No need to panic yet, but you may have heard the buzz that honeybees have been disappearing from the Earth.
This is a problem for a variety of reasons. For starters, we have a lot of crops that depend on honeybees. The United States alone has 130 crops that are dependent on honey bees for pollination, including carrots, onions, squash, blueberries, apples and almonds. Honey bees are basically in charge of seeing that $15 billion in food crops are nutritious and edible and able to go to the grocery store. Or put another way, the honey bee is given credit for 85% of the pollination necessary to supply about one-third of the nation's food supply.
Nobody really knows the cause, and lately it's suspected that it's a variety of causes, but there are the current crop of suspects.
The Varroa mite: They're parasites that only Dracula could love. They attach to adult honeybees and feed on their blood. They're just doing what they're supposed to do, but unfortunately they're doing it in an area where they shouldn't be. Relegated to Asia for thousands if not millions of years, they started spreading around the world in the 1960s and attacking honey bee colonies. They came to America in 1987 and have been systematically destroy honeybee colonies ever since.
Pesticides: Gee, what a shock. Pesticides that we spray on our lawns to get rid of the annoying bugs also gets rid of the helpful ones.
Viruses: Last year, it was reported that the honeybee problem could be due to the Israeli acute paralysis virus. It was identified in Israel, but it actually began with Australian bee farmers. Australian bee farmers started sending their bees to other countries, presumably because they were dying off thanks to the varroa mite and pesticides, and this virus appears in American hives in 2004. It kills the worker bees that go off in search of pollen. There's another virus out three called nosema ceranae, which is not helping the honey bees.
So what can you do? Maybe not much, but here a few thoughts if you're concerned about someday spending $5 for an apple or simply want to give Jerry Seinfeld a reason to film The Bee II.
Become a professional beekeeper. This is the most "out there" and radical of the bunch. Obviously, if you know nothing about bees, I'm not suggesting this. I can picture what would happen if I tried this, and it wouldn't be pretty. My daydream ends with me running down the street, chased by a swarm of bees. But if you do know something about bees, the need for commercial beekeepers isn't going to go away any time soon, if ever. Beekeepers these days literally have mobile communities, taking their hives to farmers around the country, since we no longer have the wild supply of honey bees that will naturally pollinate crops.
Plant a pollinator garden. This, and the next two suggestions, comes from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It suggests you choose plants that flower at different times of the year to provide nectar and pollen sources throughout the spring, summer and fall. And plant in clumps, rather than in single plants, to attract more bees. Other ideas: lots of different flowers with a variety of colors and shapes, and native plants, which will bring more native honey bees.
Create a bee nesting stock. I know this is a hard sell. Who wants a hive of honey bees living in your yard? Still, if you have a large yard or can spare the room, lots of bees like to nest in wood. If you drill holes in blocks of preservative-free wood, that might wind up becoming a honeybee hive. Or if you have a dead tree and do nothing with it, nature may take its course -- and bees or not, something -- woodpeckers, for instance -- are sure to enjoy it.
Avoid or limit your pesticides. Especially around flowers.
Geoff Williams is a business journalist, primarily for Entrepreneur.com, and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
How you can save the honey bees