In late June, in Hartford, Connecticut’s Elizabeth Park, my son and I watch two people play Frisbee as we picnic. In between bites of our almond-butter and jelly sandwiches, we play a game of rock-paper-scissors. As we finish, a bee buzzes past us. My four-year-old son’s eyes light up. He points as he stands up and exclaims, “Aw, a bee!” I take his hand and we follow it. Flowers bloom: tulips, daffodils, heritage roses. The bumble bee hovers gently over the inside of the flower, plants itself, and starts collecting pollen. Little pieces of leftover pollen from the flower’s stamen stick to the hairs on the bee’s body, and as it flies to the next flower with those little traces of pollen, it pollinates. The natural world continues, as it has for millennia.
The diversity of bees holds an important role in the ecosystem. The twenty-five thousand species include honey bees, carpenter bees, blue orchid bee, bumble bees, and, well, 24,996 more. Many people group bees together, but all bees act individually, and each holds their own set of problems. Their laborious behavior and work ethic make these creatures one of the biggest necessities on our planet.
“When people talk about saving the bees, the real bees that need saving are the native bees in this country.
A few years back, General Mills created a marketing campaign for their Honey Nut Cheerios brand to save bees. This call to action sent consumers free seeds to plant flowers in the hope their garden would provide a safe haven for bees. However, this campaign created the idea honey bees are in decline when, in fact, native bees suffer the most.
Adam Fuller, a beekeeper of 40 years and owner of A & Z Apiaries, says, “When people talk about saving the bees, the real bees that need saving are the native bees in this country, because their colonies are so much smaller, making them far more susceptible to negative results of pesticides and habitat destruction. Honey bees have big colonies and reproduce rapidly. While they do have huge problems with mites and pesticides, the issue is much bigger for native bees.”
Managed bees, like the honey bee, receive help from beekeepers to compensate any losses. All those natural honey bottles stocked on grocery store shelves and set up on tables at the farmer’s market? We can thank our local beekeepers and honey bees for their dedication to catering to the sweet tooth of our communities. Providing over $18 billion to the U.S. economy, honey bees play a crucial role in our food supply.
Right now, beekeepers in some areas outside of the United States have concerns about this year’s honey collection. With the rise of COVID-19 and the world on lockdown, imports have stopped and borders have closed, leaving beekeepers with the inability to move and gather their bees. This puts strain on honey production, crop production, and the bees’ ability to pollinate.
Back in the park, my son and I continue to watch the bee. My son looks up at me and asks, “Why do bees like flowers?” I tell him bees eat their nectar. Like a first grade schoolteacher, I try to tell him about pollination. I explain that the bee is attracted to the colors and the smell of the flower because it holds food for them and their kids. As the bees eat, the pollen rubs off onto their bodies and once they fly to another flower, the pollen from the first one fertilizes the flower’s eggs to make seeds and create more flowers. He expresses a simple “Oh, that’s cool,” and walks away. I glance one last time at the bee and realize I’m glad I’m not a teacher.
Pollinators provide about a third of the human diet and improve the production of a variety of food crops: melons, cucumbers, cocoa, almonds, cotton, coriander, canola, and soy, and many other crops benefit from insect pollination. While a portion of the human diet depends on wind-pollinated crops such as wheat and corn, mediated pollination by insects help provide nutrient-rich foods and a better shelf-life for certain crops, such as fruit. According to scientists, a decline in diverse bee populations may mean a decline in the amount and quality of crop yields, along with a decline in things we all use in our day-to-day lives.
While in certain parts of the world beekeepers and honey bees may suffer losses this year because of import problems due to the coronavirus, the wild bee population may find some benefit from the disease. According to The Guardian, community councils in Britain have their focus elsewhere and are choosing to leave the roadside verges uncut, allowing bees an extra source for pollinating.
Entomologists, the scientists that research the creepy-crawlies everyone else loathes, study the three P’s for bees: parasites, pesticides, and poor nutrition. Varroa mites hold the biggest concern to honey bees and their keepers. With an exponential rate of growth, the mites spread quickly in a hive, making bees vulnerable to destruction. These tiny, parasitic critters wedge themselves into a bee’s exoskeleton and break through to release a digestive enzyme. This enzyme breaks down the tissue and softens it to allow the mites to suck it out of the bee’s body; a varroa mite’s personal bee-guts smoothie.
“The varroa mites suck the fatty body out of the honey bees, and they are vectoring viruses. Several of these viruses are highly deadly to bees. As we’re learning right now with COVID-19, you can’t treat a virus, but you can learn to control the spread of it,” Fuller states. “Beekeeper’s have to control the spread of the varroa mites. Many of us have been dealing with varroa mites for 30 years. And we aren’t any closer to a solution for the mites than we were 30 years ago.”
Bees in the United States may eventually be facing another deadly battle to fight besides varroa mites: the Asian giant hornet, also known as the murder hornet. The hornet kills up to fifty people in Japan every year, but while the hornet’s sting may be painful to humans and cause a small percentage of casualties, their main target is bees. These two-inch terminators destroy hives with murderous brutality by ripping off the heads of bees, something you’d think to only see in a Wes Craven flick. Disclaimer: don’t panic. They’re not a danger yet, so please don’t kill every bee you see.
According to Fuller, the best actions we can take to help the native bee population is limiting the use of insecticides and following the directions on the labels. “The biggest problem is people who go down to Home Depot, tell the employee they have bugs, and the employee hands them a jug. They go home and don’t read the directions. They dump a little insecticide onto their plants and then a little more because they really want to kill them. Then they spray the plants that are in flower and kill the native bees that are visiting them.”
He also recommends planting bright, native plants and flowers in gardens and yards to help provide food for native bees and allow them to pollinate. “You go out and you plant 10, 15, 100 plants in your yard, you can have a major impact on the small, native population of native bees that live in that area.”
Humans face their own crisis with COVID-19. I sit outside Perkatory Roasters in Middletown, Connecticut. I sip on a lavender honey latte called “Killa Beez” named after the Wu-Tang Clan affiliates. The coffee shop only takes to-go orders, masks cover the worker’s faces, and there is no low hum of constant conversation: our own version of the bee’s varroa mites. As we battle COVID-19, bees battle pesticides, varroa mites, and murder hornets. With my coffee in hand and a mask tucked beneath my chin, I wonder about the future of bees and humans alike. How will the world proceed with coronavirus guidelines to keep the deadly virus at bay? Will my son’s future be affected by the decline of bees and loss of crops? Or will nature, like it always seems to do, find a balance and heal itself?
Shayna Shattelroe is a staff writer for Blue Muse.