Arriving in my inbox this morning was a notice from Pollination Canada by way of Seeds of Diversity Canada, encouraging my participation in observance of “Day of the Honeybee.” Founded on 29 May 2009 by Clinton Ekdahl, the day has been set aside to increase international awareness about the plight of the honeybee, the most important pollinator of human food crops. Having an interest in horticulture, I’ve done a bit of reading about the symbiotic relationship between pollinator insects and plants, but I hadn’t done much combing around (pun intended) into the most recent facts regarding the Colony Collapse Disorder which is threatening honeybees at an astonishingly alarming rate.
First, a bit of history. There are 1,000 native species of bees in Canada, and honeybees are not one of them. Honeybees are originally from Eurasia, and were brought to Quebec by way of European settlers in the 1820s. These were domesticated bees who eventually flew away and formed the wild colonies of eastern Canada, spreading over time across the country. Honeybees are just one of thousands of pollinator insects (which include butterflies, moths and some wasps, as well as other types of flying and crawling bugs) that pollinate up to one-third of all of our food. That’s right. One-third of everything that we eat has to be pollinated by an insect. (I know someone will call me on the fact that some bats and birds are also pollinators – yes, I most certainly include them. Just not in the “insect” category). And get this: 90 percent of all flowering plants must be pollinated by insects, an absolutely incredible amount. Canadian food crops such as blueberries, apples, grapes, cranberries, strawberries, peaches, apricots, cherries, peppers, raspberries, squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, pears, plums, and sour cherries are all pollinated by bees. Worldwide, 90 commercial crops are pollinated by bees, including coffee, soya beans, alfalfa, cotton, nuts, sunflowers and canola. Think about it: if there were no bees, we could not consume these foods. Not only that, but production of these crops is a billion dollar industry that would no longer exist. Countless plant species would be lost, permanently affecting every living thing on the planet.
And although that sounds like some sort of apocalyptic proclamation, it does indeed look like things are getting rather dire for the honeybee. Colony Collapse Disorder was first acknowledged in 2006, after a few decades of suspicious-seeming symptoms. In truth, scientists really don’t know what causes CCD – the most likely causes are two types of parasitic mites that get a kick out of infecting hives, but the loss of habitat and plant diversity, pesticide use, and bacterial diseases that can be transmitted between hives may all contribute. Whatever the reason(s), in the last four years alone, CCD is responsible for the loss of 3 million bee colonies in the United States (I don’t have stats for Canada), and billions of bees worldwide. In only four years! Breeding programs to produce sufficient numbers of queens is helping to stem the bleeding, but I wonder how long such programs can sustain the populations.
This frightening state of affairs, combined with the recent interest in urban farming and permaculture, has led to the rise of urban beekeeping on a small scale (where laws permit). Keepers report that the fruit production of any trees in the area of the hives increases exponentially, while the bees themselves flourish in an environment that is usually less chemically-treated than rural farmland and contains a great (albeit artificially constructed) range of diverse plantings. In Vancouver, where it has been legal to keep bees within city limits since 2005, both public and private hives are encouraged. Indeed, hives will even be placed on top of city hall this 29 May to commemorate the “Day of the Honeybee.”
So, what can I do, given that I can’t set up a beehive in my backyard? I can definitely reduce or eliminate pesticide use, and I can plant a range of plants that attract bees and other pollinator insects. As well, I can assist (donate, volunteer) with programs that promote biodiversity, like the various plant and seed savers across the country and the world. It’s not much, but it’s the least I can do for the honeybee.
(Check out Pollination Canada and the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign on the web, as well as Ekdahl’s Facebook page “Day of the Honeybee” for more information and educational materials).