Review: Keeping the Bees

Why is that young man serenading the blueberries with his guitar? Why are cactus spines as likely as stings for many bee researchers? What can each of us do to improve the situation for pollinators in our world? What I didn’t know about bees could fill a book. Fortunately, Laurence Packer has provided exactly that book. For these answers and more, pick up a copy of Keeping the Bees:

All of the author’s proceeds are going to bee conservation research, so you can educate (and entertain) yourself, and make a difference at the same time. This man is passionate about his subject, and also is the kind of writer than can make even several pages on taxonomy interesting. This book was a great use of my time because I started out knowing nothing except that the bees were in trouble. (I knew a little more than that, but it was mostly about honey bees… and as he points out on his website, asking a melittologist about honey bees is a lot like asking an ornithologist about chickens.)

Let’s start out with the fact that there are over 19,500 species of bees that have been described. This is approximately the number of birds, mammals,  and amphibians combined. Now add on the fact that most of our food crops (even the commercial ones) are pollinated by bees. Now add on the fact that wild bees are more effective pollinators of many crops than honey bees or domesticated bumble bees. Now add on the fact that we continue to fragment or eliminate habitat, industrialize the remaining spaces, and spray pesticides with apparent abandon, and you will begin to have a sense of just how much trouble the bees (and we) are in. Our agricultural practices here border on the absurd, with one side of the farming equation desperately trying to figure out the pollination problem while the other side continues to poison the very pollinators that they depend on. Packer describes this situation as akin to having a car plant in which the painters keep coming along and slashing all the tires.

Let me see if I can do an adequate job of summing up the problems (I promise that there will be suggestions for what we can do to help at the end.)

  • As I’ve already mentioned, industrial agriculture has a lot to answer for. We have turned vast tracts of land into heavily managed monocultures, with the following consquences:
    • The fields are so large that the gap between habitat for wild pollinators is larger than they can traverse. That is to say, even if there is habitat around the edges (which is unusual) the wild bees can’t make it into the middle of the field.
    • We also spray our monocultures with more and more toxic compounds as the pests develop resistance to the earlier generations of pesticides. This means that the nectar and pollen that the bees are eating contain more and novel toxic residues. Although these pesticides may not be killing the bees directly (and the jury is still out on that), their impacts on reproductive success and long-term toxicities have not been studied.
    • Since the wild bees are not able to pollinate the fields effectively (because they either have been eliminated, or they are too far from the plants) pollination services must be provided by managed hives of a small number of species of bees.
    • The management of these hives on an industrial scale had led to the transportation of a wide range of bee diseases across international lines, jeopardizing both managed and wild bee populations.
    • Also, just as a kicker, using bee hives to pollinate only one variety of crop leaves the hive in a state of malnourishment and more vulnerable to the diseases that they are more likely to be exposed to.
    • Don’t forget: the crops that are being pollinated are also being sprayed. So are neighbouring fields. So we are fatally poisoning our tiny migrant workers.
  • Here is something I did not know at all: Many species of bees nest in the ground. So our desire to have tidy lawns, and well edged gardens, and paving everywhere else is a significant contributor to habitat loss. Packer has some recommendations for management of soil to provide those habitats… I’ll put them at the bottom in one place.
  • Other kinds of bees nest in existing holes in wood, raspberry canes, bamboo stakes, and other long hollow items. Didn’t know that either.
  • Even climate change is impacting bee populations, as many bees have evolved in lockstep with a particular type of plant. One of the most complex impacts of climate change is that local populations of birds, insects, and plants are maturing at different times of year. Some growth patterns are ruled by day length, but some are dictated by temperature or moisture levels. If the bees and their key food source do not use the same external cues for their development, the flowers and bees can become active at the “wrong” time… that is, the plant may flower before or after the bees are mature, and the bees may miss the food completely. No bees, no pollination. No pollination, no next generation of plants. No flowers, no food. No food, no next generation of bees. (This problem is not unique to bees, but is happening for many birds as well.)

Phew… I could go on, but I think you get the picture. Before you get too despondent (as I sometimes do), he also kindly provides us with an entire chapter on things we can do to help. I will add the zeroth one: buy this book and share it.

  1. Grow bee-friendly plants, preferably native species
    • Something that we need to be aware of is that not all plants (even flowering ones) provide adequate food for bees. Some flowers are too deep, some don’t make nectar, and some are very possessive of their pollen… which is why the fellow was playing guitar for the blueberries. Take some time to investigate what types of flowers are good for the bees in your neighbourhood.
  2. Provide nest sites for bees
    • There are more bees in your backyard than are dreamed of in your philosophy. Or something like that. As I mentioned earlier, bees nest in the ground, and in hollow stems, and in holes in blocks of wood.
    • Don’t throw out or burn your raspberry canes; they are full of bees! Bees that will pollinate your next crop if you don’t get rid of them. Packer suggests cutting them into 1 foot lengths, bundling them, and hanging them up in bunches if you are unwilling to simply leave them intact.
    • Provide blocks of wood with variously sized holes drilled in them.
    • Use bamboo canes for stakes in your garden
    • Don’t disrupt the nests of ground-nesting bees. This one is hard, because even we organic gardeners are great advocates of scuffling the surface for weeds. However, he tells us that doing this will make it impossible for the mother bees who are out foraging to find their nest, leaving the brood orphaned! AAAA! So he suggests doing this rarely and late in the day, when the bees are at home. That way they will be able to reconstruct their entrance in the morning, but they will not lose the nest. Phew. So much to think about.
    • Here’s another one: don’t mulch. I will be pondering this list and making a more comprehensive display up, so if you are really interested in all the bee-friendly gardening tips for now, I recommend going directly to the book for clarity.
  3. Do not use pesticides
  4. Buy organic food whenever possible
  5. Walk on the grass
    • Apparently those bare patches in the middle of the lawn are prime bee nest sites. Who knew?
  6. Encourage bee-friendly practices at various governmental levels
    • Many of our by-laws actively undermine efforts to provide bee habitat. That requirement that you must have a lawn, sheared to a certain height, and weed-free (an increasingly archaic set of requirements, but not unheard of)? Completely at odds with happy bees. And even though we might be a little bit afraid of bees, we need them. Like, really need them. I’m really sorry if you are allergic to them, but we NEED them. OK. Done now.

I also note, if you happen to be in Toronto, that he is looking for graduate students.


4 responses to “Review: Keeping the Bees”

  1. I forwarded this to as many people as I could think of! Don’t forget Michelle Smith’s pollinator project, set to begin, I think, this Spring in Cape Breton.

    • Thanks! I’d love to see this get read a lot (the post AND the book). I didn’t realize that Michelle had a pollinator project on the go; I’ll talk to her about it. I’m also planning on making up some tip sheets and posters to be distributed all willy-nilly.