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What all the Buzz is About: Will There Be Enough Bees?

Aug 15, 2016 01:57PM ● By Cate Reynolds

The science of bees explains their vital importance to our ecosystem and agricultural industry in Maryland; meet local beekeepers advocating for their protection.

By Kristen Peterson // Photography by Vince Lupo

Walking along a gravel path toward a few of his hives at Adkins Arboretum within Tuckahoe State Park on the Eastern Shore, Michael Embry chats about how he got into beekeeping.

“Naivety,” he explains, laughing.

While attending the University of Maryland Wye Mills Research and Education Center decades ago, Embry agreed to volunteer at a university research farm. Some horticultural specialists were trying to grow blueberries, raspberries, and peaches, and needed the help of honeybees. Embry raised his hand—and ended up raising bees to pollinate the produce.

“I didn’t know bees would take me where they have,” Embry says. “It turns out that I was not the only one on the Eastern Shore captivated by these little guys—people kept approaching me, wanting to learn about bees.”

Embry started a Beekeeping 101 class in 1996, which is still going strong. It began with a group of six people; participation has grown to 75 students per year. Despite the spike in class-size, some aspects of beekeeping are declining.

Michael Embrey (right) and Bill Anderson (left), tend hives at the Wye Mills Research and Education Center in Queenstown.

“We are more [like] bee managers these days than beekeepers,” says Embry.

A combination of mites, disease, harmful pesticides, and climate change has taken a toll on bees, causing growing concern from beekeepers, farmers, and average citizens.

“The trouble is that you can’t put your finger on one issue and say ‘that’s the problem,” says Embry, explaining that there are multiple factors at play.

Saving the World; One Hive at a Time

But something is certainly transpiring. Bees have thrived for millions of years, but last year (2014-2015), Maryland beekeepers lost 61 percent of their bees, about twice the national average and far more than is typical in a year. And this was not a one-time problem: since 2006, beekeepers nationwide have lost an average of 30 to 40 percent of their hives.

One of Embrey’s former students, Bill Anderson, is a beguiled beekeeper.

“I do it because bees are just fascinating,” he explains. “They can communicate to each other through something called a ‘waggle dance.’ And the hive itself is a super organism. By keeping bees, I’m trying to help save the world, one hive at a time.”

But this year, Anderson and his bees joined the list of victims. “I went into winter with only two hives and combined one weak hive with another. In the end, I lost them all—I’m beeless!”

What is the power of bees? Imagine on your next trip to the grocery store you are unable to find any apples in the produce department. As you wander further around the store you realize other items are also missing: strawberries, blueberries, broccoli, carrots, almonds, even coffee.

Welcome to a world without bees. All of these foods depend on pollination from this tiny, but important insect. Known as the angels of agriculture, bees pollinate 71 of the 100 crops that make up the majority of the world’s food supply. Indeed, bees and other pollinators are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we eat.

In addition to Maryland’s 1,800 beekeepers, the state’s agriculture and economy would be hit hard. According to the Maryland Department of Agriculture, crops valued in excess of $40 million require or benefit from honeybee pollination in the state. Without bees and commercial beekeepers, farmers would not have access to enough bees to pollinate their fields.

“Without bees, we would need to rely more heavily on staple grains, like wheat, rice, and corn since these crops rely largely on wind pollination,” explains Embry.

Cleo Braver of Cottingham Farm in Talbot County surveys irrigation in her greenhouse.


Angels of Agriculture

Beekeepers like Embry supply hives to local farmers to help with pollination. Embry typically has between 60 to100 hives for farmers across the Eastern Shore as well as service contracts for other farmers’ hives. Placing the hives near the farm, rather than transporting them reduces the stress of travel on the bees.

“We want to think of these guys as machines, but we’re dealing with an organism,” he says. “When they are stressed, they get sick, just like humans.”

Embry also lost a considerable portion of his hives this year, which he attributes mainly to Varroa mites. He describes these mites as “little Draculas” that suck the blood out of bees, weakening them, shortening their life span, and transmitting viruses.

