Friday, May 16, 2014

Reflections on the Knees of Bees

My first memory of a bumble bee is laying next to some clover in the lawn stretching from our ranch house to the road, watching a western bumblebee dance around.  Almost forgotten is that it was probably made indelible by my mom calling warnings to me from her vegetable garden.

The memory came back to me a few days ago when a “Common Eastern Bumblebee” danced in my line of sight while I was taking a break from helping a friend clean out the garage in preparation for Junk King to haul away unwanted items.

This franchise recycles about 60% of what they collect and dispose of the rest.  It is an old business model.  I have a friend who cleaned out basements as a kid just to be able to turn in cans and bottles for the deposit and another whose family business years ago was doing what Junk King has made into a formula enterprise.

The bee hovered there while I was admiring the incredible stands of trees that developers and builders retained in Buckwater Creek, a neighborhood that backs up to a greenway along the steep ravine of the Eno River.

You can distinguish the Common Eastern Bumblebee (page 14) by its big, all black back end, separated from a head of that color by a lighter yellow midsection. By the way, the knees of a bee are the mid-segments of their legs where they collect pollen.

The bumblebee I first saw in the shadow of the Tetons was probably the “Central Bumblebee” (page 35) common along the western edge of the Rockies because its back end was yellow on top and black on the bottom.

Alarmingly, I just read that extremely aggressive Africanized honey bees, aka “killer bees,” were imported into Brazil just after the time I was studying that bumblebee in my early years.  They are now as far north as Palisade, Colorado along the western slopes of the Southern Rockies.

Swarms in the US have already killed horses and people.

I’m not a bee guy but I learned a little from my maternal grandfather when he was a water master in the 1950s at Stewart Dam on the Bear River, about two miles off the route of the Oregon-California Trail where wagon wheel ruts are still visible in that the corner of southeast Idaho.

His job was to monitor flows and divert part of the river via the Rainbow Canal through a complex of wetlands where it was cleansed of sediment and runoff before flowing into Bear Lake which stretches across the border with Utah.

His objective was to optimize water use for wildlife, power, irrigation, recreation and municipal use, but during parts of the year, it left him with time to pursue hobbies such as raising sheep and geese, keeping hives of honey bees, and of course, “paling” around with me during frequent visits.

I never asked him why, but I suspect his work gave him a close-up understanding of the importance of ecosystem services and ecological balance.

Bumblebees are more effective than honey bees, in some ways, as pollinators.  Both are raised commercially.  Bumblebees seem more sensitive to habitat loss but many studies now show that bees are also very sensitive to neonicotinoid pesticides, made from a derivative of nicotine.

I’ve learned that an example is the Bayer Advanced 2 in 1 Systemic Rose and Flower Care I’ve been applying the last few years to clusters of Knock Out and Lady Banks roses in my yard as fertilizer and to keep them from being devoured by bugs such as aphids and attacked by fungus.

It makes sense that being systemic it would also affect bees but there is a lot of money involved in studies both pro and con, but the weight now is leaning toward these pesticides as the cause, which are also widely used on corn, as being responsible for bill kills.

It was discovered about seven years ago in an archeological dig at Tel Rehov, a mound in Israel’s lush Beth-Shean Valley about 17 miles south of the Sea of Galilee, that humans there were cultivating bee hives between 9 and 10 centuries B.C.E, the first discovered in the Middle East and the earliest yet discovered anywhere.

Bayer Cropscience is one of many research concerns based in Durham, and this last April, the company opened its North American Bee Care Center here, a partner to one it already has in Monheim, Germany.

Part of the mission of the Bee Care Centers is to bring scientists and stakeholders together.  Another part is communication.  The Wire, part of the Atlantic Media group, reported recently that based on the Bayer Cropscience blog, “2013 was a great year for bee PR in America.”

However, several bee advocacy organizations including the Pollinator Stewardship Council, the National Honey Bee Advisory Board, the American Honey Producers Association and the American Beekeeping Federation have sued the EPA overs its approval of similar pesticides by Dow, requiring instead warning labels.

Having a lot at stake, Bayer argues that colonies of honey bees worldwide have increased, not decreased, from 50 years ago and that periodic colony losses have been observed for centuries.  It is also wining and dining lawmakers and Congressional staff.

Bayer points the finger at the Varroa mite.  The USDA notes that annual colony loss has been consistent over the last seven years.  Reminded that ecological imbalance is rarely due to just one cause, these new studies find at least one link is to the use of neonics.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the North Carolina General Assembly doesn’t try to insert a ban on the use of these empirical studies into legislation to bar any local efforts to shepherd urban forest canopy, just as it did with reference to studies on climate change in a previous session.

Choked for funding by lawmakers, regulators too have been complicit, it seems.  The EPA should have conducted independent research on neonicotnoids rather than relying solely on Bayer’s findings and brushing aside concerns about Dow’s field tests.

Much more is at stake than profits.

Neurological research has found that hearing and seeing the birds and the bees gives a cognitive signal to humans that the world is healthy.  This should dictate that we error on the side of caution when it comes to things that threaten them.

In the meantime, here is a link to the guide for Conserving Bumble Bees.  And if you ever come across swarms of bees like the one shown here down in Raleigh/Wake County or as one was reported in Downtown Durham recently, contact the Durham Beekeepers for removal.

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