The Buzz To Save The Bees
By Kristi Kates | April 8, 2017
Like so many people in northern Michigan, Anne Morningstar and her husband Brian Bates were drawn Up North for the lifestyle, abundant fresh water and affordable land to start their homestead. Morningstar, who has a bachelor of fine arts degree, joined Bates, who has a bachelor’s in geography with a focus in sustainable agriculture, when he drove from Pennsylvania to Petoskey with three hives in the back of his Volkswagen Jetta to start Bear Creek Organic Farm. “And the rest is history,” Morningstar said of Petoskey’s first 100 percent certified organic farm.
Morningstar and Bates had been making plans for the farm for years, but what Morningstar didn’t expect was that one of the most important and compelling components of farm life would be working with the bees, an experience she called “amazing.”
“Until moving to Petoskey in the summer of 2012, I had never even thought about beekeeping,” Morningstar said. “But from the moment I put on a suit and had Brian introduce me to my first hive, I was hooked. The low buzz feels therapeutic and allows me to take in my surroundings, and the bees’ artistry in construction and culinary works is downright awe inspiring.” Now Morningstar is an expert beekeeper, having worked with the industrious insects for the past five years; she also delivers lectures on beekeeping and bee preservation.
Bee communities are fascinating. Each hive typically includes one queen (the mother of most of the bees in the hive), a few hundred males and around 20,000 females (worker bees). A single hive can house as many as 80,000 honeybees. The bees each have roles, from the queen herself to nurse bees who feed the larvae to bee cooks who prepare “bee bread” for their hivemates to housekeeper bees who keep the hive clean and organized to guard bees who make sure no intruders enter the hive. Worker bees live out their lives as foragers, finding as much food as possible until their wings give out. Incredibly, bees can see food (pollen) and water (nectar) from as far as three miles away. The end result: a bustling bee community and a hive full of honey. “Together, a colony of honeybees will live a truly democratic lifestyle and work nonstop until their final breath,” Morningstar said.
Bee life sounds organized and ideal, but lately, signs reveal trouble in paradise. Morningstar is one of many individuals concerned about the current status of bees as an imperiled species. This past March, for the first time ever in the United States, a bumblebee species (Bombus affinis, the rusty patched bumblebee) was declared endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; this bumblebee’s population has plummeted by nearly 90 percent over the past 20 years.
In addition, Arizona’s Center of Biological Diversity, a national nonprofit that utilizes science, law and creative media to protect endangered species, just released a report concluding that of the 1,437 native bee species for which there is sufficient data, over half are in decline. Kelsey Kopec, a native pollinator researcher at the center and author of the report, said in a statement, “The evidence is overwhelming that hundreds of the native bees we depend on for ecosystem stability are spiraling toward extinction. It’s a quiet but staggering crisis unfolding right under our noses.” The report concluded that the declines are caused primarily by habitat loss, heavy pesticide use, climate change and urbanization.
Morningstar agrees – for the most part. “Bees have definitely been in the news,” she said. “They are generally credited with pollinating at least one in every three bites of food we consume.” But Morningstar emphasizes that all the biggest dangers to today’s bee population boil down to humans. For starters, a parasitic mite (the varroa) wreaking havoc on honeybee colonies across the nation was brought to the U.S. from Asia via humans transporting goods. She agrees that pesticides are a problem but wants to make sure we don’t use them as a convenient excuse to allow bee populations to continue to plummet.
David Ford, an insurance agent and amateur beekeeper from Traverse City, has been keeping a hive for the past four years. A week ago, with spring just around the corner, he checked on his hive and found that all his bees were dead. He’s convinced it’s something in the bees’ food chain; he’s just not sure what that might be. “Beekeepers are experiencing so much hive collapse lately,” Ford said. “You’ll have a healthy hive of 50,000–80,000 bees throughout the summer and into the fall; they’ll overwinter together as a colony, primarily staying in the hive and consuming honey, which is normal. But then in the spring, you’ll open up the hive and they’re all dead. It’s very disheartening.”
