For a start, how about a hive in your yard (yes, I’m serious). Buy local and organic foods as much as possible. The more organic food you use, the more farmers will grow. Don’t use pesticides domestically or commercially near bee colonies (or at all). And, for heaven’s sake, stop feeding the little buggers high-fructose corn syrup. Do we want bees to look like some of the lard-assed customers who frequent fast food and donut franchises that are rampant in North America? Or, worse, end up dead.
Colony-collapse disorder is a serious issue. Bees are busy little creatures. Let’s heed their environmental warnings as we enjoy their tasty products.