Nature’s Little Helpers
A world without them takes a lot of work
Imagine you are a pear farmer in Hanyuan County, China. Your community calls itself “the pear capital of the world,” and the demand for this sweet, firm fruit is higher than ever. You get to the farm, a large plot of land filled with high-reaching trees containing thousands of white flowers that will bear fruit, early. You grab your pollinating brush, make a quick note of the first tree’s height, and begin climbing, settling into a full day of dusting each tiny flower by hand.
In a world without bees, how else can fruits and vegetables grow? In Hanyuan County, they have found a solution, but the results are startling. Images from this farming area in rural China show pear farmers dangling from high tree tops, brushing flowers with a small mechanism that resembles a miniature feather duster. This is because their county’s bee population is nearly extinct.
In order to increase fruit production, this remote area in China cleared the surrounding land, including large spreads of forest. This increased available land to plant pear trees, but it also eliminated food and shelter resources for bees. Then, to create better-looking fruit in higher abundance, farmers began using pesticides, which in turn killed off most of the bee population.
Although the county has found it to be less costly to have humans swarm their pear trees rather than rent bees to do the job, some of the farmers are paid unfair wages or are not paid at all. And while a single farmer can hand-pollinate about 5 to 10 trees per day, this is back-aching work. According to the latest research data, our local farmers may not be far off from experiencing a bee extinction as well if we don’t take action.
Many of us make a trip to the grocery store or our local farmers’ market to pick up all the fruits, veggies, and even medicines we love and rely on without a second thought, but the journey these items have endured from the bush, vine, or stalk into our hands is worth reflection.
The reproduction of these food-bearing plants relies on pollen transfer by thousands of species of mammals, birds, and most notably, insects. Of the roughly 200,000 species of pollinators, 20,000 of them are bees, which provide pollination services to more than 70 fruit and vegetable crops that we humans rely upon for nutritious food, making these relentlessly busy, quick-buzzing workers the world’s most efficient pollinators. In fact, our entire food system is dependent on the foraging activity of these tiny creatures, as they pass pollen from plant to plant while hunting for nectar.
A world without bees would still have food, but it would be more limited to wind-pollinated grains such as wheat, corn, oats, rice, and barley. Surely, we could survive off of a carbohydrate-rich diet for some time, but the nutritional hit would undoubtedly impact our health in a negative way. Therefore, it’s essential that we raise a glass to all pollinators, and especially to our most efficient pollinating bee—the honeybee.
Maine beekeepers have been working with Italian honeybees for nearly 400 years, ever since settlers brought these domesticated bees over on ships. Native Americans are said to have spotted swarms of these insects advancing ahead of the settlers, alerting their tribes of the conflicts to come with warnings about the “white man’s flies.”
Apart from honeybees, Maine is home to more than 300 species of wild pollinating bees that have earned their names through the colorful bounty they help feed, such as the blueberry bee, the squash bee, and the alfalfa leaf-cutter bee. The latter contributes more than $9 billion to the U.S. economy annually for its role in producing hay and alfalfa that feed our cattle industry. Another Maine native, the rusty-patched bumblebee, is the first bee species of mainland United States to be added to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service endangered species list, while solitary bees, such as the mason and blue orchard bees, bring us our earliest spring fruits, including cherry, plum, peach, pear, and apple trees.
Why do bees need saving, you ask?
For starters, bees are one of the organisms that have suffered great losses at the face of anthropogenic change. As the human population thrives and expands, our impact on the surrounding environment has been unprecedented.
Mass bee die-offs have happened before in recorded history, from as early as the year 950 with Ireland’s first of at least three Great Mortalities of Bees. Then, between 2007 and 2013, more than 10 million beehives were lost, and although colony collapse disorder has waned, we are still losing about 40% of beehives annually in the United States, and much higher in places with harsh winters. Current estimates project that honeybees could vanish within three years in some places if beekeepers do not manually breed and increase the range of managed honeybee hives.
Aside from giving them a break from a turbulent past, another reason to rescue bees comes from what we can learn from them. Our lengthy experience with honeybees, for example, has informed humans for generations about food system stability. Today, scientists are able to use honeybees as an indicator species for overall pollinator health.
