Beekeeping is a serious hobby for some members of our extended family. It all began with Linda’s brother-in-law Nick, who has been tending bees for probably as long as I have known him. He and Linda’s sister Karla now live part of the year in Lincoln, Neb., and part in St. George, Utah. The honey produced by his Utah bees is a most distinctive and flavorful honey — its taste owing to the desert vegetation from which the bees collect their nectar.
About 15 years ago, our son-in-law Shane and I stayed with Nick and Karla in Utah while attending the Las Vegas NASCAR race. Nick introduced Shane to the bees and Shane caught the bug! Within a short time, he set himself up as a beekeeper and honey producer. A few years ago, Nick’s son-in-law John also entered the miniature livestock world. Last I heard, his bees had outproduced Nick’s bees!
Nick and Shane both have experienced the serious malaise affecting beekeepers—disappearance of the worker bees, or what has become known as colony collapse disorder (CCD). CCD was always a potential problem for beekeepers, but because of increasing occurrences in recent years, it acquired this medical-sounding name. The specific causes of CCD are still under investigation, but the probable culprits are a combination of mites, disease and exposure to pesticides, with confounding factors that come with climate change — extreme heat, cold and rainfall.
CCD can inflict a serious financial blow on commercial beekeepers, but the implications of the malady go far beyond the affected beekeepers. The continuing trend of honeybee decline will have a disastrous impact on food production. Many of our vegetables and fruits depend on the pollination activity of tiny six-legged creatures, with honeybees bearing much of the burden. In St. George, I met one of Nick’s friends who is a commercial beekeeper. He sells honey, but he also hires the bees out for their labor. Once a year he hauls the hives to California, where growers pay him to set his bee hives in their fields or orchards so the bees can pollinate the crops. The intensity with which some crops like almonds are grown could not be sustained by the area’s naturally-occurring pollinators.
Owing to the significant economic and food security impacts of CCD, considerable funding and research are devoted to determine the causes of the malady. Furthermore, with increasing occurrence of CCD and with the concomitant decline of other pollinators, research on artificial pollinators also moves forward. This research includes creation of robotic bees. Japanese scientists are working on a miniature robotic drone that can flit around plant blossoms, pick up pollen from the stamen of one bloom and deposit it on the pistil of another. The picking-up and depositing process apparently has been successfully developed using horse hairs covered with a sticky substance. What is lacking is the autonomous operation of the robot — that is, the robot requires remote control by a human to direct its flight.
With increasing miniaturization of technology, sophistication of computers and improvements in battery power sources, I assume the experts eventually will perfect an autonomous robotic bee. It may not look or sound like any bee we ever saw or imagined, but it will carry out the pollinator functions as intended. Once again, we will celebrate human ingenuity triumphing over nature!
But in our hurry to congratulate ourselves, we overlook the fact that it is our own blundering, egotistical behavior toward nature that created the problem. The precarious environmental conditions in which honeybees and other species of pollinators find themselves are largely of human creation. In addition to the stress on pollinators caused by loss of habitat and climate change, research suggests that the neonicotinoid insecticides are important contributors. Although the industry argues the evidence is incomplete for this claim, several European countries deemed the evidence sufficient to ban these insecticides.
To address the pollinator loss problem, in 2015 the Obama administration established the National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators, an initiative led by the Environmental Protection Agency. With reduced funding and changing mission directives for the EPA and the issuing of new executive orders from the current administration, the future of this program is uncertain. On a positive and surprising note, the Trump administration, over industry objections, allowed the Fish and Wildlife Service to place the rusty-patched bumblebee on the endangered species list.
The annual Earth Day celebration, established April 22, 1970, to promote environmentally sound lifestyles, is only two days hence. Rachel Carson’s book, “Silent Spring,” started the Earth Day movement. She was concerned that chemical pesticides would decimate bird populations, resulting in spring without the twitter of birds. Unless we can ameliorate the grave conditions faced by pollinators, we may no longer hear the buzzing of bees among our flowers, fruits and vegetables. For that matter, given no pollinators, it is difficult to grow many favorite colorful flowers that lift and brighten our spirits, and savory fruits and vegetables that provide spice, variety and pleasure to meals. Without pollinators, spring not only becomes silent, but also bleak and bland!
Pete Korsching is an Iowa State University emeritus professor, a Nevada resident and a freelance columnist for the Nevada Journal.