Bee Good

urban-bees-2

I always imagine that if you’ve never tasted anything sweet, tasting honey for the first time is just sort of nectar from the gods. We’ve evolved with bees, and bees have evolved with us at some level. And they’ve always inspired us. I also think it’s connected with our youth — you know, running barefoot through a meadow and getting stung in the toe. It is a rite of passage.”

Dennis vanEngelsdorp (quoted by Kate Torgovnick, in her 2013 Ted Talk)

“We overuse pesticides. We overuse antibiotics. We’re trying to get rid of all the little pesty things that bother us, but in the process, we’re killing off all kinds of beneficial insects and all kinds of beneficial microbes. We’re past the tipping point on these things, and the bees are the ones that are telling us that we’ve gone too far.”

– Marla Spivak (in Torgovnick)

When I went out to get the paper that morning, something looked funny about the small tree in our front yard. The branches were fat with something brown-golden that seemed to move. It took me a minute, but I realized, “A bee swarm!”

Bees covered the branches like a thick moss, some dripping off and flying back to the top parts to merge with the mass of bees there. Somewhere in there was a queen, a second queen kicked out of the old hive, flying off to create a new one of her own. A large number of the worker bees had followed her and were trying to protect her by swarming around her whenever she landed.

Our old Silver Maple, maybe as old as our 1870’s house, had a large hive up in one of its hollow branches, and there was at least one more hive in a tree down the block. Swarms weren’t common but we had seen a few before and kept a list of dedicated beekeepers who would come rescue the queen and set her up in a man-made hive. Heedless to possible stings, the beekeeper raked the bees like snow off the branches until he had captured the queen, then let the other bees follow her into his container.

There has been a lot in the news lately about the reduction in bee populations — Colony Collapse Disorder. Many studies attribute the decline to certain pesticide use on farmland, but also to the invasion of the Varroa mite that brought many different viruses, bacteria and fungal diseases with it. Since bees are pollinators, instrumental in vegetable, fruit and flower production, this is a big deal. It’s not just another pretty endangered species that we’re killing off; it’s a species critical to survival of the human race.

Recently, studies in the United Kingdom showed that doubling the recommended consumption of fruits and vegetables resulted in significant health benefits. “Eating up to 800g (approximately 1.5 lbs) of fruit and vegetables — equivalent to 10 portions and double the recommended amount in the UK — was associated with a 24% reduced risk of heart disease, a 33% reduced risk of stroke, a 28% reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, a 13% reduced risk of total cancer, and a 31% reduction in premature deaths.” (Katherine Martinko in Torgovnick)

I noted that we’re currently supposed to be eating five servings of fruits and veggies every day now. Martinko’s article notes that “One portion is roughly equivalent to a banana, a pear, an apple, a large Mandarin orange, or 3 heaping tablespoons of cooked vegetables, such as spinach, peas, broccoli, or cauliflower.”

Even though I eat a lot of fresh veggies and fruits when they are easily available in the summer and early fall, I suspect that I don’t consume as much the rest of the year. Then I do eat more potatoes, rice and bread, but I understand that those do not qualify as part of the recommended five servings a day. That may even be true for French Fries, that are rumored to contain potato. Oatmeal and French Toast is out, as well.

So, if we’re supposed to be eating twice as many fruits and veggies as before (assuming we followed the old recommendation), we desperately need our plants to be highly productive, particularly given increases in world population. Pollinators (bees!) will be in high demand to help improve this production.

Of course, vegetable-centric eating is also thought to be good for the planet by reducing our dependence on meat and dairy thus reducing climate change-related emissions. With the advent of the green roof concept and urban farming, increased fruit and veggie consumption would benefit the environment even more. Concurrently, urban and suburban beekeeping is increasing. Strangely enough, researchers have identified that “The bees like it in the city. If we listen to the bees and how they’re doing, they actually prefer cities. In urban areas, they tend to make more honey.” (Noah Wilson-Rich in Torgovnick)

(Marzluff determined that the diversity of bird populations is also greatest in urban areas. Maybe urban life isn’t so bad for humans either, when we just let some nature in.)

Some people are afraid of bees and associate them with the stings of wasps and hornets. I grew up terrified of Yellow Jackets, whose territorial instincts and ability to sting you repeatedly made them quite dangerous. But a bee dies if it stings you, so you have to really work to convince a bee to sting you. “If you’re not a flower, these bees do not care about you.” (Noah Wilson-Rich in Torgovnick).

Urban beekeeping fits well in our developed environment. Hives are tucked in among the containerized plants today on many downtown hotels and residential buildings, and exist in parks and backyards across suburbia. Marla Spivak endorses this trend but cautions, “There’s success, but there’s high risk too. The use of pesticides in cities is not as tightly regulated as it is in agricultural landscapes. And so homeowners, park keepers, anybody in the city can use much higher concentrations of pesticides and insecticides much more frequently than they are, really, allowed by label in agricultural settings.”

So, maybe we should all start hives. It could help you to get to know your neighbors (get them to use fewer pesticides!), you save the bees, support consumption of more veggies and fruits, and save the planet, all in one fell swoop. Not a bad day’s work.

Paraphrasing Hamlet, “To bee or not to bee, that is the question.”

Additional information:

The Alt National Park Service has decided to do a save the honey bee campaign for the spring months. This campaign will offer organic seeds native to the United States. You order a seed pack, plant them and take pictures of your plants after they are grown. They are hoping to do this as a public education program about native seeds and protection of the pollinators. Contact hello@altnps.org for more info.

Kate Torgovnick, What is it about bees? Three experts on why they’re fascinating, why they’re dying, what can save them? Sep 17, 2013 www.ideas.ted.com

Noah Wilson-Rich, Every City Needs Healthy Honeybees, July 2012, www.TedTalks.com

John M. Marzluff, Subirdia, 2014

Endangered Species Act designation status: http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/01/11/509337678/u-s-puts-first-bumblebee-on-the-endangered-species-list

 

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