In the Garden:
Honeybee colonies are dying off due to a mysterious ailment dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder.
Honeybees in Peril
Honeybees are in trouble. Starting last fall, commercial beekeepers nationwide began reporting alarming losses in their colonies. Worker bees have been abandoning hives in huge numbers and presumably dying outside the hive. The cause of this very unusual behavior has yet to be determined. For now, scientists have dubbed it Colony Collapse Disorder, noting that the problem may be caused by a disease organism, a parasite, environmental stress, or a combination of these. Some large-scale beekeepers have lost 80 percent of their hives.
Honeybee, King of the Pollinators
Although not native to North America, the European honeybee, Apis mellifera, is without question the king of pollinators when it comes to commercial agriculture. As crop fields and orchards have increased in size, farmers have become increasingly dependent on beekeepers that bring hives when the crops are in bloom, and then move them to the next field and next crop.
For example, it takes about 1.4 million colonies of honeybees to pollinate 550,000 acres of almond trees in California. With a colony consisting of a conservative 20,000 bees, that's 28 billion honeybees. Think about that next time you bite into an Almond Joy.
In the past, when fields were smaller and surrounded by wild land, native pollinators were able to perform some of the task. Now, wild pollinator populations are dwindling, in part due to habitat destruction and pesticide use, and many farmers rely solely on honeybees. These creatures are ideal pollinators because:
- They are relatively docile.
- They are highly social and live in colonies, and these colonies can be moved from field to field.
- They are generalists (they'll pollinate a variety of crops).
- They are dedicated foragers (they tend to stick to one type of flower at a time, facilitating pollination of that species).
It's always risky to rely on a single species to fulfill a need. Consider the Irish potato famine in the mid-1800s, when hundreds of thousands of people died of starvation due to a devastating disease of potatoes. Our dependence on honeybees may be as risky.
In the Home Garden
Hobby beekeepers and home gardeners may not be directly affected by Colony Collapse Disorder; so far it's confined to large-scale operations. However, if it gets as bad as some fear, prices of bee-dependent crops could soar. More importantly, it underscores the need to protect habitats and encourage both honeybees and native pollinators in our home landscapes.
During the upcoming gardening season, take steps to encourage native pollinators and protect visiting honeybees. Avoid spraying pesticides, especially when plants are in bloom. Set aside a corner of your garden for pollinator-friendly plants, including herbs such as dill and fennel; perennials such as phlox, black-eyed Susans, and coreopsis; and annual flowers such as sunflowers, zinnias, and cosmos. If we can all take steps to help the pollinators, we may be able to help offset some of the decline in both native pollinators and honeybee colonies.
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