Ten years ago, colony collapse disorder threatened honeybee populations worldwide. Beekeepers suddenly discovered 30 percent of their hives mysteriously bee-less. Alarm bells went off.
While most people view bees as a picnic nuisance, these stinging insects are actually vital to what’s in the picnic basket. According to the Natural Resource Defense Council, they are the pollinators for about one of every three bites of food we eat. Losing them would stoke a nutritional crisis in which only wind-pollinated plants — such as corn, wheat and oats — survive. In addition, more than $14 billion in agricultural revenue would vanish.
Today, honeybee populations are still declining at an unacceptable rate, but that rate is declining. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that the number of commercial colonies increased 3 percent in 2017, while honeybee deaths due to colony collapse disorder decreased by 27 percent in the first quarter of the year over the same period last year.
Diane Busch (aka the Bee Lady of La Jolla) reports that this slight improvement is echoed in her local colonies. She has 17 scattered in gardens across Clairemont, Point Loma, Rancho Santa Fe and Solana Beach — most in private backyards owned by gardeners who want the pollination to grow their fruits and veggies larger. (Busch splits the honey she collects with them.)
“They’re doing well,” Busch told the Light at a press conference organized by the UC San Diego chapter of the California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) to shine light on the bees’ continuing plight. (When Busch arrived, she was swarmed by students like a queen by workers, grilled on everything from how to remove mites from bees and how to remove a hive from a wall. The answers: powdered sugar and carefully.)
“I don’t want people to be frightened of the future,” Busch told the 24 UCSD students. “On the other hand, you sometimes have to thump people on the head and say, ‘Look, you have to be aware.’ ”
CALPIRG actually staged its press conference to highlight all the food that wouldn’t be on the Thanksgiving table without bees. (Basically, say goodbye to cranberry sauce, green beans, carrots and pie fillings from pumpkin to apple.) “If they go, we’re going to end up paying $10 for an apple,” Busch added.
Colony collapse disorder is thought to be a complex tangle of problems including mites, viruses, predators, malnutrition, genetics, loss of habitat and climate change. (Recently, it was also discovered that diesel fumes reduce bee foraging efficiency by disturbing chemicals in their brains.) Busch places most of the blame on pesticide use by farmers.
“Bees have a lot of natural diseases and pests to deal with anyway — but to throw on pesticides, it’s like a double-whammy,” she said. “When I open up a hive and they’re gone, or I have bees that come home and die in front of a hive, I know they’ve gone somewhere where someone has sprayed.”
The infiltration of killer bees into San Diego is another issue. “They’re nasty,” Busch said. “I’ve opened up a hive where the queen’s been inseminated with good bees and she’s also got some really bad hombres, so she starts laying these bad eggs and it’s like night and day. Your veil’s covered, your suit’s covered. It’s a scary thing.”
San Diego has a local beekeeping society, Busch said, that is currently strategizing ways to dilute the African gene in local killer bees. This involves inseminating the queens in a controlled environment, killing the bad queen and replacing her with a good queen to milk down the Africanized gene. “But, you know,” Busch said, “nature always has a way of adapting.”
According to Busch, the San Diego Beekeeping Society has 700 members and a Meetup group that draws 50-75 people to Balboa Park every second Monday evening of the month. Most are gravely concerned about the future of honeybees, while Busch says she’s become more cautiously optimistic.
“You know what?” Busch said, “Bees have been around since before the dinosaurs. They came right after the flowers came, so they probably are the oldest living insects. I think they’ll survive. It’s just that we’ve been known to really screw things up.”
WHAT CAN BEE DONE?
Saving honeybees globally can only be done locally:
1. Plant more bee-friendly flowers. “Succulents are great,” Busch says, “but they don’t bloom on a regular basis like coreopsis or something that puts out a lot of pollen and nectar.”
2. Don’t spray insecticide for other pests. If you must, keep it as natural as possible, such as concentrated orange oil.
3. Don’t bother with organic honey. “There is no such thing,” Busch says, because that would imply that a 10-mile radius around the hives consists only of organic plants and “no outside substances such as an overturned Coke on a picnic table.” (Whatever a bee ingests goes into its honey, which is essentially its vomit.)
4. Know your beekeeper. “If you know that he or she is not adding antibiotics, pesticides or miticides to their honey, then that is the next-best thing.”
5. Mow your lawn less, and leave a weed patch. “It’s healthy for pollinators like the bumblebees to nest in,” Busch says.