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June 10, 2013

MIKE LUNSFORD: We’ve created a honey of a problem

The Dutch clover is making its appearance in my yard this week. A cooler-than-usual spring has slowed its arrival by a few days, but it is here for now, bringing the honeybees and bumblebees with it.

I don’t spray my lawn with herbicides and pesticides to kill the dandelions and clover, the ants and ground hornets. Although I don’t care to see my yard’s green carpet spotted with the yellows and whites and purples of these weeds, and certainly hate the nasty stings from those assassin hornets who take up residence in old mole runs near my pine trees in dry weather, I like even less the effects chemicals are having on our planet, perhaps even on those who walk around on it.

More relevant to helpful insects, like the aforementioned bees, is the use of pesticides, specifically those that contain imidacloprid, a type of neonicotinoid insecticide. Believe me, I do not defend the rights of all insects. Show me a cockroach, and I’ll find a shoe, and I notoriously slay blowflies, mosquitoes and silverfish with impunity… But bees, particularly honeybees, are different. They pollinate much of what we eat, and because a good meal is near and dear to my heart, as well as to my stomach, I’d certainly like to see them stick around a while.

That may not be the case unless we get to work, and perhaps tolerate a few more bugs in our yards and a few more spots on our apples.  

Bees are disappearing at an alarming rate around the world; that isn’t a new revelation, but it should be a worrisome one. Last year alone, it is estimated that the honeybee population in this country dropped by 50 percent. Another startling fact: Honeybees, in particular, pollinate about a third of the food crops people eat. They are amazing creatures, living in colonies of up to 60,000 inhabitants, led by queen bees that are capable of producing their own body weights in eggs in a single day. They speak their own language, transmitted from a brain no larger than a cubic millimeter, yet one that holds a million neurons.

Author and environmentalist Bill McKibben told me via email, “I think honeybees are in trouble, and I think it’s a good reflection of the carelessness with which we’ve treated creation. Clearly there are pesticides that are causing trouble, but also the continual heating of the earth, which is likely, the scientists say, to drive into extinction many of the creatures God put on her alongside us.” He added, “Happily, many beekeepers are increasingly turning to chemical-free beekeeping, and the delicious honey they produce helps in some small way with the larger problems, and maybe it’s a small gesture that can lead us to other, larger ones that will help heal the planet.”

A few radical tree huggers aren’t the only folks concerned about pesticides; this is an issue that is affecting us all now. John Byers, a brother of a good friend of mine, is a Michigan beekeeper — he maintains just three hives — and ironically, is a pest control operator. “I am just getting started in this, but I, too, have had a concern for bees, which led to me wanting to raise them,” he told me a few weeks ago. “I don’t think anyone knows for sure what is causing the demise of honeybees. It seems they leave the hive to forage and just don’t come back. Some think it could be a virus, or pesticides with imidacloprid. The varroa mite has caused serious issue for bees, too,” Byers says.

Parke County natives Steve and Pam Hauser are nearly neighbors of mine. Both have been very active in beekeeping, and Steve is a past president of the Indiana Bee Keepers Association, so when it comes to beekeeping, he knows what he’s talking about.

“I don’t know of a single beekeeper who hasn’t been challenged tremendously,” Hauser says. At one time, he had nine hives, yet after losing two more over the winter, he has only two healthy hives left. He more than suspects neonicotinoids, “neonics” for short.

“Neonics are applied systemically,” Hauser says. “It’s kind of a dirty secret that the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) won’t even acknowledge that after crops on which neonics are used are harvested, the stalks are chopped or plowed under. The next spring, those chemicals break down and inoculate wildflower seeds. The neonics go from parts per trillion to parts per million.” The pollinating bees then literally bring the neonics home to their hives. …

“They’re using these chemicals in all kinds of home products now, too,” Hauser says. “We went into town a few days ago to look for a fungicide for our apple trees and rose bushes; they contained neonics, so had we used them, we’d have been inoculating our own dandelions (which honeybees most certainly love).”

Hauser says that the past few springs have seen “huge kills” when it comes to honeybee populations. “We have seen half of our bees crash in a period from March 15 to the first of May,” he said. Hauser added, “Some beekeepers are taking their bees deep into the woods, away from agriculture, and they’re thriving.”

Hauser asks all of us to “be vigilant’ when it comes to spraying our weeds. “It’s tempting to do something so easy,” he says. “We have to think about what we’re doing.” He says that soap-based insecticides, which can be made at home, do a great job around the yard, and that we “should never spray anything in bloom.”

One organization that is attempting to curb the decline in honeybee populations is the Pollinator Partnership (www.pollinator.org), which, according to a piece done in a recent “The Week” magazine, “works to protect the bees, birds, bats, butterflies, and beetles that pollinate plants.” One way they are doing that is by teaching farmers about safer pesticides and by protecting pollinators on the 1.5 billion acres of federally owned land.

When I mowed my yard the other day, the clover and last-remaining dandelions were poking their heads through the grass, which was taller than I expected it to be. In all the time I rode along, lopping off the tops of the weeds and the grass in a nice, even crew cut, I watched for honeybees. I saw only one.

I was able to stop before I made her a statistic, and I sat a while in the bright sunlight and watched her buzz from one pinkish-white flower to another, gathering pollen as she went. She was an industrious worker, furiously gathering from a few of the 50 to 100 flowers she visited on a tour of my yard before she headed to her hive. I was willing to bet that she repeated that process all day long, literally burning herself up in the process. If the bee I watched was typical, she will most likely be dead inside of three weeks, but not before she visits and gleans and transports pollen from more than 40,000 flowers.

I just hope she was able to find her way home …

Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at hickory913@aol.com, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. You can learn more about his writing and speaking by going to his website at www.mikelunsford.com. His new book, “A Windy Hill Almanac,” will be released this fall.

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