For the past decade, U.S. media have carried reports of declining honeybee populations and the impending doom it could mean for food production.
I'd seen depressing stories about "colony collapse disorder," where whole hives of bees inexplicably disappear, so it was with some trepidation that I picked up "Beekeeper's Lament" by Hannah Nordhaus from the library. However, I wanted to know exactly was happening with our fuzzy little friends.
The book opened a window on a whole aspect of agriculture I had no idea existed. It also helped sort out facts from myths, and left me feeling more hopeful than I expected.
For example, popular opinion says "wild" honeybees have gone extinct in North America, for reasons largely unknown. The reality is far more complicated.
For starters, honeybees are not native to North America. Europeans brought domesticated bees to the East Coast around 1620 and they reached the West Coast in the mid-1800s. Arguably, there never has been a wild species.
Bees periodically swarm and leave their hives (most commonly because of overcrowding; some leave to form a new colony). If a beekeeper is present, they lure the bees into a new man-made hive, but sometimes a swarm finds a natural home, such as a hole in a tree, and then may be called "wild" because no beekeeper is actively caring for them. Genetically, though, they are the same strain as domesticated bees.
That's not to say honeybees are not distressed. All genetically related honeybees, whether wild or domestic, are vulnerable to the same diseases, parasites and predators, and there are lots of them. If so-called wild bees have died off and bees with keepers have not, it may be because their human caretakers are intervening to protect them.
For me, the most stunning revelation was how utterly dependent much of U.S. farming is on mobile bee herds. As monoculture farms have evolved (farm areas where huge acreage is devoted to single crops), beekeeping has evolved, too.
Did you know that hundred of thousands of hives are shipped from all over the country every year to central California to pollinate almond orchards? Other crops receive similar treatment.
Beekeepers are willing to move their fragile cargoes around because natural food supplies for honeybees have dwindled. Honeybees need a steady supply of summer pollen to be healthy. Wild meadows are a good source, with mixed plants blooming at different times, but satisfactory wild places have become rare.
Commercial monoculture makes moving bees to food economically viable, since growers will pay for pollination services. If bees stayed in one place, many fewer bees could be sustained, which would result in a lot less food available for humans.
Keeping honeybees alive and healthy is difficult, even under the best conditions. They are subject to viruses, mites, predators and unseasonable weather. Humans have added destruction of habitat, pesticides and herbicides to the list of fatal hazards.
I spoke with local beekeeper Rob Rienstra, of Backyard Bees, to learn about the status of Whatcom County bees. Rob sells his honey at Bellingham Farmers Market. His business focus is honey production, and he does his own honey extraction (removing and purifying the honey from the waxy honeycomb). Most of his bees are in urban backyards around Bellingham, but he also provides pollination services for a local apple orchard and a raspberry farm.
Rob says he's very selective about the kind of commercial crops he lets his bees pollinate. "Some pollen is not as good for bees," he says. Reasons range from the chemicals used, to the quality of nutrients available.
"It's like people combining rice and beans to get all their necessary amino acids," he says. "Some pollens have better combinations of nutrients."
Rob sends some of his strongest hives to California for the almond orchards. There, his bees get better spring weather and more bountiful pollen, and come back stronger and healthier for summer honey production locally.
Rob says he hasn't personally seen a colony collapse event in this area, and doesn't think a Skagit beekeeper friend has seen one, either. The greatest bee loss happens during winter, when bees are dormant. Last summer was cool and wet, not good weather for honeybees, so most of Rob's winter loss was due to Nosema, a bee virus that thrives in cool, damp years.
Overall, Rob says he doesn't think county farmers have problems getting enough bees for adequate pollination, though many bees are shipped from other parts of the state and beyond for local raspberry production.
If you want to support honeybee health, Rob recommends using "serious caution" before using pesticides or herbicides, especially those intended for ants or wasps. Many have unintended consequences for honeybees. Also, Rob wants people to know that honeybees are gentle.
"Honeybees are really, really safe to be around unless you are known to be allergic," he says. "Unless you step on a bee or kick its hive, you're very unlikely to be stung by a bee."
To ensure quality honey, Rob says "Buying closer to home is a better bet."
I couldn't agree more. The Los Angeles Times reported last November that "A torrent of illegal Chinese honey labeled in India (to skirt American trade restrictions) is slipping into the U.S. potentially laden with untraceable antibiotics and heavy metals."
Not on my family's table, thank you!