Copyright 1997, 2003, by Janice D. Green
There used to be plenty of wild bees in the forests. Farmers didn't even have to think about pollination. But today there aren't as many bees. There are fewer forests now than there were fifty years ago. Our grandparents and great grandparents used to keep bee gums on their farms. These were hollowed out logs with beehives inside them. The farmer would "rob" the bees of some of their honey and the bees would keep their crops pollinated.
There are new dangers for bees now that were not a problem years ago. One that has been in the news a lot lately is mites. Mites are very small critters that live on bees much like a flea lives on a dog.
Most beekeepers use medicated plastic strips inside the hives to kill the mites. The bees walk on these strips carrying the medicine on their feet to the larvae growing in the honeycomb. There are other methods of treating the bees for mites though they have not been officially recognized in the United States as a cure for mites. One of these methods of fighting the mites is with tobacco smoke. The beekeeper puts dried tobacco leaves in his smoker as he (or she) works in the beehives. The smoker is used to put smoke into the hive before opening it so the bees won't sting. Not very many beekeepers put much faith in this method. A new method that is being tried involves using essential oils such as peppermint, wintergreen, or eucalyptus oil.
There is another mite called a tracheal mite that infects the tracheal tubes inside the bees that they breath through. This mite is too small to be seen without a microscope. These mites make the bees weak and can kill an entire colony. To kill tracheal mites, the beekeeper stirs an antibiotic powder such as terramycin, into sugar and oil and then puts it inside the bee hive.
A more recent threat to the bees is the hive beetle. This beetle is capable of multiplying rapidly in a hive. It also causes the honey to ferment. Unless a hive is very strong, hive beetles can ultimately cause the hive to die.
Diseases also kill a lot of bees. The most serious is American Foul Brood. If it is caught early it, too, can be treated by stirring antibiotics into feed sugar . If the hive is badly infected it may be better to burn the hive rather than to risk infecting other bees with this worrisome disease. Other diseases include chalk brood, European foul brood, paralysis virus, sacbrood disease, kashmir virus and many others.
Another serious problem for bees is starvation. When the bees can find a lot of nectar and pollen there is not a problem of starvation. But if it stays too cold or too hot or too rainy over a long enough time, the bees can starve to death. If bees have enough honey stored up in their hive and can get to it without freezing, they will not starve. If they don't have enough honey, the beekeeper must feed the bees to keep them alive. This can become very expensive if the winter is very long and cold.
If, in the late fall, a hive is small and weak it is in danger of freezing in the winter. The more bees there are in a hive the warmer they are as, like people, theyhelp to keep each other warm. It takes a lot of food to keep the bees from freezing because the bees must change the food into heat.
Last winter (1995-96) many bees died, especially in the northern states and Canada. The news has put most of the blame on the mites and the long cold winter, but many beekeepers insist that mites are only a part of the problem. They feel that there is another problem that is even greater than mites. This problem is pesticide misuse. This threat to the bees is caused by man himself.
Certain crops are more likely than others to attract a high number of bees. Some of these are cotton, alfalfa, clover, and fruit orchards. If these farmers are careless with their pesticide spraying they can kill thousands of bees in a single day. It is against the law to spray many pesticides when the bees are foraging.
Farmers aren't the only one who misuse pesticides, however. Many towns and communities kill bees when they spray for mosquitoes. If people spray when the bees are flying in the area being sprayed, they are killing bees. If farmers will watch their crops to see when the bees are foraging (gathering food), they could spray at a time when the bees were not there. Bees don't forage when it is very hot, so in hot weather it may be safe to spray in the afternoon. Likewise, bees don't fly at night, so spraying for mosquitoes at night or late in the evening will not kill the bees.
Some poisons kill the bees immediately while they are in the crops. Others poison the pollen that the bees carry back to the hive and store in the honeycombs. Then the bees and larvae die later when they eat the pollen. This can be any time of year, even in the middle of the winter. Often the poison doesn't kill the entire colony, but it makes the colony so weak that mites or cold weather can easily finish killing the hive.
Wild bees don't have as many places to live as they used to have. Once there were more natural forests than there are today. In the south many forests are being cut to make lumber and paper. Clear-cut logging has taken away thousands of acres of forests. Clear-cut logging is when ALL the trees in an area are cut down. If trees are replanted, all too often they are planted with one kind of tree only. In the South pine trees are planted this way. Pine trees offer no nectar and very poor quality pollen for bees. The shade is also too dense for bees in the winter when they need sunshine to help keep them warm. Bees need a variety of trees, especially hardwood trees, which bloom at different times.
Often people who grow trees for lumber or for Christmas trees will use herbicides to kill all other plants growing around the trees. This creates an environment that is even more barren and hostile to the bees. Not only do they not have hardwood trees, but they no longer have the blossoms from wild berries and flowers. Some of the best nectar sources for the bees are blackberries, gallberries, goldenrod, mustard, and other wild plants. Without them the bees will starve. Jerry Cranmer, a beekeeper in southern Georgia, has written a letter about this problem. Click here to read his letter.
Bees aren't the only wildlife that suffer with the legal abuse of herbicides. Many wild animals feed on berries and wild plants. I recall a good friend living in the mountains of North Carolina who was very upset about the decrease in the number of birds in the mountains. It was eerie to him how quiet it was outdoors. His belief was that the Roundup being used extensively around the Christmas tree farms was hurting the wildlife in the area.
Many times trees aren't replaced at all as the land is being cleared to build new homes, shopping centers, schools, and other types of suburban development. Because people are so afraid of bee stings, they panic when they discover a hive near their home. In ignorance they find some way to kill the bees. They don't know how valuable their bees are.
People need to become aware of the importance of bees in our food supply and find ways to protect them. They also need to overcome their fear of bee stings. People need to know that bees usually won't sting unless they feel threatened. When a person swats at a bee that is flying around him, he makes the bee feel afraid. That is usually why a bee stings. Some bees are just curious. It is safer to stand still and let the bee look at you for a minute and fly away. Another thing to do is walk away slowly, don't run. Quick movements are more likely to scare the bee and invite a sting.
The pain medication known as ibuprofen is believed to cause a reaction to bee stings. If a person who gets stung has been taking one of these medications and has a reaction, it would be helpful to inform his doctor of the medication he has been taking.
The risk of occasional bee stings is small in comparison
to massive famine. Protect our bees and protect our planet.
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