Wild city: If bees are few

I am newly worried about our honeybees. I’d thought they were doing better after the alarming die-offs publicized a few years ago, but no. I heard University of Minnesota bee expert Dr. Marla Spivak give a talk recently. Her urgent message: “Bees are extremely important to our diet, and they are dying.”

Spivak, a small woman in her middle years, is a professor of entomology at the U and a MacArthur Fellow. When she stepped up on the podium, my first thought was (she has shoulder-length dark hair pulled back with a clip, close-set eyes and a prominent nose), “She looks like a bee.”

More than a third of all honeybee colonies have crashed each year since 2006 and no one knows why. Honeybees are the most important pollinator for many of our vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. If the flowers of these plants are not pollinated, they do not produce our food.

The bee die-offs, called “colony collapse disorder,” may be caused, Spivak said, by a set of interacting factors. Exposure to pesticides is one factor. “They pick up everything we put out there,” she said.

A bee, on every trip back to the hive carrying pollen, brings on average four different pesticides. Spivak said a low dose of pesticide impairs a bee’s thinking. A higher dose kills it outright.

She said, “Yes, a bee has a brain.” It is small, but collectively a colony of bees, some 40,000, has a composite brain the size of a human one.

Clearly, Spivak is fond of bees. Rather than refer to an individual bee in one of her studies as “it,” she referred to the bee as “she.” Rather than say, “sting,” she said, “defensive reaction.”

A second modern problem for bees: lack of flowers, especially those that bloom throughout the growing season. If bees are undernourished their immune systems are compromised, and they are vulnerable. From flowers they get water, protein from pollen and carbohydrates from nectar — vital things.

Last year when my Honeycrisp apple tree was in bloom, there was no hum. I walked around it scanning the blossoms and saw only a couple of bees. I wondered: Is this going to be the first year when we get no apples because there aren’t enough pollinators?

The tree set fruit nicely, though I’m not sure how, and I put my concern aside. Later in the season I even dug out a large, bushy native Monarda (also called “bee balm”) that had had bees all over it when in bloom. The plant was just taking up too much space. Now I wish I had it back.

What can we do? “Reduce pesticide use. And plant bee flowers,” Spivak said. She was passionate about both remedies. She urged us to plant bee flowers everywhere, on boulevards, roadsides and fields. “Dig up your front lawn,” she said. “Turn it into a bee pasture.”

The University of Minnesota Extension has a helpful website for those interested in learning more about gardening for bees. (Go to: extension.org/pages/19581/conserving-pollinators:-a-primer-for-gardeners.) A key bit of advice: plant at least three bee flowers that bloom each season, spring, summer and fall. A list there of especially good plants for bees includes: Giant hyssop, cleome, cosmos, sunflower and zinnia. Easy-to-grow herbs on the list include basil, rosemary, sage, thyme, English lavender and mint.

The extension website also suggests we might consider becoming beekeepers. The advantages are described this way: “In addition to providing pollination for the neighborhood, these backyard hives reward their caretakers with honey and wax.” The beginning beekeeping course at the University of Minnesota is very popular, and taught by Spivak. Last year 250 students enrolled and there were 140 on the waiting list.

It has been legal to keep bees in Minneapolis since 2009. A prospective beekeeper needs to take a course, get the consent of neighbors and follow proscribed limits on number and placement of hives. To address neighbors’ concerns about being stung, the
U of M Extension website explains how to properly screen with fences or shrubs. These direct the bees to fly higher, over our heads, which will protect passersby.

At the talk, Spivak described her research. She has bred a line of honeybees that help colonies resist two additional stressors that may be at work in colony collapse disorder: disease and parasitic mites. She is presently studying propolis, resin the bees collect and mix with wax. Propolis enhances a bee’s immune system and has antifungal and antiviral properties.

When I got into my car after Spivak’s talk, I realized I had become sensitized. All the boulevards around the parking lot on the St. Paul campus were landscaped with grass. I thought, “Let’s get going, folks. Let’s dig, and get those bee flowers in the ground.”