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In The Country

A Bee Ethic

Chuck Reid
Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve

(6/2015) On Tuesday, May 19, the White House disclosed a national plan to save honey bees. Part of that plan calls for more than $82 million in funding to evaluate the health of honey bees, examine the effects of pesticides on the pollinators, and to increase the size of its habitats by planting more bee-friendly vegetation.

Why has the White House taken an interest in developing such a large ethic to protect these little insects? In recent years, the number of honey bees has declined rather quickly. Last year alone U.S. beekeepers lost more than 40% of their honey bee colonies.

The number of honey bees have been on the decline for years and this decline is becoming a rapid trend. This loss threatens both the country’s environment and agricultural production. If the decline continues at this pace, some researchers are viewing this as a potential ecological and agricultural disaster in the making.

Bees, along with birds, bats, and butterflies play a key function in our ecology and agriculture. More than 90 commercial crops in North America rely on honey bees for pollination, and research estimates put the economic value of honey bee activities at roughly $15 billion a year.

Honey bees are natural and very effective at pollinating our commercial fruit and vegetable crops. In addition, they are pollinators for alfalfa and clover that provide feed for cattle. They also pollinate the nuts, seeds, and fruits that sustain a variety of North America’s wildlife, ranging from the massive grizzly bears to the delicate songbirds in our backyards. These little pollinators play an important role in balancing our ecosystem for all levels of the hierarchy, including man.

In the early 20th century, Aldo Leopold developed a conservation ethic that takes into consideration all aspects of the ecosystem for the purpose of balance. Considered by many as the father of wildlife management and of the United States’ wilderness system, Aldo Leopold was a conservationist, forester, philosopher, educator, writer, hunter, and outdoor enthusiast. Though his years of work, Leopold developed a philosophy, "a land ethic", that radically reshaped the modern approach to conservation. His land ethic enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals (insects included), or collectively: the land. Essentially Leopold recognized that the best conservation strategy is one that is in a state of harmony between humans and land.

Leopold came to this conclusion through a collection of essays he published as the "A Sand County Almanac". In one of his essays, "Thinking Like a Mountain", Leopold describes a time when conservationists were operating under the assumption that elimination of top predators would make game plentiful. The essay provides a non-technical characterization of the trophic cascade where the removal of single species carries serious implications for the rest of the ecosystem.

He specifically noted; "I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades."

If there is one thing we have learned though the work of individuals like Leopold, it is we cannot fully understand the ripple impact of the removal of one species from the ecosystem, until the ripple is farthest from its tiny epicenter, the damage is done, and the damage cannot be recognized until it has the largest impact.

The advantage we have with the honey bee is we already know what they contribute to us now. We can foresee the ecological, agricultural, and economic impact. We do not have to wait to understand what their devastation will mean to humans.

So, in 2014, the White House announced a task force to look into the health of honey bees. The task force reported a number of various factors leading to the bees’ rapid decline. These factors include: nutrition deficiencies that stem from limited access to high-quality and diverse food sources; the stress of frequently moving colonies across large geographic areas to pollinate various crops; a bloodsucking parasite, the Varroa mite, that weakens bees and introduces diseases to hives; and specific pesticides, neonictinoids, absorbed by plant tissues and then transferred to pollen and nectar.

So what can you do? The first step is to learn about how these insects play a vital role in our ecosystem.

To help the community understand how these little insects play such an important role in our lives, Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve has installed an observation hive in our Nature Center for visitors to explore the complex interworking’s of a hive. Strawberry Hill has also began installing hives on our property to help expand our local bee habitat to our 600 acres of woods

The Pennsylvania Backyard Beekeepers’ Association donated the demonstration hive to the Preserve and it was set up by a local beekeeper, Shady Rest Apiaries. Shady Rest along with a hobbyist beekeeper, Bill Serfass, have helped to maintain the hive in the Nature Center and on the property. The work of these beekeepers cannot be overlooked, because maintaining a functional hive can take a great deal of time and effort. And, we too needed to call on these beekeepers when our own hive collapsed last spring after successfully surviving the winter.

The observation honey bee hive at Strawberry Hill has been a source of education and entertainment for the past few years. The hive is on display all year-round for the community to see the bees’ life cycle and witness how these bees are involved with the pollination process. The Preserve has used the hive to offer workshops and instruction for beginning backyard beekeepers. The hive is also used for our educational school programs, helping children and adults learn about the bees’ lifecycle and pollination processes.

If you cannot visit a hive like Strawberry Hill’s, you can learn more by closely following the national stories about honey bees. There should be plenty over the next year. You can also help strengthen the bee population by planting a wide variety of native bee-friendly flowers, such as bee balm, joe-pye weed, foxglove, and red clover. You can also let a little white clover to grow in your lawn. You can avoid using excessive pesticides on your lawns, gardens, and farms. And, you can always try to eat more foods grown without pesticides.

Interesting Honey Bee Facts

  • • All workers are females
  • • Males are called drones – can’t sting; no stinger
  • • Worker honey bees live about 1 month
  • • Queen honey bee lives 2 – 5 years
  • • Honey bees can travel 2 miles or more to find nectar and pollen
  • • They won’t bother you if you don’t bother them
  • • Bees are responsible for 80% of pollination
  • • Queen lays about 2,000 eggs per day. She can select the gender of larvae
  • • Each hive has a distinct identifying odor recognized by the bees as their own hive.
  • • Honey bees never sleep
  • • They fan their wings inside the hive to keep it cool in summer and warm in winter.
  • • They are the only insect that produces something that humans can eat.
  • • Average honey bee produces ˝ tsp. of honey in its lifetime.
  • • One pound of honey takes 556 workers and 2 million flowers.
  • • 50 – 100 flowers are pollinated in one collection trip.
  • • Worker bees usually die in the field while foraging.

Read other articles by Laurie Stover