These little guys contribute over $24 billion to the U.S. economy, with $15 billion coming from just honeybees. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), about a third of the stuff Americans eat (including apples, blueberries, strawberries, carrots, broccoli, almonds, coffee and more) directly or indirectly benefits from bee production. Globally, bees pollinate 71 of the 100 crops that make up 90% of the world’s food supply.
The fact is, human existence is inextricably tied to that of the birds and the bees, and they are dying in record numbers. Beekeepers have reported hive losses of 30% or more each year since 2006. A common notion within the global scientific and regulatory community is that the declining health of pollinator populations is due to the complex interactions between modern stressors such as:
- habitat loss
- poor diet
- pests, pathogens and viruses
- pesticide exposure
- production management practices (such as long migratory routes to support the pollination services of bees)
- lack of genetic diversity
Reduced pollinator populations pose a real risk to domestic agricultural, ecological and economic health. In recent years, growing concern prompted at least 22 states to enact legislation to address the issue. Broadly, this falls into one of five categories: research; pesticides; habitat protection awareness; and beekeeping. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and USDA also have plans and programs in place to help stem the problem.
Studies confirm that bees (as well as other pollinators, birds and aquatic life) are particularly sensitive to neonicotinoid pesticides (also known as neonics). These chemicals aren’t great for humans, either. They can impair developing nervous systems, cause brain damage in children, affect hormonal balance and cause cell mutations. Even more troubling is that a recent United States Geological Survey (USGS) study found that neonics were widespread in Midwestern streams at levels toxic to aquatic life.
According to a 2014 Friends of the Earth study, over half of the “bee-friendly” plants at large box stores in 18 cities across the U.S. and Canada had levels of neonics high enough to kill bees outright. That can’t be great for you or your family.
We can all play a part to help mitigate the problem. When you consider plants for your home or garden, do your research. Pay attention to what you are buying. Neonics and other pesticides known to be especially harmful to bees have special labels, so be sure to look at them carefully. Read the packaging and follow instructions when using these chemicals. Pests can often be managed without the use of pesticides and the University of California Integrated Pest Management Program offers some great tips on how to do that.
If you must use pesticides, avoid applying them to blooming flowers, on windy days or whenever you see pollinators. Early evening application is best since bees tend to be less active at temperatures below 55°F and from just after sunset to two hours before sunrise. Evening spraying also allows pesticides to dry during the night, reducing drift when pollinators are most likely to be up and about. The EPA has a great infographic on bee-friendly best practices.
Make it a point to be informed and get involved. In the Midwest, the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service provides millions of dollars to farmers and ranchers in Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin for technical and financial assistance to support pollinator management and conservation. Among other initiatives, this program offers guidance and support to provide diverse food sources for bees. It encourages planting alfalfa and clover, rotating grazing so plants are available to pollinators throughout the growing season and planting native, drought-resistant plants that attract pollinators. Earthday.org provides actionable information on ways to help expand such programs into your area, as well as other ways to get involved.
There is a lot of conflicting chatter about the environment and it’s easy to tune it out with the rest of the noise. We hope this Earth Day inspires you to learn more and do more. Accepting the fact that our actions have an impact on the planet is a matter of health, wealth and ultimately our very survival as a species.
Information to support this blog was obtained from the following sources: