Where Have All the Bees Gone?

Kay Hinkle
Adams County Master Gardener

Just what do you know about the honeybee? Can you tell a honeybee from a wasp or a hornet? Is this little guy simply a summertime threat when gardening because of the potential for a sting? Does the honeybee equate to honey and therefore valued to sweeten your cup of morning tea? While all of these perspectives are real, there is a real underlying value in these little guys that we have often underestimated for years until now when their numbers are waning.

First, to clarify some honeybee facts to get us grounded in their lifestyles and what motivates them. You may be interested to know that bees are vegetarians. They forage pollen and nectar from flowers up to 3 miles from their hive. They bring food back to that hive to feed themselves and others in the beehive.

Honeybees are not out to sting you. Stay still if a bee is around you or lands on you. Bees land and sniff you out. They can smell the fear which could trigger them to sting. Stay away from the opening of a hive or the pathway to a concentration of flowers. If you don’t get in their way, they won’t be in yours.

Learn to differentiate between honeybees and wasps. Honeybees die after they sting humans; wasps do not. Wasps are carnivores, so they are attracted to your lunch. However, sweets like soda and iced tea may attract them both, especially on a warm autumn day as they expedite their search for nectar sources.

Now for a bit of history and the trend toward decline - In 2006 the drastic disappearance of Western honey bee colonies in the United States was referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder. European beekeepers observed a similar phenomenon in numerous countries there, with reports as far East as Taiwan in 2007.

The cause or causes of this syndrome are not yet understood. The reason behind the decline may be a combination of many factors with no one factor as the cause. The USDA in 2010 reported that bee samples tested for virus noted an exceptionally high number of viral instances, pesticides and parasites. This finding suggested that a combination of environmental stressors may contribute to a colony where weakened worker bees are more susceptible to pests and disease; subsequent studies have questioned the methodology used in these experiments so that we are left to identify a position on those results.

One thing we do know for sure is that bees are losing habitat due to a number of environmental influences - we want our lawns and landscape to be a vision of pristine green and flower-barren in terms of lawn weeds and clovers among our grasses. Colony collapse is significant in our world today because many agricultural crops worldwide are pollinated by bees. Without bees, the success rate of successful pollination is diminished. A decrease in pollination will most certainly result in crop reduction – a potentially dangerous phenomenon to all humankind worldwide.

There are quite a few things we can do to help bees:

  1. Plant bee-friendly flowers and flowering herbs to help bees with forage.
  2. Avoid chemically treating flowers because chemicals negatively affect bees.
  3. Let your lawn live a little – clover and dandelions are a haven for honeybees.
  4. Chemical lawn treatments are damaging to bee colonies if applied while flowers are in bloom as the pollen and nectar can be taken back to the hive.
  5. Buy raw honey from local beekeepers. Recently, honey imported from China has been found to be chemically contaminated. Honey that comes from the grocery store labeled "pure" or "raw" should also say that it is untreated with chemicals on the label. Talk to local beekeepers about the care of their hives and how they keep their bees; those who keep bees naturally produce natural or "pure" honey.
  6. 6. Put a small basin of fresh water outside your home. A birdbath with stones will provide a shallow pool of moisture and safe-haven for thirsty bees. (Great for butterflies as well!)

Read other articles on birds, wildlife & beneficial insects

Read other articles by Kay Hinkle