Disappearing Bees and Why Nature’s Free Services Are Running Out

Disappearing bees threaten more than just honey production. See how the free services from Mother Nature are depleting.

| May 23, 2013

  • Growing Older
    In “Growing, Older,” author Joan Dye Gussow finds she can be self-reliant and grow her own food even after the loss of her husband.
    Cover Courtesy Chelsea Green Publishing
  • Pollinating Bee
    To take Mother Nature’s free services for granted is to risk losing them; they’ll be neither cheap nor easy to replace.
    Photo By Fotolia/ Henryk Olszewski

  • Growing Older
  • Pollinating Bee

Author Joan Dye Gussow leans on her garden as a therapist, friend and confidant after losing her husband. In her book Growing Older (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2010), Gussow finds self-reliance in the ever-changing world around her. In this excerpt taken from chapter 19, “Bees,” Gussow reflects on the deeper effect that the disappearing bees will have on crop pollination and the future of our food supply.

I’m fairly certain that I’ve worried longer about bees than most people who don’t actually keep hives or study insects for a living. I’ve been uttering Cassandra-like warnings about the vulnerability of honeybees to pesticides for thirty years at least, but I don’t think I really got it until a particular June morning more than a decade ago when Alan was still alive. I was taking a very early walk in the garden as I do at the least opportunity on the long June days leading up to the solstice. I stopped at each bed, pulling weed seedlings in one, leading a bean tendril to its climbing pole in another. A giant zucchini plant tumbled out of one of the beds, sprawling over the path, its flamboyant yellow-orange flowers gaping to welcome their pollinators.

And, surprised by an unusual lack of activity, I suddenly remembered that that summer no honeybees were likely to arrive for an embrace by these lascivious blossoms. In a recent Sunday paper, the garden writer had reported that New York’s honeybee colonies, already reduced from more than two hundred thousand after World War II to less than a quarter of that, had succumbed in horrifying numbers to the year’s hard winter. The season’s record snows were apparently not their only problem. The bees were weakened by parasitic mites, and — after a dry fall — had been short of honey going into what turned out to be a long cold winter. A local beekeeper was quoted as saying that 50 to 80 percent of his hives were dead.

I wasn’t entirely surprised. During the 1980s, I was on a sustainable agriculture listserv that very often alerted me to things I never dreamed I would need to know about. Warnings of coming honey shortages and of the spread of two kinds of bee mites (varroa and tracheal) had appeared in recent weeks. So the garden writer’s story, emerging briefly from the daily firehose of information that threatens to drown us all, hadn’t really jolted me. Now, in the garden, the reality of the loss made me stop short. The warm buzzing that should have been part of the morning’s background wasn’t there.

I looked around. Instead of nodding collectively under the weight of bees, the lavender blossoms stood erect, quivering occasionally at the landing of a solitary insect. Walking down the brick paths between the vegetable beds, I didn’t have to push carefully by umbels of flowering coriander bent into the path by eager foragers. No small bodies hummingly bumped my arms as I reached in to tug a weed from the alyssum patch. I’m not bee-sensitive. I have always walked and worked among them without concern, brushing them aside when they’re busy in a place I need to be, as they often are . . . or used to be.

6/5/2013 10:16:27 AM

Ohhh, Lady! I'm a tuned with what's going on around me, to the best of my ability. Sorry to say, my hearing isn't that good anymore. What with working in a steel mill for 29 years as a journeyman Pipefitter, plus another 10 years as a contractor one. On the top of that I worked with high explosives for 12 years, before my career as a Pipefitter. I had my one accident working with the stuff. Ah, so what does this all have to do with bees? Nothing, I'm just saying my hearing is crappy but, I enjoy living in the world with all the things around us. Where some people are scared of bees, I'm not. In fact in one of my 2 sugar maple trees in my backyard I have a bee nest in a hole that the squirrels once used. I figure the squirrels just sub-lettet it out to the bees. Every year I see a swarm fly off from this nest. The nest is to high up for me to reach, but that doesn't bother me that I can't get anything from the hive. I figure its theirs anyways. They want to nest in my tree, then go ahead.  Sometimes when I'm working in my shop I can hear a buzzing over the ringing I always have in my ears. I look around and see that there are a few bees in my shop. I NEVER hurt them. In fact before I close up my shop at night, I always close one door, then take a bright flashlight to lead the bees out before I shut the final door. Hoping the bees will find their way back to their nest.

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