If current trends continue, Ford added, beekeepers could lose 30–50 percent of their hives each winter. “That’s way too close to the tipping point,” he said. Ford’s main concern is the fact that while mites and pesticides are two of the main suspects, a definitive solution has yet to be found.
Think Like a Bee
“It’s easy to say, “The chemical companies did it – make them stop,” Morningstar said. “But in reality, while pesticides have taken a toll, massive habitat loss is threatening all pollinators from bees to butterflies to bats. By this, I mean a fascinating cultural obsession with ‘clean’ landscapes, primarily mowing. Mowing the medians on highways, the shoulders of the road, the front lawn, the golf course, the edges of farm fields, the list goes on.”
These field edges and landscapes are the ideal place for many critical wildflowers to pop up – wildflowers that bees need. “We’ve lost millions of acres to mowing and clearing over the last 20–30 years, and the effects are finally manifesting themselves in pollinator habitat decline,” Morningstar explained. “We tell people to try looking at the landscape through the eyes of a pollinator. Can you pollinate cut grass? Does a golf course look lush when you need to bring home pollen and nectar to feed your insect family? Is an orchard a good place to build a home if you only have fresh flowers a couple weeks of the year? This is the critical piece that is so often missing from the conversation surrounding threats to the bee population – the systematic removal of flowers from the landscape.”
Kirk Jones, the owner of Sleeping Bear Farms in Beulah, is down south this time of year at Sleeping Bear’s second farm in the Florida Panhandle. Jones and his wife Sharon spend part of the winter there, raising new queen bees to bring back north to replenish the farm’s bee stock. He said he believes both bees and beekeepers have been pretty resilient so far but that there’s been more and more pressure to breed bees that are resistant to the mites and diseases. “We try to pick bees to breed who are good survivors,” Jones said. “It’s tough to pinpoint exactly what happens in a hive collapse. Sometimes there’s a perfect storm of mites, disease, fungal issues – it’s definitely challenging.”
Honeybees, Morningstar noted, are getting a lot of current attention because they are the only bees that humans keep as livestock, but much of the critical pollination work is actually done by native bees that have done this work for millennia. “Honeybees are relatively new to our continent and are generally used in large–scale commercial agriculture,” Morningstar explained. “Tons of plants need pollination to develop fruit, but crops such as cherries, apples and pumpkins are typically planted in such massive orchards or fields that all the native habitat for native bees is removed.”
Honeybees are the easiest bees to import to a field for the flowering period and then to move to the next field. While this works for the honeybees that have these particular “jobs,” the native bees are left with what’s essentially a pollen desert. For instance, 10,000 acres of pumpkins might be just fine going through their growth cycle with honeybees in attendance, but that means 10,000 acres of indigenous plants have been removed to make room for the pumpkins, thereby removing much of the native bees’ usual food source – other flowers.
Morningstar suggests that the effects of altering the complex, symbiotic relationship between bees and the environment are less problematic to the Earth than to the humans who are interfering with that process. “The most important point about why we need to save the bees isn’t that the bees need saving,” she said. “We are the ones who need their help. Frankly, the planet will be fine – it was here for millions of years before humans. It’s our existence on the planet that is threatened. Bees and all pollinators provide what we call ‘ecosystem services’ that are essential to survival and that, if lost, would need to be replaced. Pollination is one of these; it’s incredibly tedious for humans to do by hand.”
Ford added that keeping bees also allows us to better appreciate and think about what nature has to offer. In spite of the fact that he’s lost his entire hive, he’s going to try again later this year. “It’s a simple thing to do, and it’s interesting to watch them, going in and out of the hive loaded with pollen. It’s like watching airplanes land on aircraft carriers. You look at these tiny creatures of God and think, ‘How do these bees know what to do?’” he said. “Plus, I’ve been a gardener my entire life, and my garden gets pollinated very well because I keep bees.”
Morningstar concluded, “We should save and protect all pollinators because it lets them focus on what they're good at and saves us from having to do it all ourselves.” She added, “A honeybee’s dedication to work and family is something we should all aspire to.”
PHOTO CREDIT: ANNE MORNINGSTAR