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Posts Tagged ‘A World Without Bees’

The Good:

Having missed my chance to open Michael and Kelle’s hives in Maple Leaf, as well as Matt and Monica’s hives in the Central District, back in February when we had several amazingly flyable days, I waited for the weather to turn and was well rewarded.  Last Monday was incredible with temperatures over the 60 degree mark and the sun out in full force.

Big Leaf Maples are a major, April nectar flow in the Pacific Northwest

Three of the four colonies survived the winter in Seattle, two Italians and one Carniolan.  The Carniolans had consumed just about all of the honey they earned for the winter, and the nest was up into the top of the second box and about the size of a large football.  This was a really great opportunity to see just how much honey a colony needs to survive an average winter with several cold snaps, as well as the opportunity to learn what to expect in terms of colony size in mid-March from the Carniolan race.  They winter in a smaller cluster than the Italians, and although kinda small, the colony showed promise of being up and running at full steam by mid to late April.

The Bad:

Oddly, the strongest hive last year, the Italians at Matt and Monica’s house, perished.  There were a lot of dead bees beneath the hive and a lot of honey was left–at least 70 pounds.  They were also looking vibrant and mildly ornery when we lifted them up to put a new hive stand beneath them in late January.  This colony was huge in the fall… from their beginning as a small package in April they developed into two boxes full of bees and brood and almost two boxes of honey in September.  This was the only colony that offered up any honey to harvest–a beautiful 20 lbs worth in July.  There were some honey placement issues that could have been better on my part in the fall, but there was no sizable cluster of dead bees, there was no queen to be found, and some of the bees showed signs of Dwarfism, which I have learned means they were malnourished in their larval stage.  At some point this colony either became too weak to feed the young larvae or they became too hungry having clustered away from the honey.  Although I may have made some mistakes wintering this colony, this was a surprising loss and may be a result of Colony Collapse Disorder.

With reports arriving on the status of honeybees in the U.S. and the effects of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) this year, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the loss and our ignorance.  Almond pollinators in California are reporting up to 50% losses, and nationwide predictions are that this year could be worse than the 32%, 36%, and 29% losses of the previous three years.  And no one seems to understand the problem yet either.  One recent study from August 2009 found unusually high levels of ribosomal RNA strands in the bees’ stomachs, indicating  “that honey bees in colonies diagnosed with CCD had reduced ability to synthesize new proteins.”  Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus, fungus, mites, viruses, pesticides and stress are still suspects, though as contributing to a cocktail of conditions resulting in collapse.

Updates on CCD:  Washington Post, Miami Herald, Capital Press, Discovery News, Mother Nature Network, The Why Files, and Desdemona Despair.  You can also read my Book Review for A World Without Bees and check out their website.

Recent report and study on pesticides in Honeybee hives as a contributing factor: Plos One (peer reviewed science), The Barefoot Beekeeper

Where government funding for CCD research is going: The Daily Green

RNA study: USDA and recent blogs on CCD by experts in the NY Times: NY Times

and The Beautiful:

Seattle bees busy in mid-March

Opening three hives in mid-March on a beautiful day is definitely a gift.  The Italians at Michael and Kelle’s house had enough bees to fill nearly two boxes, and the brood nest was approaching the box-and-a-half size.  There was so much brood!  Some of the brood was going to emerge soon, there were frames of newly laid eggs, and everything just looked like spring!  All over the city the flowers are blooming and I’m certain there is enough nectar and pollen available that these colonies just might grow quickly enough to make some Maple honey this April.

In all of the hives I lowered the brood boxes to the bottom levels, gave them a little extra honey from the colonies that had perished, and put honey supers on all of them except the Italians that swarmed last year.  I felt they needed a week more to develop before giving them some extra storage space.  In hindsight, I thought it might be a little too early to manipulate the frames with our evenings still getting cold, but it’s a lesson I’ll definitely learn based on observations in the coming weeks.  I feel like there is so much I don’t know about tending bees… I haven’t had the opportunity in the past to experience bustling hives so early in the year… but observing and interacting with all of this sweet life, the lingering scent of honey, wax, and propolis on my hands, the promise of a population explosion to go out and pollinate the world–it’s the ultimate cure for colony loss.

PS I posted a video from Michael and Kelle’s hives’ perspective on the Audio/Visual page.

