We have declared a war on bees. You say, How can that be? We love bees.
It must be the mites, viruses and producers of pesticides and herbicides killing the bees, not us. But, who is buying all those chemicals? Who chooses what you grow in your yards?
Bees often go unnoticed. Quietly they go about their job pollinating the flowers that become fruits, vegetables and seeds for future generations of plants.
But bees’ struggle for survival depends on us. If we allow them to die off, we soon will find that most of the foods we are fond of eating will no longer be available. Could we possibly be declaring war on ourselves as well?
"The bees are weak from the viruses, the mites and even genetics," said Phil Juengel, a beekeeper for 61 years. "They are just weak and can’t take it anymore."
Juengel, who operates Juengel Honey Farms in Preble, used to lose only one hive a year. Now with Varroa mites, small-hive beetles and viruses – to name just a few adversaries – a lot of his hives don’t survive the winter. Two years ago, Juengel lost so many hives, he gave up counting. Juengel says 20 percent of his hives may have survived.
Duane Rekeweg, a beekeeper for 34 years, used to lose 10 percent of his hives over the winter. Since his operation was diagnosed with Varroa mites two years ago, Rekeweg Honey Company in Decatur is losing 60Ã¢ percent to 70 percent of its hives over the winter.
(Varroa mites are external honeybee parasites that attack adults and the brood, according to the Kentucky agriculture department. They suck the blood from adults and the developing brood, weakening and shortening the lifespan of the bees on which they feed.)
Fort Wayne resident Glenn Hile of Glenn’s Natural Honey said the last two winters have been terrible. A beekeeper for 13 years, Hile lost 70 percent of his hives and this past winter lost as many as half.
A survey from the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that more than 40Ã¢ percent of beehives died in the past year, the second-highest annual loss since the surveys began in 2010.
Mites are part of the problem; another is the change in agriculture. There are a lot more herbicides and insecticides used in farming today.
There also is less variety in crops for the bees to pollinate.
"There used to be fields of clover and alfalfa, but that is all gone now. It’s all corn and soybeans," Rekeweg said.
Roundup-ready soybeans and corn also have reduced the forage area between the crops for the bees, added Tony Rekeweg, who recently left a career in banking to work the honey business with his father.
Beekeeper Alex Cornwell of Fort Wayne’s Southwest Honey Co. suggests a more subtle problem. Flowering plants from the garden store often are treated with neonics insecticides. Bees take the pollen from these plants back to the hive and infect the other bees.
Neonics are systemic pesticides. Unlike contact pesticides, which remain on the surface of the treated foliage, systemics are taken up by the plant and transported to all the tissues – leaves, flowers, roots and stems, as well as pollen and nectar.
Hile said he thinks bees are experiencing a nutritional deficiency.
"You can put them out in your cornfield and they will get something to eat, but it is like you eating Cheerios three time a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year," he said.
When his farmer’s market customers ask what is killing the bees, Hile tells them it is the grass.
"The reason I tell them that is that they can’t do anything about the mites, but (grass) is something they can do something about," Hile said. "Grass is like a green desert as far as bees are concerned. There is nothing for them to eat; we spray a lot of chemicals on it that is hard on the bees. As soon as someone sees clover or a dandelion, they spray it."
Hile added that we should take notice of grass all around town. If there were clover mixed in, the grass would provide a lot of food for the bees.
"Planting flowers will give the bees a food pit stop," said backyard beekeeper Mariah Russell. Russell said native flowers – like purple coneflower, Queen Anne’s lace and black-eyed Susans – are the best choice, as they have all the pollen and nectar bees need. You can also encourage Indiana to plant flowering tree and plants along the roadside and not mow as often, added Tony Rekeweg.
Bees are important for the food we eat and the continuation of plants and flowers and even wildlife. "Flowers depend on pollination to make more seed, so everything in the food chain depends on bees and pollination," Russell said.
Without bees, most of the fruits and vegetables in the supermarket wouldn’t exist anymore. "We would be really hungry or lacking in variety. We wouldn’t have the need for the farmer’s market because most of the food sold here has been pollinated by insects, honeybees in particular," Hile said.
"Some people don’t realize that some of our favorite foods, not just the fruits, berries and vegetables, but things like coffee and milk (require pollination). Dairy farms depend on alfalfa, and alfalfa needs to be pollinated to continue on. Without those cows eating alfalfa, they won’t be able to make the delicious dairy foods like ice cream, yogurt and milk," Russell said.
"Think before killing flowering plants. Think before using insecticides. We think, ‘I am just killing those yellow jackets.’ A lot of those chemicals persist for a long time and you never know what else they will kill," Hile said, adding that if you want your front yard to look like a golf course, at least let your backyard grow some clovers and dandelions.
"People are going to have to wake up," Juengel warned.
Cathie Rowand is The Journal Gazette’s visual editor.