Lastly, not only do our diverse local pollinators provide us with an array of food that makes Maine so deliciously edible; they are also vital to Maine’s economy. Sadly, however, the art of backyard beekeeping is declining, as are local wild pollinators, and bringing bees in from elsewhere for their pollination services can put quite a burden on the Maine economy.
According to the Maine State Apiarist, with a $120 rental fee per beehive times 90,000 beehives annually, the cost to the state totals $10.8 million per year. Moreover, boosting local beekeeping practices and wild pollinator populations can also boost revenue from food production and create jobs on farms and in honeybee apiaries. Also, each bee is actually worth money. At a monetary value of $0.00225 per Maine bee, you can save the state $1 for each 444 bees that you rescue.
Hopefully now it goes without saying why it’s essential that we save our pollen-footed friends, which leads us to the next point of our discussion, which is not why we should save the bees, but how.
Years of beekeeping and research have identified the three leading killers of bees to be agricultural chemicals such a pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides; disease-causing viruses, bacteria, fungi, and mite pests; and habitat loss due to change in land use. However, we must look closer to understand bee health at a more local level.
Let’s start with Maine honeybees, where colony losses are lower than the nationwide average at 37% annually. This is especially impressive when you consider bees’ annual death rate in Massachusetts, which is at 56%. Why are bees fairing better in Maine? Data from the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Urban Beekeeping Laboratory & Bee Sanctuary (www.beesanctuary.org) investigated which of the three leading killers of bees was improved in areas where they thrived. Fascinatingly, pesticides and diseases were found to be ubiquitous, while it was the habitat that made the difference. Areas with the most diverse flowering plants seem to be associated with beehives that make more honey and have a longer lifespan.
Here in Maine, human population density is among the lowest in the country, leaving much of Maine’s habitat nearly untouched. This helps to promote the diversity in wildflower species that is vital for the healthy diet of all bees that call this state home. Bees not only need diversity of floral species during the peak summer months, but throughout their entire foraging season. Maine boasts flowering plant species that bloom at various times of the year, providing our pollinating friends with the varied diet they need, even early in the spring or as winter is approaching.
So, what can you do in your own back yard to help save the bees? First, help spread the assortment of flowering plants that they rely on so much. Planting a wide range of flowering species in your yard can provide a vital foraging habitat to not just honeybees but many species of pollinators. Be sure to plant varieties that bloom throughout the year, especially in spring when bees have depleted their honey stores over the winter and are in need of nectar. You can also create a habitat in your own back yard by providing nesting sites for wild bee species. Often called “bee hotels” these nesting habitats are easy to make by arranging recycled materials in old shoe boxes or flower pots and placing them in your yard.
Planting flowers and setting up bee hotels can attract solitary bees and honeybees from neighboring hives, but you can also help save the bees by getting your own beehive. If this task seems daunting, don’t worry. Consider a beekeeping service such as The Best Bees Company to install, manage, and harvest a honeybee hive at your home or business. A managed hive not only supports a honeybee colony, but it allows for research to help improve the health of bees.
Or, if you are itching to get your hands dirty, consider becoming a beekeeper. Beekeeping can be tricky and takes knowledge and practice, so you must get educated before buying a beehive to handle on your own. The Maine State Beekeepers Association is a fantastic resource for beekeeper training and mentoring, as well as friendships.
Regardless of how you choose to save the bees, start by thanking these vital links between human and environmental health for their quiet and tireless work next time you walk through the door, arms hugged around a bag of fresh bounty from your local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).
Maine-hardy plants bees love
Early Season (April–May)
Late season (August–October)
What’s in your honey?
Top six results from a DNA analysis of Maine area honey
3.61% Honey locust
*The remaining 36.36% is made up of trace amounts
of over 120 plant species
Noah Wilson-Rich Ph.D. is a biologist, professor, NY Times contributor, two-time TEDx speaker, beekeeper, uncle, and author of The Bee: A Natural History. He is also the Founder and Chief Scientific Officer of The Best Bees Company, a beekeeping service that installs and manages beehives for residential and commercial properties nation-wide.