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Buzz About Bees

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Scientists discover what’s killing the bees. Todd Woody @ greenwombat writes:

. . . the mysterious mass die-off of honey bees that pollinate $30 billion worth of crops in the US has so decimated America’s apis mellifera population that one bad winter could leave fields fallow. Now, a new study has pinpointed some of the probable causes of bee deaths and the rather scary results show that averting beemageddon will be much more difficult than previously thought.

Scientists had struggled to find the trigger for so-called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) that has wiped out an estimated 10 million beehives, worth $2 billion, over the past six years. Suspects have included pesticides, disease-bearing parasites and poor nutrition. But in a first-of-its-kind study published today in the journal PLOS ONE, scientists at the University of Maryland and the US Department of Agriculture have identified a witch’s brew of pesticides and fungicides contaminating pollen that bees collect to feed their hives. The findings break new ground on why large numbers of bees are dying though they do not identify the specific cause of CCD, where an entire beehive dies at once.

When researchers collected pollen from hives on the east coast pollinating cranberry, watermelon and other crops and fed it to healthy bees, those bees showed a significant decline in their ability to resist infection by a parasite called Nosema ceranae. The parasite has been implicated in Colony Collapse Disorder though scientists took pains to point out that their findings do not directly link the pesticides to CCD. The pollen was contaminated on average with nine different pesticides and fungicides though scientists discovered 21 agricultural chemicals in one sample. Scientists identified eight ag chemicals associated with increased risk of infection by the parasite.

Most disturbing, bees that ate pollen contaminated with fungicides were three times as likely to be infected by the parasite. Widely used, fungicides had been thought to be harmless for bees as they’re designed to kill fungus, not insects, on crops like apples.

“There’s growing evidence that fungicides may be affecting the bees on their own and I think what it highlights is a need to reassess how we label these agricultural chemicals,” Dennis vanEngelsdorp, the study’s lead author, told Quartz.

Labels on pesticides warn farmers not to spray when pollinating bees are in the vicinity but such precautions have not applied to fungicides.

Bee populations are so low in the US that it now takes 60% of the country’s surviving colonies just to pollinate one California crop, almonds. And that’s not just a west coast problem—California supplies 80% of the world’s almonds, a market worth $4 billion.

In recent years, a class of chemicals called neonicotinoids has been linked to bee deaths and in April regulators banned the use of the pesticide for two years in Europe where bee populations have also plummeted. But vanEngelsdorp, an assistant research scientist at the University of Maryland, says the new study shows that the interaction of multiple pesticides is affecting bee health.

“The pesticide issue in itself is much more complex than we have led to be believe,” he says. “It’s a lot more complicated than just one product, which means of course the solution does not lie in just banning one class of product.”

The study found another complication in efforts to save the bees: US honey bees, which are descendants of European bees, do not bring home pollen from native North American crops but collect bee chow from nearby weeds and wildflowers. That pollen, however, was also contaminated with pesticides even though those plants were not the target of spraying.

“It’s not clear whether the pesticides are drifting over to those plants but we need take a new look at agricultural spraying practices,” says vanEngelsdorp.

What can we do?  Buzz About Bees has some suggestions.


There is much you can do in your own gardens to help save the bees! Ensure you have flowers and plants in bloom for as long as possible in the garden. Some bee species may come out early, and will be looking for much needed pollen and nectar sources provided by spring bulbs such as daffodils and crocuses. Pussy willow and herbs such as rosemary are also useful. Remember, some bees will continue foraging late into the season too, so try to ensure you include late flowering blooms in your garden, such as winter heathers. Check out the following link (opens new window) featuring calendarised lists of great bee plants.

You could also make efforts to purchase plants, bulbs and seeds free of neonicotinoid and systemic insecticides – more about this below. These pesticides are used widely in Holland, a major supplier to garden centers, grocery multiples and other plant sellers. Why not establish a relationship with a local nursery or grower you can trust, and ask them whether or not they are using these products.  Many conservation charities are asking for a suspension of these pesticides, and for an overhaul of the regulatory system.  As of August 2013, I’m not aware of a full ban on any of these produces – merely some temporary restrictions to some of these chemicals in certain circumstances.  This applies particularly to the EU and you can read more about it here and the global scenario here.

