The important life of bees
By Debra Neutkens, White Bear Press
July 19, 2011
A University of Minnesota bee expert is sounding an alarm. Nature’s pollinators are in decline.
Consider it a wake-up call to a breakfast without fruit, nuts or milk, says entomologist Marla Spivak.
Ever since she was a young girl working for a commercial beekeeper, honeybees have been Spivak’s life and passion. Without them, there would be no seeds to plant our gardens.
In fact, one-third of the food we eat is dependent on bees, Spivak says. Fruit and vegetable production, as well as beef and dairy would drop significantly. Bees, you see, pollinate the alfalfa that fuels a dairy cow. We could kiss our colorful diet goodbye.
The Minnesota scientist and winner of a MacArthur genius grant for bee research spoke about the tiny pollinator’s plight during a St. Croix Valley Foundation luncheon in Stillwater.
According to Spivak, the decline of bees can be traced to post-WWII when agricultural practices turned to monocultures of crops.
Clover, a critical feedstuff for bees, was left out of corn and soybean rotations in vast Midwestern fields and replaced with synthetic fertilizers. Use of insecticides, pesticides and fungicides became widespread, which are detrimental to bees. Corn by the way is wind pollinated and soybeans self pollinate, so no need for bees.
In 2006, there was a massive die-off, Spivak said. Up to 90 percent of colonies were killed in one season. “It was unheard of. What caused it? A confluence of factors including habitat loss, pesticides and disease.”
Colonies that fail to thrive often have weakened immune systems because they are starving. Pollen and nectar from plants provide the protein and carbohydrates bees need to survive and there simply aren’t enough diverse plants to sustain them.
“Just like people, bees need diverse sources of protein,” Spivak explained.
“From a bee’s eye, much of the landscape is a virtual desert,” added the entomologist. “Our lawns and golf courses provide nothing to feed on. Hybrid annuals are not attractive to bees; roses are no longer attractive to bees. We need to provide pastures of native flowers for bees.”
Of 4,000 species of bees native to North America, at least two are close to extinction. All play a role in pollination.
Unfortunately that pollen load a bee carries often contains a deadly cocktail of insecticides.
“One class in particular is being used all over the country,” Spivak said. “Called neonicotinoids, or nicotine-like, this systemic pesticide is poisoning bees that forage on treated plants. Ash trees for example, are being injected with huge concentrations of the product to combat emerald ash borer. Basswood trees are being treated for beetles. Almost every nursery treats trees before they’re sold.
“Bees don’t have a chance,” she continued. “They are expected to perform in an increasingly inhospitable world.”
Minnesota is known for its distinctive basswood honey and Grant beekeeper Jerry Linser sells it every Friday at the White Bear Lake farmers market. He’s been raising bees since 1978 and calls Spivak the hobbyist’s “go-to lady.”He keeps up to 20 colonies per year of 40,000 bees. Linser loans them out to vegetable growers and blueberry farmers in addition to keeping hives at his house.
“Everyone is having trouble keeping populations going,” Linser said. “Bees weakened by a lack of forgeable plants become more susceptible to viruses. It’s a serious problem. Without bee pollination, you can take a third of our food away.”
Linser is a daily consumer of honey; he enters it in the State Fair, and even uses it on burns and chigger bites. “It has pharmaceutical qualities. People who have allergies find eating honey made in close proximity to where they live provides some immunity.”
The honey Linser sells at farmers markets is only a byproduct of what bees do. “Their main function is to pollinate,” he said. “I don’t know the value of pollination, but it’s huge. If we wipe out that possibility, we wipe out our food supply.”
The bee bummer story might be reversed by new public policies coming down the pipeline. Farm policy has changed because bees are dying, Spivak noted. One place leading the change is Xerces Society, which is working to improve forage sources for bees. Linser added that U.S. Department of Agriculture is combining grant money with road projects. States that expect support for highways must also replant road edges with native plants for pollinators, he said.
So what can we do?
“Plant flowers that bees like,” Spivak said. “Ladybird Johnson had it right. Plant flowers everywhere. Go to native plant nurseries and buy flowers that attract bees.”
Basic habitat guidelines to support these insects encourage planting three different species that bloom at any given time during the growing season. A few varieties of flowers that appeal to bees are silky and smooth aster, purple coneflower, maximilian sunflower and wild bergamot. Bees like creeping charlie in lawns, dandelions, salvia and sunflowers in fall.
Avoid pesticide treatment around blooming plants or areas where bees are nesting, stressed the entomologist. Look at the label or ask a nursery if it’s harmful to bees. Spray in the evening when bees are less active. Better yet, eliminate the use of pesticides entirely.
Native plant sources:
Several books by Stillwater garden writer Lynn Steiner provide tips on native landscapes attractive to bees. Available on Amazon.com, look for “Landscaping with Native plants of Minnesota” and “Prairie Style Gardens.”
Several area nurseries that specialize in native plants include Landscape Alternatives in Shafer (www.landscapealternatives.com) and Prairie Restorations in Scandia (www.prairieresto.com). St. Paul Farmers Market vendor The Vagary is another source.
The Xerces Society also advocates for bees and is a leader in national policy change. See xerces.org.