By now, you’ve probably heard about the disappearing bees. In recent years, the bee population has been rapidly dwindling due to a combination of habitat loss, infestation with an invasive species called varroa mites, and a disturbing new phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder, which inexplicably prompts bees to flee the hive mid-winter and never return. By some accounts, more than 30 percent fail to survive to pollinate in the spring.
But do you know why you should care?
Shoppers at one Whole Foods in Rhode Island do. Last month, they entered the store to be treated to a creepy glimpse at one possible future. Produce aisles were barren, with no sign of crisp, delicious apples, avocados, eggplant, or broccoli. There were no berries to dish on top of granola, and no fresh cantaloupe to slice into for brunch. In all, 237 of 453 products were missing, amounting to 52 percent of the store’s produce. According to the nonprofit Xerces Society, which collaborated with Whole Foods for the powerful stunt, one in three bites of food originates from plants that rely on bees and other pollinators.
“They are a critical link in our food system. Yet we continue to see alarming declines in bee numbers,” said Eric Mader, assistant pollinator conservation director at The Xerces Society.
Just what is causing the die-off is a matter of heated debate right now, with some activists pointing to a fairly new class of systemic pesticides called neonicotinoids for either confusing the bees so they can’t make their way back to the hive, or weakening their immune systems to vectors like varroa. The European Union recently banned the pesticides, which seeds are soaked in before planting, leading to an infusion of the bug poison into the pollen and nectar.
But in the U.S., farmers, regulators and beekeepers have been more hesitant to rush to judgment, with some arguing that neonicotinoids are a vast improvement over old-school pesticides that were liberally sprayed over vast swaths of land. “Without neonics or a suitable replacement, farmers could face losses estimated by one industry study as $5.78 billion per year in Europe alone and many multiples of that if a ban is instituted in the United States,” opined a recent editorial in Forbes Magazine.
In reality, bee conservation experts agree, banning one class of pesticides is not going to solve the entire problem. But for those who care (which we all should) there are several small steps that can make a difference:
Skip the water-hogging green grass and plant bee food instead. (They like purple, blue, and yellow heirloom variety perennials the best).
Do not spray neonicotinoids on your own plants. Here’s how to avoid them:
Ask your lawmakers to plant bee food instead of grass on medians and other public places.
And buy organic. The more you support farmers that opt out of pesticides, the better for the bees.
Lisa Marshall is a freelance health and medical science writer in Lyons, Colo. Connect at www.lisaannmarshall.com.