I hope the bees can forgive me for intruding a bit into their private lives and sharing what I’ve found. Rest assured: No bees were disturbed in any way for this article. The truth is, bees like hedges. And flowers.
Bees have critical relationships with the plants surrounding them; they’ve evolved together. In the same way, we too are dependent on bees, for bees pollinate not only flowering plants but many of our popular foods as well, including tomatoes, berries, peppers, squashes and nuts. It’s been said that one of every three bites of our food was brought to us courtesy of animal pollinators such as bees.
But in recent decades, in the shadows of our burgeoning population and the advent of mass-scale agribusiness, flat fields have stretched over the habitable land on much of the earth, wiping out hedges and flowering shrubs. In an alarming trend, the large, social bees such as honey bees and bumble bees have faced "colony collapse disorder" -- entire bee colonies dying suddenly. The bees are also affected by diseases as their communities are placed together and transported long distances by corporations to pollinate various crops.
The discovery of colony-collapse disorder has brought pollination to humanity’s attention. Varied reports of collapses have appeared out of about half of the United States, from the Mediterranean region, and from Britain, and are now emerging from China and Australia as well.
The “Mystery” of the Missing Bees
Professor Judith Halberstam noted how “Silence of the Bees,” produced as part of the PBS Nature series last October, brought television viewers all sorts of possible explanations for the disappearance of bees in various parts of the world: Could it be global warming? The use of fields to produce just one kind of crop for agribusiness? And so forth. The show brought up these various and interconnected reasons for the bees’ disappearance and yet ended up, as many of these shows do, treating the bees’ disappearance as some kind of mystery to scientists. Halberstam aptly observed that communicators would be better advised to be thinking about solutions, rather than just posing questions. Thinking about real solutions would implicate the viewers’ own lives, and television isn’t used to doing that. It should be.
The website offered by the Public Broadcasting Service to accompany the show has provided some advice: It recommends steering clear of pesticides -- a good idea. It also encourages concerned viewers take up home beekeeping, although there are ways to support the bees’ survival that don’t involve trying to keep or manage them. One answer, for example, could be offered by gardeners, for g ardens play a critical role in offering habitat for bees.
Notably, beekeeping has actually comprised part of the problem bees face today. According to PBS, a big break in the case of the lost bees came when scientists used genetic testing to link colony collapse with a particular virus. That virus was discovered in 2004, the same year U.S. beekeepers started importing packaged bees from Australia.
Beekeeping is threatening other animals as well. Gorillas face urgent and ever-increasing threats from humans in Rwanda, Congo and Uganda -- including more than 1,800 bee farmers who use the forestland of the Virunga Mountains to produce beeswax for candles and the cosmetic industry.
Meanwhile, bee colony collapses are still being treated as scientific puzzles, and this has triggered a new area of vivisection. Government and Penn State researchers are planning complex experiments to learn whether the virus itself wipes out colonies or if instead the disorder is triggered by other pathogens and stresses. These researchers will “stress bees in certain ways and evaluate the effect on their health.” Israeli researchers think virus-resistant bees can be bred, and are doing still more experiments, injecting bees with viruses.
Already, beekeepers in 24 U.S. states report that perhaps 70 percent of their colonies have recently died off, threatening about $14 billion in agriculture. Dairy and other animal farmers are becoming concerned about their stores of feed, including alfalfa. Future losses of bees could even wipe out whole crops. Almonds, for example, completely depend on pollination by honey bees.
Meet the Pollinators
The earliest pollinators were insects such as beetles, but bees became specialized as more efficient pollinators than beetles, butterflies, pollen wasps, or any other pollinating insect. Bees’ ancestors are the wasps -- predators of insects. Some wasps, commonly known as beewolves, prey on bees themselves in order to supply food to their carnivorous larvae. Thus, to some beekeepers, predator control means targeting wasps.
Beekeepers often use honey bees. The big, fuzzy bumble bees we see on garden flowers carry more pollen than honey bees do; but honey bee colonies have long been exploited as honey producers due to their large numbers. Unlike bumble bees, who typically form small colonies of 50 to a few hundred members, honey bees’ colonies can rise to include 30,000 or more.
Yet some bumble bees have long tongues, suited to flowers with long tubes, such as red clover. Bumble bees are known to fly in cooler air than many other bees, and to continue their movements after the daylight fades. When performing “buzz pollination,” required to produce tomatoes, bumble bees hold a flower while the vibration of their wings loosens and releases the pollen. And because bumble bees survive indoors they’ve been used extensively in the greenhouse industry.
