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Bees a part of our life and culture

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: May 24, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: May 24, 2012 1:55 a.m.
 

I like honey bees. Their buzzing soothes me, their busyness connects me to the now. They are important to agriculture and backyard gardens and as part of our interesting ecology and the bioeconomy we live in; they help maintain the world.

Unlike ants and termites, worker bees do not specialize. Each worker is successively a maid and nanny, a carpenter, a storekeeper, a gatekeeper and, finally, a harvester.

Like me, they have many careers in their lives. They sting only in defense of the hive. Starting in Asia, they have spread, and we have spread them, all over the globe.

Honey bees have been around for a long time, at least 23 million years, much longer than we’ve been here. Mankind’s association with bees started at least 7,000 years ago, as evidenced by cave paintings in Spain and Africa.

Active bee keeping had begun in Egypt at least 4,400 years ago, and honey has been an important source of food and medicine.

Although honey as a food has been replaced by manufactured sugars and sweeteners, the honey bee is still important to us today.

There are wild pollinators, including the wild (or self-employed) honey bees, but up to 75 percent of agricultural pollination is dependent on commercial honey bees.

In the United States, up to $15 billion worth of crops annually are dependent on commercial bees. Some of the crops dependent on commercial honey bees are: cherries, avocados, grapes, peaches, melons, squash, olives and many more. California’s almond industry would not exist without them.

This is a compelling reason to be concerned about Colony Collapse Disorder, which has been affecting bees for about a decade. Colony Collapse Disorder, first described in 2006, is a phenomenon in which an entire hive suddenly dies.

Affecting both wild and commercial bees, Colony Collapse Disorder is an accelerating problem that has bee keepers and agricultural scientists greatly concerned and puzzled. Several factors seem to combine as a cause.

Disease and parasitic mites are involved. But evidence now points to a new class of pesticide, neonicotinoids — an artificial nerve poison similar to nicotine — as a major cause.

When farmers and bee keepers in Europe were able to get a temporary ban on the pesticide, the bee population rebounded.

The neonicotinoids are not intended to kill honey bees, but since the pesticide is taken up by the plant and incorporated into the pollen and nectar the bees feed on, they do kill bees and, once treated, a plant may remain toxic for year to year.

Recent findings suggest that neonicotinoids are dangerous to the bees at much lower concentrations than government and industry says are safe, and there may be no safe level for bees, according to farmlandbirds.net.

This pesticide reduces bees’ resistance to disease and parasites and, as a nerve poison, causes them to forget how to return to their hive. (I would like to point out that the same pesticide is in the food we eat — think about that next time you have a senior moment.)

I am writing this because in my own yard and garden, I have seen about a 90-percent drop in the number of bees since last year.

Those of us with fruit trees in our yards are dependent on wild pollinators (including honey bees) for fruit production, and the evidence is that many wild pollinators are also experiencing precipitous declines.

At our Santa Clarita City Council, I asked if city maintenance used any neonicotinoids. I urge the city to publish a full report on all pesticides it uses and their impact.

Others in the city have long urged local school districts to eliminate pesticide use to safeguard our children’s health. We should ask all local government bodies (county, water districts, school boards, etc.) to tell us how and why they use pesticides and what pesticides they use.

 For more information on bees, their importance to us and the threats they are facing, SCVCleanMoney, a local nonpartisan political advocacy group, will show the acclaimed movie “Queen of the Sun” at Vincenzo’s Pizza at 6 p.m. Wednesday.

You are welcome to come and see the movie.

David Lutness is a Valencia resident. Environmentally Speaking runs Thursdays in The Signal.

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