Oliver Collins, who worked for DuPont for 41 years before getting into beekeeping 35 years ago, is one of the state's largest commercial beekeepers.

“My coworkers at DuPont kept bees and so did some of my neighbors,”says Collins, who resides in Vienna, Maryland, “I thought, “My gosh, I’d like to get into that.”

Collins not only delved, he exceled—at one point in his career, he was keeping 1,500 hives at 25 locations. As demand grew, so did his hive numbers, which he places mainly at local cucumber and watermelon farms.

Like his fellow beekeepers, Collins has been impacted recently by hive loss. Last year, he had 900 hives of which 385 have survived so far.

Collins cites dry weather, destroyed habitat, and loss of livestock pastures as some of the main reasons he has lost hives.

“The new landscape is not enough to sustain bees,” he says. “Without bees, it would certainly be more expensive to farm and would result in less yields,” he says.

A world without bees means none of these.

Cleo Braver, an organic farmer on the Eastern Shore, saw major crop loss last summer to her staple crop—heirloom tomatoes—which she attributes to a loss of bees. She and her husband, Allie Tyler, own Cottingham Farm, a 156-acre farm in Talbot County. A local beekeeper keeps hives on their farm, which she describes as “a simpatico relationship” that helps her farm, the beekeeper, and the bees.

“Bees have a tremendous impact on produce,” she explains. “If crops aren’t getting enough pollination events, they will not become a vegetable or become harvestable. For a tomato to become everything it can be, it can take eight or more different pollinating events before the tomato flower is fully pollinated.

We had significant pollination problems this year—there were notably less pollinators and very light pollination of our tomatoes—so we had to pollinate by hand, which takes a lot of time and effort. Plus, we can't begin to replicate what thousands of insect pollinators have always done for us.”

The end result: a very small tomato harvest.

“We did one delivery to each of our grocer clients for the entire season,” says Braver, who normally does grocery deliveries once or twice per week. “We honored our obligations and didn’t have much to sell at market. It was bad. We had all of the labor, but very little revenue.”

The Queen Bee's residence until she is placed into a hive.


The Problem With Pesticides

Braver believes that pesticides, specifically neonicotinoids, or neonics, are to blame. And research backs up her theory—numerous studies confirm that neonics contribute to bee mortality.

This powerful new pesticide acts as a toxic elixir, impairing bees' ability to find their way back to the hive, collect food, and produce new queens. It can eventually lead to their death. Research confirms that this chemical is not only harming bees, but is also adversely impacting other native pollinators, such as butterflies and birds, posing a serious threat to our wildlife, food, and public health. Just one seed coated in neonics is enough to kill a songbird, according to a report by the American Bird Conservancy.

“We’ve reached a perfect storm,” explains Braver. “It only became clear toward the end of last year.”

Braver feels that neonics have spread like wildfire recently—from corn seed that has been treated with it to sprays that homeowners buy for their gardens and yards.

“It's just recently been found in tomato, squash and other vegetables plants,” she adds. “It's also in pollinator plants including milkweed and sunflowers. It's in cover crop seed like crimson clover and buckwheat, which, ironically, are often planted expressly because pollinators are attracted to them.”

Even big box retailers sell plants that have been treated with neonics. More than half of “bee-friendly” plants purchased at Walmart and Lowes stores in 18 cities across the U.S. and Canada, including in Maryland, had levels that were sufficient to kill bees outright, according to a 2014 Friends of the Earth study.

Consumers are buying plants for their yards thinking they’re helping the environment, but they’re planting poison.

Using a hive tool, Embrey pries boxes within the hive apart since the bees do a good job of scaling the hive.


The Battle to Save the Bees

“If the world wants us to grow food in a natural way, we need our pollinators,” Braver concludes.

The decline of hives is a big enough deal that the Obama Administration has created a task force to look into it. And Maryland has been sounding the war cry, too. This year, the Smart on Pesticides Coalition, led by the Maryland Pesticide Education Network, organized to protect pollinators in Maryland.

