Has anyone given thought to the impact bees have on our everyday needs? When bees have access to good nutrition, we have access to good nutrition. Bees are integral to our bountiful harvest of fruits and vegetables.
As she begins her presentation for a TEDtalk, Maria Spivak, the University of Minnesota’s McKnight University Professor of Apiculture/Social Insects, introduces two slides. The first is a photo of a food market’s produce department, filled to the brim with an array of mouthwatering, colorful fruits and vegetables; the second shows the same produce section but, this time, with empty bins and only a smidgen of color.
“This is our life with bees,” Spivak begins, as the first slide comes into focus. “And this is our life without bees,” she continues, as she points to the second photo. “Bees are the most important pollinators of our fruits and vegetables and flowers and crops, like alfalfa hay that feed our farm animals. More than one-third of the world’s crop production is dependent on bee pollination.”
According to Spivak, bees don’t intentionally pollinate our food. They just need to eat. They get all of their protein from pollen and all of their carbohydrates from nectar. Bees are flower feeders, moving from flower to flower, as though they’re on a shopping spree at a flower mart, all the while providing the powerful act of pollination.
There are over 20,000 species of bees in the world, but humans have always been drawn to the honeybees, not only to harvest their honey, but because of how fascinating they are.
Mike Luark found out just how fascinating bees are when he was a teenager. ”We had a neighbor named Harold Ault who needed help with his bees,” Mike recalls. “I was just a kid, but I gradually got into the bee business and took over the little operation that he had.”
Luark’s “little operation” has turned into 300 to 400 hives that he and his wife, Ann, maintain along with raising cattle on their Quarter Circle L Ranch, on the Colorado River Road, near Sweetwater Creek. “Bees are incredibly fascinating. We work with them all the time, and they never cease to amaze us,” Mike says.
A colony of bees typically ranges from 20,000 to 90,000 inhabitants, depending on the size. They are social insects and are divided into three groups: queens, which produce eggs; drones or males, which mate with the queen; and workers, which are all non-reproducing females. The queen lays eggs, singly, in hexagonal cells of the comb. The larve hatches from eggs in three or four days and are fed by the worker bees and develop through several stages in the cells. Queens complete development in 15-½ days, drones in 24 days and workers in 21 days.
Ann had to learn how to move around the hives, how not to agitate the bees. “We get in tune with the bees and, just like having a dog, we don’t do any sudden movement. We learn to be around them so everybody gets along,” she says, with a laugh.
When working with the bees, the most important piece of clothing the Luarks wear is a something that looks like a pith helmet, to which mesh is attached. “The mesh allows us to have air and circulation and, of course, we can see through it,” Ann explains. “I wear gloves, although Mike seldom does. But, we can tell, by their attitude, whether or not the bees are feeling grumpy.
“So, we tend to use a little smoke that gives the bees sort of a warning, which makes them think there’s a fire. When this happens, they retreat and eat a little honey, thinking they may have to flee the hive. The smoke is really a kind of calming effect, so we can pull out the frames and inspect for how things are going in the hive, the health of the bees. Do they have colds? Do they need more food? Are they generating enough new baby bees?”
As beekeepers, the couple is always making sure that life in a hive is proceeding in a normal, progressive manner and it’s on course for the season. As Ann puts it, “We’re always on task to keep the bees healthy.”
At the beginning of December, the Luarks load their hives on a semi and ship them to California to pollinate the almond orchards. At the beginning of April, the hives are shipped back to Grand Junction, where they are unloaded to, once again, get to work. “The bees are there to pollinate anything that needs to be pollinating,” Mike explains. “People from Grand Junction call us all of the time and might say, ‘We have ten acres of apricots,’ so we take them the appropriate amount of bees to pollinate that orchard.”
“I wear gloves, although Mike seldom does. But we can tell, by their attitude, whether or not the bees are feeling grumpy.” Ann Luark
Seven years ago, honeybee colonies were reported to be dying en masse – dying from multiple and interacting causes.