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It’s funny the way the mind works.  To me, beekeeping is primarily an exercise in observation.  One approaches the hive, observing the comings and goings of the bees, noting the particularly strong hives, questioning the less active ones.  As you come closer, you observe what the bees are doing around the entrance: some are departing, others are fanning, some are coming out to greet those that are returning.  Of those that are returning, some have their pollen baskets full and others I assume have their honey-guts filled with nectar.  One can just tell, by the power of observation alone, that all is well.

As you open the hive, recollections appear of the last time you were here.  Maybe the top box is filled with capped honey, when last time is was just beginning to be filled.  Moving deeper, one can see where the new brood is being laid by the queen, and the old cells, the ones that were young last time you were there, are turning gray and crinkly, with new life ready to emerge.  The weather changes of the last few weeks go through your head, as well as those nearly unconscious observations of what’s blooming in the field.  All of these things begin to take shape in the mind and you try to understand the life of your bees.  How are they?  What’s going on?  How can I be of assistance to make their lives fuller?  Sometimes you get it right, and sometimes you don’t.  But each time you grow a little closer to the bees, and they repay you kindly with stings for your transgressions.

When a hive dies, it is particularly hard.  You aren’t given the opportunity to make amends.  They are gone.  No more looking forward to the dandelion bloom, or a Big Leaf Maple with its drooping blossoms filled with bees.  Those families of bees, their genetic strengths and weaknesses, all of that which wished to develop through future descendants, are gone.  Aristaeus, son of Apollo and the nymph Cyrene, brought the gift of bees down from the mountain for humankind, and I was not prepared for the responsibility.

You can only begin again.  Thankfully, new families of bees will be available soon, and maybe some will take kindly to us.  And maybe I will have learned just enough of helping sustain life to make here their home.

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A World Without Bees, Benjamin, A. and McCallum, B., Pegasus Books, New York, NY, 2009

Even when I have little money, a new hardback book on bees is tempting, especially when it has as extensive a bibliography as A World Without Bees.  To some extent, I had been waiting for a book like this to be written.  A lot of people ask me if the bees are in danger and I say, “Yeah, that’s what I keep hearing,” but to what extent I did not know.  This book elucidated the extent of the horror quite well.

The modularity of pollination networks

But first, let’s cite some examples from the book of how incredible bees are: 1.2 million hives are driven into California each spring to pollinate almonds.  Each acre of orchard is given two hives or about 80,000 bees.  Just estimating, the bees of each hive will have to make an average of 45,000 trips a day just to acquire enough pollen and nectar to raise its young and survive the winter.  30 years ago, an acre of orchard would produce 500 lbs of almonds.  Today, with bees brought in for pollination service, that same acre will produce 3000 lbs of almonds.

So consider now how dependent we are on bees, not just individually but on the scale of our culture and civilization, when around 70% of the food we eat is dependent upon insect pollination, and for our needs, honeybees do it best.  So now consider this statistic: during 2007 and 2008, over one third of all honeybees disappeared.  800,000 losses in 2007, and a million in 2008, all due to what has been called “Colony Collapse Disorder” or CCD, for short.

Varroa Mites

What is causing it?  No one knows.  Let me repeat that; no one knows.  Culprits?  1) The stress of agri-industrial beekeeping, in which bees are shipped from Maine to Florida to California to Montana on the backs of trucks.  Honeybee pests and diseases have been known to spread more rapidly because of this practice, and many if not all migratory beekeepers supplement their diet with sugar-water and substitute pollen to increase colony sizes in late winter.  2) A narrowing gene pool, in which the new colonies created by bee-breeders are drawing from limited stock and diversity to respond to new stresses in the environment.

USDA: Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the US

3) Varroa Mites, new strains of familiar viruses, fungi, beetles, and potentially viruses mutating to cooperate with mites.  And 4) Pesticides, GMOs, and monoculture.  A bee slurps nectar from a flower whose DNA has a fragment of shellfish DNA in it… is that okay?

Unfortunately, all research to date has been inconclusive because scientists can not isolate which problem for bees is causing the major problem for bees.  It’s either a perfect storm of all conditions, or something has changed.  If you don’t read this book, please start paying attention.  This is a really big deal.

Additional reviews:

http://thealternativeview.org/AWorldWithoutBees.html, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/jul/20/scienceandnature

And a commercial beekeepers letter to bee journals:

http://www.biotech-info.net/bee_j_editorial.html

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