The group, which included beekeepers, produce farmers, and scientists, rallied to get the Pollinator Protection Act passed by the Maryland General Assembly. It restricts the sale of neonicotinoid pesticides to certified applicators, farmers, or veterinarians only. The coalition, which included beekeepers from across the state, "swarmed" bill hearings and floor debates, lobbying legislators and talking to reporters, making a bold statement in their white suits.

The results: success. On April 11, Maryland became the first state to pass legislation through its General Assembly that restricts consumers from using neonicotinoids. The Pollinator Protection Act (Senate Bill 198/House Bill 211) will become law without the Governor’s signature. Under the Act, consumers will not be allowed to buy pesticides that contain neonicotinoids starting in 2018. Certified pesticide applicators, farmers and veterinarians will be still be allowed to use neonicotinoids.

“I’m very excited that Maryland is poised to be a leader in pollinator protection,” says April Boulton, Insect Ecologist and Associate Professor at Hood College. “From a scientific standpoint, we know that residential use of pesticides is one of the most abusive to pollinators. Homeowners, who are not certified to apply these chemicals may inadvertently over apply, causing pesticides to linger in plants for months, even years. This Act will not only protect the pollinators, but also the Eastern Shore farmers that rely on native and managed bees to pollinate their produce.”

Pesticide manufacturers have seen the writing on the wall, too: On April 12, Ortho, the nation's leading brand of insect control products for lawn and garden use, announced that “…it would immediately begin to transition away from the use of neonicotinoid-based pesticides for outdoor use and would launch a new partnership with the Pollinator Stewardship Council to help educate homeowners on the safe and appropriate use of pesticides.”

And while, the battle is not over—bees still have many stressors to combat—the state has taken a step in the right direction to help the plight of the honeybee.


To Bee or Not to Bee

Everyday citizens can help bees too, by being a smart consumer.

Even though we can no longer buy neonics off shelves, many garden plants sold at home garden centers and big box retailers have been treated with these bee-killing pesticides. Ask suppliers if your plant is "bee-friendly”or neonic-free.

“Homeowners can really make a big difference,” Braver advises. “Don’t buy plants and seeds treated with neonics. Visit local, organic nurseries whenever possible.”

Another way to add to the bee population is to become a beekeeper, for business or pleasure. Even Baltimore City residents keep hives!

When asked what interested people should do to get started, beekeepers Collins and Embry give similar advice: be sure that you want to keep bees before you invest.

If you are certain it’s for you, Collins adds, “It’s the same as starting anything: find someone successful who will talk to you and listen to what they have to say.”

He also suggests taking a Beekeeping 101 class like Embry’s.

Those who decide to go for it might see some great benefits in addition to helping agriculture and the environment: the advantages of honey. Honey has been known to soothe sore throats and coughs. Its anti-inflammatory effects have led to the belief it can also reduce seasonal allergy symptoms. Some swear by using honey to treat burns and other studies say it can boost memory.

Whether one chooses to become a beekeeper or not, the bottom line is bees make our lives better and they need our help. From the vibrant and fragrant flowers we see out our windows to the apple we buy at the grocery store, these tiny pollinators are important.

According to Bill Anderson: “Albert Einstein once said: ‘If the bee disappears from the surface of the Earth, man would have no more than four years to live. No more bees, no more pollination…no more men!’ It’s certainly something to think about.”


How You Can Help Honey Bees?

Be a smart consumer: Don’t buy plants and seeds treated with neonics. Visit organic nurseries or ask suppliers if your plant is “bee-friendly” or neonic-free

Buy organic produce

Learn a new hobby: beekeeping

Encourage friends and relatives in other states to talk to their policymakers about enacting legislation similar to Maryland’s Pollinator Protection Act

Wye River Beekeepers:

Interested in learning more about beekeeping? Every third Wednesday of the month, the Wye River Beekeepers meet at Chesapeake College. Mike Embry is on the board. According to Bill Anderson, President: “This is a forum for beekeepers helping beekeepers.”