May 22, 2015
For those who visit the Maryland State Fair each year, the honey and wax exhibit is always a highlight. A busy hive of bees can be viewed through a plastic window, there’s locally-produced honey and candles in a variety of shapes and sizes for sale, and members of the Maryland State Beekeepers Organization happily share their apiary experiences. But the outlook is not all sweetness: Increasingly, the focus of the honey bee display has been on educating visitors about the dramatic die-off of domestic colonies.
Maryland beekeepers have suffered about as much as those of any state in the nation. A recent survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that Free State beekeepers lost nearly 61 percent of their colonies over the past year. That is the fifth highest mortality rate among states (nearly 20 percentage points above the national average), boosted by losses in the summer months that actually exceeded the customary winter die-offs.
The exact cause of this trend is not fully understood. Neonicotinoid pesticides used in farming and in some home gardening products have been blamed. So have parasitic Varroa mites that carry a virus and modern intensive farming practices that cause a lack of diversity in nectar and result in poor nutrition for bees. There’s even a mystery ailment: Colony Collapse Disorder in which a hive is left with no adult bees or even dead bee bodies, a syndrome for which science is buzzing but has yet to determine a cause.
What is far better understood is how valuable bees and other pollinators are to the nation’s economy. It’s estimated that every third bite of food a person consumes can be traced to a honey bee, wild bee or other insect pollinator. Altogether, those little fellows add an estimated $15 billion to the value of farm crops each year. Without them, a lot of fruits, nuts and vegetables would never make it to the grocery store, let alone the kitchen table.
That’s why the science-based strategies endorsed recently by President Barack Obama are a good step in the right direction toward restoring the environmental balance. The loss of pollinators requires a focused government response that will not only pinpoint the causes behind the collapse but set the nation on remedial action now while a recovery is still possible. Corrective action involves not just limiting pesticide applications on fields traveled by bees but also planting pollinator-friendly crops and preserving natural habitat.
Yet even those steps are likely to run into resistance. In Annapolis, legislation to ban the retail sale of neonicotinoid pesticides and require plants that have been treated with them to be labeled as such died in a House of Delegates committee. Stepping up research into losses of not just honey bees but also Monarch butterflies (which have suffered even steeper losses over the last two decades), as President Obama has proposed, is going to cost more than $80 million and will require approval from a Republican-controlled Congress that appears loath to increase spending for non-military purposes.
Meanwhile, there are steps average Americans can take, like planting a bee and butterfly garden, limiting use of or abstaining entirely from pesticides, or keeping bees as a hobby or at least educating others on the benefits of bees. Buying U.S.-made honey or other bee-related products — the more locally produced the better — would also help preserve bees as well as a related species that’s in parallel decline: the shell-shocked beekeepers who are struggling to make ends meet despite the loss of their livelihood.
In Maryland, the House Environment and Transportation Committee’s chairman is leading an effort to study the issue between now and next January to better understand what, if any, action at the state-level might help. Surely, the General Assembly can start by mandating better labeling and information for consumers. Whether neonicotinoids are the primary cause of the problem, a contributing factor or have no involvement whatsoever, consumers have a right to know what chemicals have been applied to the plants they purchase.
Honey bees sometimes get an unfair reputation for stinging despite their gentle nature. But the value of these and other pollinators, not only to agriculture but to the ecosystem as a whole is beyond measure. It will take more than good intentions to preserve and protect them.
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