Millions of colonies of bees are used in the worldwide production of honey, pollen, royal jelly, novelties such as propolis lollipops, mead or honey wine, beeswax candles and cosmetics, and venom for human uses. To obtain these products, beekeepers regularly disturb the hives, crushing some bees in the process. Beekeepers will replace the bees’ honey with high-fructose corn syrup or cheap, refined sugar, and may kill off the colonies to avoid maintaining the hives throughout the winter. Many beekeepers will clip the queen’s wings or use a “queen excluder” cage to keep the queen from relocating the hive; many will also kill the queen when the production of eggs visibly declines. They may use smoke to force the bees out of the hive so the honey can be harvested. Some beekeepers torch the entire colony when winter arrives.
In a natural environment the queen honey bee, not the beekeeper, would choose the hive’s location and the number of eggs produced. The bees would gather nectar and pollen to feed their own communities. Do the bees themselves care that they have lost control over their lives? They probably do. Not only do bees have brains; they also use those brains to form abstract concepts and to reach consensus. Joan Dunayer has described how “scouts (all of whom are sisters) search for a cavity of suitable location, dryness, and size” when planning their colonies. “A honey bee scout may advertise one site over a period of days,” adds Dunayer, but “[i]f a sister’s find proves more desirable than her own, the honey bee stops advocating her original choice and starts dancing in favor of the superior site. She’s capable of changing her mind and her ‘vote.’”
Honey can contain bacterial spores which, according to Dr. Jay Hoecker of the Mayo Clinic, can cause botulism in human infants. And propolis, a gluey product of beehives, has caused allergic dermatitis in beekeepers and people who use it in cosmetics and self- treatment of various diseases. Nevertheless, apitherapy, or the health-related use of honey and pollen, propolis, royal jelly and bee venom, is promoted by some as an arthritis cure. The American Apitherapy Society, located in Centerport, N.Y. admits bee venom treatments haven’t been adequately evaluated in the United States, that no doctors use them, and that bee venom is only approved for desensitization of persons allergic to bee stings.
The AAS does, however, promote the 1935 “classic” Bee Venom Therapy: Bee Venom, Its Nature, and Its Effect on Arthritic and Rheumatoid Conditions, by Bodog F. Beck, M.D. In a foreword to a reprint of Beck’s book, Charles Mraz writes:
One of the first duties I assumed when I met Dr. Beck was to take charge of his beehive on the window sill of his office. He had a five-frame hive, covered with a wire screen. The bees had an entrance through the window so they could fly outside and gather a surprising amount of honey from Central Park during the spring and summer months. He had a small metal door on the screen which could be opened easily and the bees removed with long forceps and the bee applied to the patient's affected areas. This created a perpetual supply of a "self-activated, self-contained, sterile hypodermic needle."
The usual course of treatment was to apply the bees every other day, three times a week over the areas with arthritic symptoms and the spine. The body would itch under hot swellings up to six inches in diameter; clients experienced pain and nausea. “During this reactive stage,” recounts Mraz, “the patient often felt worse and would become greatly discouraged about the treatment.” Mraz insists, though, that they would often later become well.
Bee venom therapy has also been researched by Glenn B. Warren, a retired vice president of General Electric. The experiments -- many carried out using other animals -- reportedly took place at the Walter Reed Army Institute for Research, the U.S. Navy Radiation Defense Laboratories, Pennsylvania State University and the New York University Hospital. An association called the North American Apiotherapy Society has been formed to stimulate further research and to promote the use of bee venom. The venom has been fruitlessly tested on mice as a possible therapy for multiple sclerosis. In the 1990s, Vespa Laboratories and the ( U.S.) National Multiple Sclerosis Society gave a research grant to Fred D. Lublin, M.D. and colleagues at Allegheny University of the Health Sciences in Philadelphia to inject mice with doses replicating between four to 160 bee stings, then wait for symptoms such as limb paralysis. They reported no clinical benefit at any dosage level, but said the numbers of mice were too small, and went on to conduct additional studies.
Flower Power for Bees
Some say avoiding bee products on moral principle could draw ridicule. Indeed there was, in the early days of the Vegan Society, debate surrounding this issue. Yet bees have a complex central nervous system, and many have intensely keen senses of sight and smell, and intricate methods of communication and nest architecture. They obviously experience their lives, avoid harm, and seek out what appeals to them and sustains them.
