Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Save the honeybees!

Seems like every day we are confronted to save something -- polar bears, our schools, your sanity : ) But there is a lowly yet vitally important member of our food chain that is in great danger for unseen reasons right now -- and if we don’t save it, our food supply will collapse.

The honeybee.

Colony collapse disorder, or CCD, has killed off nearly one-third of the honeybee population in the United States. Honeybees don’t just make delicious honey for your afternoon tea; the busy buzzing guys are responsible for pollinating a large portion of important crops, such as almonds, apples, pears, berries and other vine crops.

The hives are not littered with little bee carcasses. Instead, the bees merely disappear. Scientists say the bees become disoriented and fail to return to the hive, but are not sure why - although there is a mind-boggling array of theories.

Everything ranging from infection to cell phone interference has been blamed for CCD, but scientists are focusing on the three most likely suspects: a virus, a fungus or a pesticide. They know that something is weakening the immune systems of the bees, most likely multiple microorganisms they have found in collapsing hives that suppress the immune systems of humans with AIDS or cancer.

Chemicals are another likely source, particularly a pesticide that has been banned in France due to concerns it was causing colony collapse, but is still in use here in the US.

According to an April 24, 2007 article in the New York Times:
“In the late 1990s, French beekeepers reported large losses of their bees and complained about the use of imidacloprid, sold under the brand name Gaucho. The chemical, while not killing the bees outright, was causing them to be disoriented and stay away from their hives, leading them to die of exposure to the cold, French researchers later found. The beekeepers labeled the syndrome ‘mad bee disease.’”

But more likely the issue is being cause by a combination of factors, including pesticides, reemerging infectious bee diseases such as Israeli acute paralysis virus, and stress from transporting bees back and forth across the country to pollinate crops.

But for now, the problem is still getting worse. Ice cream maker Haagen-Daz, who depends on the bees for 40 per cent of their flavors, has donated $250,000 to Pennsylvania State University and the University of California to fund CCD research. They have also created a new flavor, Vanilla Honey Bee, to raise awareness on the issue and will use funds from the profits of the flavor to further aid research. Check out their site specifically dedicated to this cause: Help the Honeybees.

How can you help at home? Lots of ways. First, try planting some honeybee-attracting plants in your backyard to keep native populations strong. Bees like bright and/or strongly scented plants like lavender, glory bushes, jasmine, rosemary, coreopsis, violets, thyme, wisteria, bluebells, trumpet vine, cone flowers, cosmos and sunflowers. Support your local beekeepers by buying only local honey and hive products like beeswax candles -- I buy honey gathered from hives the next town over right in my large box grocery store! Many beekeepers are being driven to financial ruin over this problem, and your money will go to helping keep your neighbors in business.

And if you see honeybees in your yard, don’t spray them or call an exterminator. (Honeybees are the smaller fuzzy ones - the large fuzzy ones are bumble bees.) They are peaceful creatures who only attack if they feel their babies or hive is being threatened. If you see a large hive, your best bet is to call your local beekeeper and see what she recommends.