Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Green City Diaries: Honeybee buzz

Photo by Marvin Shaouni
(originally published 8/6/13 in Model D.)

The day before we get together to talk about her honeybees, Bette Huster calls to tell me she's lost one of two hives she keeps in the city. 'It's colony collapse,' she says. 'A few days ago, there were more than 10,000 bees. Now they're mostly gone. There are still a couple hanging around, but production has ceased, if you will.'

We visit the hive the next day and sure enough, the scene before us is entirely different than the one at her other hive a few miles away, which teems with the purposeful, collective labor of thousands of bees. Here, it's still and quiet. We can see five or six bees crawling on the outside, but also flies -- a bad sign.
I ask Bette what happened. Where did all the bees go? She shrugs. 'I have a theory.' An industrial operation nearby recently cleared a neighboring field of dandelions. If the bees ingested the chemicals used to kill the dandelions, their 
'GPS system,' as Bette puts it, might have been damaged. After that, 'maybe one set of bees went out foraging, and they couldn't find their way back. Then another went out, and they couldn't find their way back.' But that's just a guess.

Research into the causes of colony collapse disorder (CCD), which has been drastically reducing honeybee populations in North America and Europe since 2006, is ongoing. One likely cause seems to be an increase in the use of neonicotinoids, pesticides chemically related to nicotine. (So likely that just a few months ago, the European Union began enforcing a two-year ban on the chemicals.) There are other possible (and possibly interrelated) causes: mites, parasites, malnutrition, habitat loss. In large-scale commercial beekeeping, which has been hit especially hard by CCD, the cultivation of crop monocultures is a suspect.

But even before anyone had started talking about CCD in earnest, honeybees in North America were having a hard time. Roger Sutherland, the president of the Southeast Michigan Beekeepers Association (SEMBA), tells me that the problems started in the 1980s. That's when the varroa mite and nosema parasite began wreaking havoc on honeybee colonies; 30 years later, both remain a serious threat.

In Michigan, harsh winters have been another significant problem. Honeybees stick around when the cold weather settles, burrowing deep inside their hives to keep each other warm. There are ways that beekeepers can winterize hives, but some loss is almost inevitable. The feral bee population, meanwhile, is particularly susceptible to winter loss.

The long and short of it is that apis mellifera, the European honeybee that was brought to North America by English colonists in 1622 and has thrived here for centuries, is in trouble. And over the decades, as honeybees' health has become more and more threatened, the practice of small-scale beekeeping has declined, especially in cities -- until now.