Another option is to purchase your plants, bulbs and seeds from organic suppliers.

Remember too that a supply of water and mud are useful. Some bees, such as Mason bees, use mud for constructing their nests.


When selecting plants for your garden, always remember that simple, old-fashioned varieties are better than highly cultivated ones. Herbs and heathers are generally great for bees, as well as traditional cottage style flowers (and whatever anyone says, they NEVER go out of fashion!).


Plant wildflowers in your garden, or even create a small meadow. There are several ways you could do this:

– allow a patch of lawn to grow, only mowing twice during the year (early and at the end of the season). Wait and see what comes up.

– sow seeds, or buy potted wildflowers (some may be difficult to establish otherwise).

– many grassy areas will not convert easily to meadow, because of resilient grasses that prevent wildflowers establishing themselves. If this is the case for you, sow a wildflower that is parasitic on tough grasses such as Yellow Rattle, which is loved by bees, and will out-compete the grass.

Take a look at these ideas for your lawn, including incorporating wildflowers.


If you want to help save the bees, try natural methods of pest control – such as putting up bird boxes and blasting aphids with water.

Many well-known garden pesticides contain neonicotinoids. The same applies to lawn care products.

The fact is, most insect species are beneficial or harmless.

Neonicotinoid pesticides can remain in the soil for years, and continue to be taken up by the plant (and the bees). Neonicoitinoids include imidacloprid, Acetimacloprid,Clothianidin, Thiacloprid, Thiamethoxam, Dinotefuran and Nitenpyram. To read more, follow this interesting link looking at patents for pesticides and what they reveal, go to this link to look at how neonicotinoids work, and this link about organic gardening.


A bundle of hollow canes could make a home for solitary bees. Some bumblebee species will take up residence in bird boxes, or an upturned plant pot (with holes) provisioned with bedding, and located in a secure, shady area. Take a look at this useful bees nest Q&A.

If you come across a bee nest or swarm, try not to disturb it. If it’s a solitary or bumblebee nest, they only last a season – and be careful not to mistake solitary bees for wasps, as some look alike. Most bees rarely sting unless provoked – see may page about bee sting facts.

Meanwhile, if you are concerned about a swarm or honey bee nest, contact a local beekeeper. Take a look at my information page about bee swarm removal.


Spread the word about the need to help save the bees! This could range from sharing these tips to chatting with your neighbour or giving a talk about bees to your gardening groups.


If you are going to buy honey, buy local honey from a beekeeper you trust who cares about their bees.

See these honey buying tips.


There are lots of ‘Save the Bees’ types of initiatives, from signing petitions to ban suspect pesticides and GMO crops, to asking governments for more funds for positive action into helping bees and pollinators. Participate where you can.

Social media is great for raising awareness.  Why not share these ‘Bee Menus’, or general gardening pages?


Write to your local council or political representative. Tell them about the need to save our bees, and ask them to stop the use of pesticides in public spaces (from parklands to community planting schemes), to plant more bee-friendly plants, and to make space for wildflowers along verges etc.

For further information about how councils can help to prevent bee decline,  see these ideas.


Neonicotinoid and systemic pesticides are used in agriculture on food crops – and these of course, end up on the shelves of supermarkets.

Perhaps now is the time to start growing your own pesticide-free fruit & veg? You’ll be surprised just how many corgettes and green beans you can grow – even in a few pots outside!

If you cannot grow your own, then try to select as much organic produce as you can when you are buying your shopping.

When you spend your cash, you cast a vote.

If you buy at least some organic produce, your purchases, along with those of others, will send a signal to retailers, which will ultimately send a signal to farmers.

It’s as simple as that!

If you want to read more, check out Lisa Law’s Save the Bees Hysterical Historical Parade handout, BUMBLE_beerackƒ