Last week the winter-loving boy and I spent some time doing yard cleanup, in hopeful anticipation of some ski-worthy snow. We try to get the lawn mowers, rakes and garden implements into the shed before we need to pull out our collection of snow shovels and cross-country skis.
We couldn’t help noticing the old beehives by the shed are listing to one side and showing signs of dry rot.
They’ve been empty a long time.
When my husband first moved up north from Florida, he brought his expertise as a beekeeper with him. Happy to leave his Southern worries about Africanized bees behind, he quickly set up bee yards in farm fields in the region, fencing off small corners of borrowed fields for a handful of honeybee hives and paying the farmers rent every fall with 5-pound jars of honey.
Back then it was hard to keep up with the growing hives, which needed to be divided when they got too crowded. We’d move frames of honeycomb filled with new larva and covered with worker bees from one hive to put into a new one, with a new queen we bought from a beekeeper who raised hardy stock. The new hive would have to be moved at least two miles away, to another field, or the bees would return to their old hive.
Sometimes hives grew so fast we’d miss our chance and they’d divide themselves, raising a new queen who would be ready to hatch out just after the old queen left with most of her workers in a swarm, taking off to find a new home.
Back then we also got calls a few times a year to capture swarms. Someone would see a big, buzzing ball of bees hanging on a tree branch in their backyard and call us, and out we’d go with an empty hive to put them in so we could move them to a field. Swarms were so common we’d leave an empty hive in our own yard and often land a wild hive or a swarm in it.
No more. Beekeeping has become increasingly difficult over the past 15 or 20 years as diseases, parasites and mystery conditions wipe out honeybee colonies.
For anyone who likes to eat, this is bad news. Bees are responsible for pollinating all manner of plants, including all your favorite fruits, nuts and vegetables. and meat eaters are in danger too, since bees pollinate the clover, alfalfa and other grains that cattle eat.
The honeybee parasites — varoa mites and tracheal mites — are what made us stop keeping bees. after the last of our hives died, we just decided to wait, hoping that a resistant strain of bees would emerge.
Instead, a new problem emerged: colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon of unknown cause that is killing off worker bees. The bee problems have resulted in a 50 percent decrease in cultivated beehives in the country and nearly a total destruction of wild honeybees.
Beekeepers I know now keep just a few hives, often need to use pesticides to keep the mites at bay and still have to buy new bees every few years as their hives die off.
And despite dozens of studies on honeybees, there’s no clear answer on what causes colony collapse disorder. Among the suspects are parasites, fungi, agricultural pesticides, genetically modified crops, polluted water, stress. some studies suggest the square hive is responsible; some people are convinced of a conspiracy by the companies that patent genetically engineered crops to wipe out bees. some blame climate change, some poor air quality.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture admits to being baffled by the cause and in a 2010 report suggested it might be a combination of many factors, including parasites and pesticides. “The main symptom of CCD is simply no or a low number of adult honey bees present but with a live queen and no dead honeybees in the hive. often there is still honey in the hive, and immature bees (brood) are present,” according to the USDA. So the bees have just left?
There are other pollinators besides honeybees, but honeybees have always been the most prolific and the most important for food production. but if honeybees continue to decline, we’re going to have to promote our other pollinators — solitary bees, orchard and sweat bees, bumblebees, hummingbirds, moths and other insects.
We can also do as much as we can to support the health of the honeybees we have, by planting flowers that provide nectar for the bees. The USDA has some suggestions, including not using “pesticides indiscriminately, especially not . . . at midday when honey bees are most likely to be out foraging for nectar. in addition, you can plant and encourage the planting of good nectar sources such as red clover, foxglove, bee balm, and joe-pye weed.”
You’ll need to do a little homework on what flowers are best for honeybees — more homework than the USDA did. Because while bumblebees love bee balm, the nectar is too deep within the trumpetlike petals for honeybees to get to. Same for red clover — honeybees prefer white clover and yellow clover.
If you’re a gardener studying your seed catalogs in the coming weeks, consider planting something for the bees. Flower borders around your vegetable gardens are beautiful and support the bees, who in turn support your vegetable crops. Honeybees are particularly fond of yellow, including wild mustard, and prefer shallow, simple flowers like wild roses and apple blossoms. there are a lot of herbs whose flowers attract honeybees, including thyme, mint, lavender, oregano, sage, coriander and dill. Maybe it’s time to plant an herb/bee garden.
Keeping a fresh water supply helps the bees, too, so consider adding a bird bath to your holiday wish list.
Which brings me right back to winter cleanup. I’d better get the top of my birdbath into the shed before it freezes, so it will be ready in the spring for the birds and the bees.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
Have a question or a topic you’d like addressed on Greenpoint? Email email@example.com.
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