My 13-year old daughter recently gave a speech at her Speech Club on the plight of bees in our world. Not only was I impressed by the quality of her speech (she "performed" it for me at home) but the weighty import of her content struck me. I thought I'd share it with you.
Some of you may have heard that the honey bees have been disappearing. Maybe you’ve heard about it in detail or maybe just in passing. Well, no matter how you’ve heard about it, it’s true. The honey bees are disappearing, and at an alarming rate. And it’s not just in the US, it’s happening all over the world. Today, I will give you some history on the disappearance of the honeybees, explain a couple of the reasons for their disappearance, tell you why the honey bees’ disappearance is a problem, and what the future could possibly look like if the honey bees disappear for good.
From 1972 to 2006, there was a dramatic reduction in the number of feral honeybees in the U.S. They are now almost absent, and there is a significant, though gradual, decline in the number of colonies maintained by beekeepers. From 2006 to 2008, the number of colonies that were lost rose. In the winter of 2006 to 2007, beekeepers in the US lost approximately 32% percent of their honey bees. In the winter of 2007 to 2008, they lost approximately 36%. However, in 2008 to 2009, they only lost 29%. Now, this isn’t just happening in the United States, it’s around the globe. Beekeepers have seen similar disappearances in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. It really is a problem everywhere.
Albert Einstein once said, “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the earth, then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.” While I’m not sure it would be quite that drastic, the absence of the bees would most definitely take its toll. About one third of the human diet comes from insect-pollinated plants, and honeybees are responsible for about 80 percent of that pollination, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. To give you an idea of what would happen if honeybees were to disappear, here’s a partial list of the foods they pollinate.
Citrus- (oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit, tangerines, etc.)
Legume seeds-(beans, peas, lentils)
You might have noticed that list includes a lot of things we enjoy every day. And not just the things we enjoy, but that animals enjoy too. Like cows. They eat alfalfa, which is pollinated by honeybees. Ultimately, if the honeybees completely disappear, we could lose many sources of protein and fruits and vegetables, possibly ending up eating nothing but grains and water. Unless another pollinator, such as another insect, bird, or bat came along, we would have to manually pollinate a lot of the foods we eat. Manual pollination is a tedious and tiresome job, and nowhere near as efficient as pollination by honeybees.
Chinese pear farmer Cao Xing Yuan, who was interviewed for the US documentary “Silence of the Bees”, knows just how tough manual pollination is. Ever since the bees in his region were wiped out by pesticides 20 years ago, he and his neighbors have had to scrub pollen from the pear trees, dry it by hand, and then carefully dust it onto each pear blossom. It is a slow, laborious task, and much less efficient than employing honeybees, whose colonies visit up to 3 million blossoms per day. Life without bees is not a pleasant thought, but it is a plausible one. It would be better for everyone, bees included, if we could find ways to stop them from disappearing.
One of the bigger problems the honeybees are facing is starvation. The Apiary Inspectors of America did a survey of the losses of honeybee colonies in the United States and found that 32% percent of these losses were attributed to starvation. This could mean that the beekeepers didn’t leave enough resources for the bees over the winter, or the cold weather affected the bees, and they ate their food prematurely, not leaving enough to last them the winter. Beekeepers can purchase sugar syrups to supplement feedings, but a lot of the beekeepers didn’t have the money to do that. They crossed their fingers and some of them won, and some of them lost. Lost their bees, that is.
The other cause for starvation is contaminated pollen. Contaminated pollen stored in hives can end up causing bees to get sick and die. Honeybees collect pollen for vitamins, minerals, and protein. They don’t eat it right away, they add their own bacteria, fungi, and yeast to it, and leave it to ferment in hive cells until it makes “bee bread”. If honeybees collect pollen from a flower that was treated with pesticides and herbicides, it messes up the balance of the bacteria, fungi, and yeast. When the honeybees try to make ‘bee bread’ using contaminated pollen, the fermentation process doesn’t work, and it then interferes with the honeybees’ health by limiting their nutrition.
Another thing that could be hurting the honeybees is really, the bee industry. Honey isn’t a moneymaker anymore, because we import so much of our honey from third-world countries, so most of the money that beekeepers make is made from pollinating the almond crop in California. Bees are imported from the other states because California’s foothill, coastal, mountain, and desert areas can support only about a half million colonies on a year-round basis. Because of this, beginning in late January, beekeepers move in and place about 1 million honeybee colonies to pollinate California’s 500 acres of almonds. Bees are imported from all over the country, to pollinate one kind of flower. This isn’t good for the bees. Bees are meant to gather lots of different pollens from separate places. And they’re not used to being trucked across the country. If you add in the stresses of herbicides and pesticides and a lack of food, these bees are going to suffer!
If any of you are at all interested in this subject, I would very much encourage you to read about it. It’s really interesting, and there’s a lot that I wasn’t able to mention. If I were to share everything I wanted to do with this subject, this speech would be way too long for speech club. The honeybees’ disappearance is a fascinating and important part of our lives, and the more people who know about it, the more people who could maybe help to save them. Because if we want the honeybees to survive, we have to be aware of the problems they face, and try to take care of the bees’ needs.
What struck me the most after I listened and then read her speech was the opportunity this kind of learning presents to your cause. If my teenager daughter can write this simple report, share it with friends about the importance of bees, what could an army of teenagers accomplish for your organization? In other words, if you want to get real grassroots involvement, attention, and discussion going -- get some kids to write about it.
-- David Kinard, PCM