Imagine our world without food crops.
That grim notion isn’t the plot of some science fiction horror flick, but rather a growing possibility as honeybee populations decline.
In May 2013, a lengthy U.S. Department of Agriculture report concluded that a lethal phenomenon referred to as colony-collapse disorder (CCD) is a real and costly crisis.
More disturbing is that the significant die-off’s cause is mere speculation.
And in the mean time, the ongoing problem is negatively impacting dozens of food crops that honeybees pollinate — almonds, apricots, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cashews, cucumbers, strawberries, watermelon, etc. — and the farmers who grow them.
That’s where some locals are trying to step in and help.
Copoco’s Honey & Bee Products occupies a building resembling a giant hive on North College Avenue in Fort Collins. Co-owners of the family business, Rebekah and Benjamin Gilmore (assisted by one-year-old son, Xavier), sell honey and bee-related products — a full line of beekeeping supplies, books, candies, hair and skin products – in their retail store, online and at farmers markets.
Additionally, Rebekah said she and her husband also work to assist produce growers overcome the bee shortage caused by CCD, by removing hives from houses or other areas where they’re considered pests and then rent the honeybees to farmers for seasonal crop pollination.
Gilmore said they generally have 200 hives available per year, with 30,000-80,000 bees per colony.
Chris Johnson of Spinjack Farms has worked at commercial beekeeping for 15 years.
As do the Gilmores, Johnson likewise rounds up unwelcome bees. After cutting cones from walls, ceilings or trees, he relocates colonies to the acreages of crop growers eager to have them.
The 40-year-old New Jersey native grew up on a farm where, as a young boy, he was fascinated watching the removal of one particularly massive colony that covered two entire walls of a barn. That impressive feat led him into his current line of busy-as-a-bee work.
Aside from transferring hives, Johnson sells native pollinator habitats, primarily for Orchard Mason bees, which he said pollinate orchards better than do honeybees. He claimed Orchard Masons rarely sting but, if they do, it’s no more painful than a mosquito bite.
Additionally, he markets houses for tomato-pollinating bumblebees.
Not only does Johnson relocate bees, he recently made a move himself, from Loveland, Colo., to Wyoming, where this “bee wrangler” also teaches classes on bee management, including a course for self-sustaining businesses at the Wind River Indian Reservation near Riverton, Wyo.
In 2006, commercial beekeepers first noticed adult worker honeybees hastily fleeing hives and then dying.
Previous annual colony losses averaged 10-15 percent. By 2011, the percentage soared to 28-33 percent — disastrous math if the decline continues at the same pace.
As of the 2013 USDA report, there were 2.5 million U.S. honeybee colonies. Sixty years ago there reportedly were six million.
Could this be a previously overlooked, naturally-occurring cyclical event that might right itself in time?
Or, is some facet of modern technology proving an irreversible threat to the honeybees and, subsequently, to $200 billion of U.S. produce annually?
There are causative CCD theories aplenty.
Among them are attacks by a parasitic mite (the Varroa destructor, frequently discovered in decimated hives), viral or bacterial diseases, pesticides, various stress factors (i.e. shipping hives cross-country) and even cell phone signals.
In 2013 the European Union (E.U.), also battling CCD, initiated a two-year ban on powerful pesticides called neonicotinoids. The USDA report delayed condemnation of the substances pending further research. Manufacturers dispute their chemicals’ role in bee die-offs.
Many Colorado beekeepers concur with some of the suspicions of scientists, environmentalists and government agencies.
Clark Sloan is owner of Clark’s Apiaries in Fort Lupton, Colo.
He applauds honeybees as a “very efficient and thorough pollinator of approximately 75 percent of our crops,” and also estimates that, over the past century, we’ve experienced a 75 percent decrease in honeybee numbers.
He labeled the Varroa mite as the main culprit in CCD. However, some recent studies have convinced him that pesticides, herbicides and GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are probably killing off the mite’s previous hosts. He believes the parasites therefore made the jump to honeybees.
Putting CCD losses in perspective, Sloan stated that current average CCD losses to U.S. hives is 30-40 percent annually. If cattle ranches or pig farms suffered similar herd decimation, said Sloan, they’d quickly be out-of-business.
Sloan lost more bees than just to CCD.
The September 2013 Colorado floods washed out approximately 200 of his colonies.
Honeybees, highly communal creatures, drown rather than abandon their queen and cone.
The overflowing river also claimed some of Sloan’s equipment and curtailed operations at his packing plant in Evans, Colo., where flooding rendered the water non-potable.
The remainder of his colonies, spread out across four Colorado counties not ravaged by the historic flooding, survived intact.
The evidence is irrefutable: Bees, the products they produce and the crops they pollinate are indispensable to life as we know it on planet Earth.
Hopefully for food growers, CCD’s cause can be ferreted out and resolved so hard-working honeybees will once again abundantly dot farmlands and backyard gardens. Meanwhile, we should all be grateful to these amazing little winged creatures for the wonderful bounty they provide us.
Until, Johnson, the Gilmores and other bee enthusiasts will do what they can to help. ❖