This week I've been listening to reports that bees are disappearing from their hives. Every year, many hives travel around the nation, following the bloom of the crops that need pollinating. Beekeepers transport the hives in trucks, unloading them next to an orchard or a field in bloom, then move on to a different field. But this year, up to 90% of the hives of particular beekeepers have simply emptied out. The bees set forth, and didn't return.
Beekeeping is, by all accounts, a difficult way to earn a living, and a beekeeper whose bees are disappearing is in a precarious position indeed. Scientists have come forth to try to determine what has happened. They say that they are keeping an open mind, but one of the things they have been investigating is whether the pesticides that beekeepers themselves have been using for the past few years to killl the mite that was killing bees in their hives. They will also be looking at pesticide use on crops, presumably for any changes in the ones used or how they are being used. Some people have asked if the pollen of bioengineered crops could be killing honey bees, but we simply don't know what is doing it yet.
While the scientists work on this puzzle is a good time to contemplate our general situation vis a vis the bees. There are 4,000 native bee species in America, 1,500 of which occur in California. Most have no colonies or small ones, so aren't easily amenable to "domestication." The honey bee is a bee of the "Old World"--of Europe and other nearby lands, brought here by Europeans in the 1600s.
Our agriculture has become dependent on monocultures--large acreages of the same crop. If the crops need pollination, they are mostly dependent on a bee monoculture--only European honey bees. So when this species is threatened, so is the pollination of crops like almonds, citrus, melons, strawberies, cotton, apples, pears and plums.
Articles in the SF Chronicle on May 21, 2005, when the main concern was the mite that was killing bees, are instructive. There are s(.everal, including one about maintaining bees in San Francisco, but check out the one by Deborah K. Rich about the native pollinators, and what farmers will/would need to do to get more help from them (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2005/05/21/HOGIBCQN9Q1.DTL&hw=Abuzz+About+Bees&sn=001&sc=1000).
Because many native bees plant their larvae in shallow holes in the ground, unplowed areas help. Also areas where native hedgrows can grow, since these provide attractive pollen and places for other bees to nest. One native bee, the orchard mason bee, can be attracted by paper tubes or wood in which the right size holes have been drilled. But it is all a matter of how much help, how much land to natives, how many tubes to hang. UC Davis scientists have begun to research these matters, and the article mentioned above tall some of their findings
Meanwhile, the bumblebees are very peased with the Cerinthe growing in my front yard. It isn't much, but I hope that they, or some other bees, find my apple tree when it blooms next month. And I hope that someone figures out what is getting the honey bees, since I certainly do like a little honey in my yogurt with walnuts and home-grown apple!