To Bee or Not to Bee Ė A Gardening Dilemma

Frank Williams
Adams County Master Gardener

Much has been written and talked about of late regarding the loss of bee colonies in the United States and elsewhere in the world. Since I and other Master Gardeners have received calls about this topic, I thought it would be useful to write a summary article on the subject. It is based upon a variety of readings and discussions.

There are of course many insect pollinators but, as Shelley McNeal, Howard County Master Gardener and bee expert says: "The fuzzy little honeybees are the biggies." They assist in making backyard flowers and fruits bloom but, most importantly , they play an essential role in agriculture. Now, bees are becoming endangered.

Between a quarter to one-half of the bee colonies in the United States have disappeared since the 1990ís. Hives in that decade were hit hard by mites. Since then, the total collapse of hives has occurred by a phenomenon called "Colony Collapse Disorder." No one to date has been able to identify precisely why this occurs. A fungus, parasites, insecticides, bacteria or virus infections are all possible explanations.

Study measures

A Colony Collapse Study Group, composed of agencies from Pennsylvania and other states, testified before the Congressional Committee on Agriculture in March, 2007. They are working diligently to identify potential causal factors, experiment with CCD colonies and those not infected, and determine measures to disrupt the colony collapses and ensure healthy strong future colonies for pollination.

Some Other Problems Bees Face.

Bees also encounter other difficulties including foulbrood, a contagious disease, and nozema, a digestive problem which they contract over long, cold winters when confined to their hives for extended periods. When foulbrood occurs, the hives must be destroyed. Fortunately nozema can be treated with medication served with sugar water. However, good beekeeping practices and careful monitoring can keep lesser threats under control. For the more serious issues, until the problem is identified and a solution found, bees need all the help they can get.

The Situation in Pennsylvania

In our home state of Pennsylvania, the Department of Agriculture has reported that, based upon recent survey information, beekeepers suffering from CCD report they have lost an average of 73% of their hives (ranging from 55% to 100%.)

Those reporting CCD represent a quarter of all colonies in the state. Such losses represent increased costs to both producers and consumers. The cost of pollination has increased by 50%; data for 2007 continues to be collected. In Adams County, the report is mixed to date. There is no doubt that Colony Collapse Disorder has contributed to the problem with bees as have other problems noted earlier. A phone interview with Tom Callahan of the Adams County Nursery produced the following observations:

  1. Bees are trucked in from all over the country so pinpointing the problem geographically is difficult;
  2. Tom, who describes himself as a "hobbyist bee producer," estimates that he and others have lost perhaps 25% or more of their bee colonies in each of the last several years;
  3. Beekeeping is a heavy duty, arduous task so colony loss is a serious problem for those who engage in it for a living.

No Easy Answers

In the June, 2007 edition of Discover magazine, the following is written:

"There is no easy answer to the problem. Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD appears to differ significantly from previous bee maladies in that the bees simply fly away from the hive and never return, leaving behind only an egg-laying queen and a few young workers. Colony losses first seemed to be restricted to migratory beekeepers, merchants who transport hundreds of beehives from state to state, selling pollination services to farmers. Hypotheses proliferated: A brand-new disease is killing the insects. Pesticides are disrupting beesí ability to navigate.

Parasitic mites are weakening them. Mite-killing chemicals, sprayed into the hives, are building up in the wax and eliminating the bees instead. Itís a fungus. Itís a virus. Maybe vibrations in the trucks that transport bees across the country are driving the little buzzers insane. Overwhelming stress is making the bees vulnerable to disease."

The Colony Collapse Disorder working group underscored the importance of trying to breed honey bees more resistant to diseases and the impacts of parasitic mites. Such efforts are clearly needed and time is of the essence.

For the Home Gardener

As Master Gardener and bee expert Shelley McNeal asserts, the home gardener can help in several ways. As an example she suggests that chemical pesticides should be used as a last resort. Use integrated pest management to balance beneficial insects and pests. "If you handpick Japanese beetles from your roses instead of spraying insecticide to control them, the honeybees wonít be killed.

If you have to use pesticides, use horticultural oil, insecticidal soap or Bt, a bacterium that controls such pests as gypsy moths. If you have to use more toxic chemicals, apply them at a time of day when honeybees are not about, such as dawn or dusk. Bees only fly when the sun is shining and they also come out when temperatures are higher than about 50 degrees."

So, we can be of some assistance by utilizing so-called "integrated pest management" methods thus limiting the demise of honeybees in our own flower and vegetable gardens. Letís indeed, as some say, "Have at it!"

Read other articles on bees, wildlife & beneficial insects

Read other gardening articles by Frank Williams