And vegans strive to avoid any form of exploitation or harm to animals -- which, at essence, means respecting animals’ personal interests in living in their own ways. In practice, and by the definition accepted by the Vegan Society, this means adopting a diet free of all animal products, whether dairy, flesh, eggs or bee products.
Still, it is possible to use the products of bee commerce without even being aware of it. Almond pollination represents half of the U.S. use of “honey bee pollination services” according to the Public Broadcasting Service.
If you have garden space, you can help bees to flourish in their own ways. Bumble bees build their nests in grasses or in holes below the ground, such as abandoned mouse nests. To encourage bees to nest, let some of your garden stay undisturbed, and have a variety of plants that flourish throughout the season. Bumble bees get all their nutrients from flowers, so why not brighten your surroundings and sustain bees with flowering plants? Early spring flowers are particularly important to new colonies, and bees especially appreciate blue, purple, and yellow flowers, planted in clusters four feet or more in diameter.
Avoid show varieties; they may lack sufficient nectar or pollen for bees. Native plants are better adapted to your regional bees. These plants thrive in the local climate and soil, naturally resist diseases, and provide familiar food and shelter to match the life cycles of local animals. N ative plants can also provide key routes for animals, connecting them to nearby remaining wildlands.
U.S. residents may look to the federal agriculture department’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (available electronically at http://plants.usda.gov/index.html) for a list of native plants, and peruse their descriptions and pictures. Or check with a plant nursery, botanical society or native plant society in your state or province for information on finding plants compatible with your area. You might be advised, for example, to plant eastern waterleaf in the central or northeastern United States, where these herbs naturally bloom from May to August. For earlier blooms, gooseberry is a good choice. The American gooseberry is native to the northern areas of the United States and southern Canada. The graceful petals of camas lilies are perfect for bees in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia -- but avoid the poisonous variety.
Large, lavender beardtongue is native to the North American prairie states, and blooms in May and June. Deciduous azaleas are native to both the eastern and western areas of the United States and flower in early summer. At least two species of deciduous azaleas and two species of rhododendrons are native to eastern Canada.
Purple prairie clover is indigenous to the North American Great Plains. White clover is native to Europe and Asia, but has become naturalized in much of North America, and if you’ve got it in the summer, it will be a smorgasbord for bees and moreover it’s an edible plant, eaten raw, cooked, baked, or used in teas for its nutritional value. From British Columbia across the prairies and into western Ontario and the adjacent states, the anise hyssop (liquorice mint) blooms all summer, and the flowers are also used in teas and in the traditional recipe for ani se hyssop tea bread.
Bee balm, native to the northeastern United States, will attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds when its light pink flowers appear in May and June. The fragrant, dusky-green leaves may too be used in teas. Joe-pye weed is a perennial native from Maine to Michigan, south to central Florida and Texas. Wild mint is native to both North America and Eurasia. Aster and goldenrod bloom in late summer; there are about 125 varieties of North American goldenrod, and asters are native to the northern United States as well as Canada from British Columbia to Newfoundland. The bees really like sedum, which blooms in the autumn, and is a popular choice for green roofs (a topic covered in our last issue). In the n ortheastern U.S., late October and early November is the time to collect milkweed seeds for planting in the spring.
A Free Bee Recipe: Ginger Lemonade
One of the most pleasing alternatives to honey for recipes is agave nectar, derived from the blue agave plant. The agave nectar differs in consistency from sugar syrup, and imparts a caramel-ginger essence. Ginger Lemonade is a refreshing choice from Friends of Animals’ cookbook, Dining With Friends: The Art of North American Vegan Cuisine. This drink was first inspired by a recipe in the Vegetarian Times magazine. Here’s how to make it:
Combine a 3-inch piece of peeled, fresh ginger, thinly sliced and crushed, with 1 cup agave nectar and 3/4 cup water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat, and cook for 5 minutes. Reduce heat to medium.Simmer until ginger is aromatic and mixture is syrupy, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat, let the juice cool, and discard the ginger.
Transfer it to a pitcher; stir in 1½ cups fresh lemon juice (6 to 8 lemons) and 4 cups of cold sparkling water. Add one thinly sliced lemon, and refrigerate until well chilled. To serve, fill glasses with ice cubes. Pour in lemonade, and garnish with mint sprigs. Serves 4 to 6.