Tuesday, July 10, 2007

We should be listening to the bees

Lately there's been a big buzz about honeybees dying off. They call it Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD. One day the beekeeper sets up a hive with a thriving colony the next day the hive is empty except for the Queen and her brood. All the worker bees that went off looking for pollen and nectar are gone, never to return. Nobody knows why it is happening. Perhaps it's a new disease, or maybe a combination of diseases, or maybe too much pesticides or herbicides. Some have even argued that cell phones are the culprit because they could interfere with the bee's homing system.

There are twenty thousand species of bees – all of which contribute to the pollination of flowering plants. Domesticated honey bees are derived from only seven of those species. Honey bees have become indespensible for pollinating the crops from large farms and orchards. That's because along with urbanization, the huge fields of single crops have displaced the habitat of wild bees.

Bumble bees, which have longer tongues and can carry bigger payloads, are better pollinators than honey bees but they have much smaller colonies made up of from ten to one hundred bees.

Honeybee colonies, with up to forty thousand bees in a single hive, can more than make up for their less efficient pollinating technique via sheer numbers. Beekeepers truck their bees across North America in order to pollinate various important crops: cotton, apples, soybeans, avocados, and especially almonds. Some say that the mysterious CCD is due to the fact that the bees are deprived of their honey and fed a solution of corn syrup. Or maybe its the stress of being trucked all over the place. One thing for sure is that honeybees on organic farms are in much better shape with few recorded cases of CCD.

Bumblebees are the generalists of the bee world. The new bumblebee queen spends the winter hibernating. When she wakes up in the spring she has to select and furnish a nest site, lay eggs and brood and forage for nectar and pollen all by herself until her first brood of workers matures. Honeybees have much stricter caste systems where the queen is always surrounded by a huge retinue of workers.

A bumblebee can fly at much lower temperatures than honeybees because the bumblebee is “homeothermic” - meaning they can warm themselves up by shivering or firing up their flight muscles. That's why you'll always see bumblebees out earlier in the spring than honeybees.

Bumblebees, also called “humblebees”, are more adaptive than honeybees. They originated in the arctic where the flowering season is short but the days are long. They survive in colder climates; they forage on a larger variety of flowers. Their smaller colonies mean that they can live in a greater variety of nesting sites. Here in Prince Rupert, where there are no honeybees, bumblebees do a great job of pollinating my raspberries and blackberries.

Like the canary in the coal mine, if domestic honeybees are in trouble it could be a sign that industrial agriculture with its excessive use of herbicides and pesticides and its oversimplified system of monoculture is in trouble also. We could do well to heed that message ourselves.

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