Honey bees are essential to the continuation of our diverse diets and physical welfare. According to the USDA, over one-third of the human diet, including fruits, legumes, and vegetables, come from insect-pollination, and of those foods approximately 80% is accomplished by honey bees alone. In addition, certain foods such as almonds can only be pollinated by honey bees, rendering them non-existent if the honey bee becomes extinct. Even our meat supply would be drastically affected, as all the animals we consume are herbivores and therefore dependent on pollinators as well. Honey bees are a vital part of our ecosystem, and without them– our lifestyles and health would be significantly damaged.
Although it is evident that honey bees are essential to our prosperity, the reasons for their immense decline are a much more complicated discussion. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, colony collapse disorder, or CCD, is at fault. CCD is a deadly plight with multiple causes: the use of pesticides, loss of habitat, climate change, and disease are all contributing factors to the massive deterioration of the honey bee population. Pesticides are the most damaging, particularly neonicotinoids, which are a relatively new class of insecticides that affect the central nervous system of insects and may result in paralysis or death. A bee will consume contaminated pollen and become disoriented, making it difficult and sometimes impossible for them to return to their hive safely. Sadly, if drastic changes to our agricultural practices are not made, the odds of the honey bee becoming extinct within the foreseeable future is almost a guarantee.
With so much information coming from many different sources these days, maintaining an informed perspective can seem daunting. Luckily there are numerous organizations who aim to help conscious consumers make environmentally friendly choices. One group in particular who is making huge strides right here in New England is The Plymouth County Beekeepers Association. They’re a non-profit, volunteer-based organization that provides education, supplies, and support. Bonnie Benford, the Exhibit and Show Director of the PCBA, gave a presentation called Bee Talk: From Bee, To Hive, To Bottle at the Wildlands Trust to share her passion for bees and a lot of interesting information. Bonnie urged those present for the talk to buy local, quality honey, and to remember that “crystallized honey is not ruined honey, it’s fine. It is a little gritty but it’s just sugar crystals.” She also explained the importance of buying honey locally as it will contain pollen from local plants, and as a result, much like the shots a doctor administers, it can help lessen allergy symptoms. Bonnie suggests taking 1-2 teaspoons a day and warns not to add it to any hot liquids as the heat will diminish the antibacterial and antimicrobial properties of the honey.
Currently, 50% of the crops in America are being pollinated by the same honey bees. Dave Hayden, a past president for the PCBA, explains how “bees are the only insects that man can manipulate by driving them around from crop to crop to crop. [Hives] are mounted on the back of tractor trailers. For cranberries, just in Massachusetts, we bring in 65,000 hives a year. The same hives travel from California for the almonds, to Maine for the blueberries, to Florida for the citrus.” With the number of honey bees dropping so dramatically, migratory beekeeping is an unfortunate but necessary attempt at solving this problem that farmers are facing. Yet even this method is a gamble, as Bonnie describes “one migratory beekeeper had taken his hive to California and when he took them off the almond orchards he ended up losing about 50% of his hive. We suspect that it was pesticides.” The migratory beekeepers are risking their hives by introducing them to unfamiliar territories that may be laden with pesticides and other chemicals. As the honey bee moves closer to extinction, the damage caused by pesticides has become inordinate and is obscuring any efforts made by beekeepers alone.
Sharing information like this and hosting community outreach events are two of the main goals of the PCBA, making them an indispensable resource for Plymouth County. For instance, the PCBA runs an annual beekeeping school. Through this program, the officers of the PCBA, in addition to special guest speakers, are able to pass on their wealth of knowledge to the community. According to Bonnie, there were 130 beekeepers who graduated this past year. Graduates of the PCBA beekeepers school are provided with ongoing access to networking and supplies. They’re also offered opportunities to sell their own bee-related products such as honey, beeswax and bee pollen. (This December, be on the look out for the next session of their beekeeping school as it is a wonderful opportunity for anyone to develop a meaningful hobby or even a profitable career)
Maintaining a safe, pesticide-free space for bees is key. However, they will travel up to 5 miles from their hive to forage for floral rewards, leaving the bees susceptible to pesticides from neighboring yards. Any outdoor space you have, from a potted plant to an expansive lawn, can become a pesticide-free space. Dave warns consumers to be informed when purchasing both potted plants and seeds from your local gardening supply store or research the company you purchase from online. Be sure to ask questions to see if there has been any pretreatment or pesticide exposure. Bonnie explained how “a genetically modified seed will generally be coated with a pesticide and when it sprouts, it is systemic. This means that it is in each and every part of the plant, including the pollen and the nectar that the bees take back to their hive.” Humans and bees both consume the tainted honey and pollen. By reducing the use of pesticides in your area, you can help local beekeepers maintain a healthy, active hive.
Creating a honey bee-friendly environment at home is a wonderful way to help preserve these irreplaceable insects. Always be mindful of the products and ingredients you use. Instead of using chemical pesticides, try a natural pest control product such as bonide, milky spores or beneficial nematodes. Introducing plants to a garden that are known as honey bee favorites is also a way to create a more welcoming environment for pollinators. In the springtime, allow dandelions and blooming clover to grow as this is the first meal many bees are having since before the winter. This is especially important as many honey bees die during this critical time (after they’ve eaten their winter rations but before spring plants fully bloom). Making small changes to your lifestyle can greatly improve the wellbeing of your local honey bees. It is crucial that we all remain consistent in our efforts as the extinction of the honey bee will deeply impact our diverse food systems as well as the prosperity of our entire species. (Look for a full list of honey bee-attracting flowers that you can plant at your home at the bottom of this article).
You can learn more about bees at the PCBA’s signature public outreach event– the Marshfield Fair. Guests can purchase an intricately carved beeswax candle or a few flavored honey sticks, or they can create their own beeswax candle from a multitude of brightly colored waxes, and 5% of sales returns to the PCBA to support all of their valuable work. The Marshfield Fair is a local tradition which has been around for 150 years, and one which the PCBA has been involved with since the beginning. The PCBA spends an immense amount of time and effort preparing for this event, and all the members at the exhibit are volunteering as they feel the preservation of our honey bee is of the utmost importance. This year, the Marshfield Fair will be running from August 18th to the 27th, starting at noon every day. Members of the community are invited to join this local tradition with events and vendors for all ages!
List of 30 Flowers Honeybees Love:
Calendulas or marigolds
Scabious or Cornflowers
Thrift or Sea Pink
Jessica Ann Mandelbaum has been eating her way around New England for the past four years. When Jessica’s not writing about the multi-sensory perception of flavor or force-feeding loved ones her various kitchen creations, she can be found practicing yoga, gardening, reading, hiking, or spending quality time with her dog-daughter.