Sweet as honey: Plight of the Pollinators Part I

Honey festival, Florence Garden Club highlight honeybees

Feb. 24, 2017 — The Florence Garden Club held the perfect Valentine’s Day event at its monthly meeting Feb. 14.

Anne Schatz, a member of the Central Coast Bee Keepers Association, was the guest speaker and provided an entertaining, but sobering, window into the science of pollination.

Schatz has extensive knowledge of local honeybees and other pollinators, many of which are facing existential challenges.

Current assessments of the work pollinators do estimates that more than half the crops grown across the country depend on honeybees for pollination. A partial list of these crops includes potatoes, onions, cashews, celery, beets, broccoli, watermelons, carrots, limes, melons, squash and cucumbers.

The public is generally aware of the phenomenon of “colony collapse, ” which has been impacting bees and beekeepers across the country for the past 10 years, but Schatz said the importance of pollinators is underappreciated by the general public.

“Ninety percent of plant species need animal pollinators to reproduce or spread genetic diversity. Life on this planet can’t survive without plants,” Schatz said. “They modulate the climate and atmosphere, and turn the sun’s energy into a form of energy that provides the basis for all fauna food sources. We can’t live without plants, so we can’t live without pollinators — and the vast majority of animal pollinators are insects.”

Unfortunately, there are a number of significant factors impacting the honeybee that have endangered the process of pollination and the availability of many foods humans consider staples.

Recent studies conducted by academic groups and agricultural businesses, have shown that there are three major elements responsible for the deaths of hundreds of millions of these invaluable insects.

The most impactful of these are pesticides, which are used to control plant damage. These poisons are designed to kill many insects, most of which are not pollinators, but they also poison bees, hornets, wasps and butterflies.

Pesticides are often sprayed over vast swaths of land used for agriculture. This spraying also eliminates many of the wild flowers and grasses that provide food and lodging for pollinators.

The other two major factors in pollinator death are pathogens and habitat loss.

Schatz suggests that homeowners can help to offset the loss of safe habitat by not mowing parts of your lawn, or by planting pollinator-friendly plants in underused areas on their property to encourage bees to visit. The attracted bees then might start a hive or colony nearby.

Ethan Bennett of Alpine, Ore., is a beekeeper that first became interested in bees when he moved onto a new property in 1997. There was an abandoned hive on the property and Bennett took the opportunity to extract a small amount of honey. His interest was piqued.

“It was decrepit, but had bees in it, probably a wild swarm. I got a hive of bees, made a few gallons of honey, had the equipment and figured it would be a new hobby, a new part of normal for me,” Bennett said. “Things changed a bit in 2000, when it was time to do my internship to complete my bachelor’s degree in horticulture at Oregon State University. I took a job with Kenny Williams at Wild Harvest Honey as a beekeeping assistant. After working with him for six or seven years, I started my company in 2006 with 20 hives. Now I have 400 hives.”

Bennett and his company, Honey Tree Apiaries, now travel for part of the year to California to pollinate crops. Daily, he faces challenges to keeping his bees alive.

“The biggest challenge in commercial beekeeping is minimizing annual loss of bee hives,” he said. “In a good year, I may loose 20 percent of my hives. It has been as bad as 50 percent. Most of this loss occurs over winter. Other factors such as climate, chemicals and stress due to moving contribute.

“As a commercial beekeeper I generate my income from the products of the bee hive: honey, wax and pollination. If the bees don’t survive, I don't make money.”

Last weekend, the City of Yachats held its first annual Oregon Coast Honey Lovers Festival. The event was well attended, and interest in the subject of beekeeping and the challenges facing all pollinators were subjects of intense discussion among participants and attendees.

Schatz attended the festival and spoke as a representative of the beekeepers association. She also spoke to the fear expressed by many in attendance that honeybees were in danger of extinction.

“I don’t think there’s an immediate danger of bees dying out, but declines in native bees do have a significant impact and have been taking place, and there is now a bumble bee species on the endangered species list,” she said.

The second installment of this series will examine the role played by hornets, wasps and butterflies in the process of plant-specific pollination, and how people can assist bees and other pollinators in the production of fruits and vegetables.