According to Spivak, bees in the United States have been in decline since World War II and we have half the number of managed hives now, only about two million, compared to 1945. And, finding a reason for the decline has been a conundrum for scientists, as there are flurries of theories that have come to light.
To begin, in the mid-1940s, farmers began using synthetic fertilizers, instead of planting clover and alfalfa, which are natural fertilizers and are highly nutritious food plants for bees. As well, people began using herbicides to kill off weeds on farms. And many of these weeds were flower plants that bees require for their survival. Essentially, farmers began growing larger crop monocultures, which are dominated by one or two plant species like corn and soybeans.
At one time, beekeepers only had to take a few hives of bees into the almond orchards for pollination. Now, the scale of almond monoculture demands that over 1.5 million hives of bees be transported across the nation in semis to pollinate this one crop in California’s Central Valley. Then, after the bloom, the almond orchards become a flowerless landscape. And yet, there has been a 300-percent increase in crop production that requires bee pollination.
Then there are pesticides. Recently, researchers from Pennsylvania State University began looking at the pesticide residue in the loads of pollen that bees carry home as food. They’ve found that every batch of pollen that a honeybee collects has at least six detectable pesticides in it.
“This small bee is holding up a large mirror. How much is it going to take to contaminate humans?” asks Spivak.
On top of everything else, bees have their own set of diseases and parasites, which scientists have labeled Colony Collapse Disorder. And public enemy number one for bees is a parasite that compromises their immune systems and circulates viruses.
The Luarks can tell when their bees aren’t up to par. “Generally, you look into the hive and you get the feeling that everybody is feeling woozy, literally like a vibe from them that they don’t really feel great,” describes Ann. “They’re buzzing around like they want to go flying, but they’re like us. They kind of feel under the weather and they can’t put their finger on why.”
Spivak, who as a teenager worked for a commercial beekeeper, marvels at this small insect. ”Honeybees can be considered a super-organism, where the colony is the organism and it’s comprised of 40,000 to 50,000 organisms,” she explains. “Now this society has no central authority. Nobody’s in charge. So how they come to collective decisions and how they allocate their tasks and divide their labor, how they communicate where the flowers are, all of their collective social behaviors are mind-blowing.”
“The bees are very precise in their communication,” adds Mike. “We’re still learning how they do it. “
According to Mike, some bees function as scouts, flying out as far as six miles from the hive, then returning to communicate their findings to the worker bees. They signal how much and where the nectar is located, the number of bees needed to fly out and how much honey they should consume to fuel up for the trip. It’s essential that when they get to the source they are “empty.”
When traveling back to the hive, pollen is held in a structure on each hind leg called the “pollen basket”, the nectar in a structure in the front of the digestive system called the “honey sac.” Then, upon returning to the hive, the workers meet up with the “guard” bees that are posted at the entrance to the hive, to ensure that only the bees that belong are allowed to enter. The guards can tell who can enter, as each hive and each member of a hive has its own unique odor.
Bees also have what Spivak says is their social healthcare and an ability to locate and weed out sick individuals from the colony to keep the colony healthy.
“Recently we’ve been studying resins that bees collect from plants,” Spivak reveals. “So bees fly to some plants and scrape very sticky resins, called propolis, off the leaves and take them back to the hive where they cement them into the architecture. We’ve found that propolis is a natural disinfectant, a natural antibiotic that kills off bacteria, molds and other germs in the colony, bolstering the colony’s health and that of its community.
“We’ve been harvesting propolis out of bee colonies for human medicine. But we didn’t know how good it was for the bees. So honeybees have these remarkable natural defenses that have kept them healthy and thriving for over 50 million years.”
And yet, the bottom line is that the bees are disappearing.
In California, many people believe that the city is the last refuge for honeybees. As one writer put it, “the biggest buzz in Los Angeles may be coming from backyards.” In fact, the Los Angeles City Council is reviewing city zoning laws to allow beekeeping in residential areas. Honey Love, an organization for “urban beekeepers,” is encouraging people to keep bee-friendly flowers and plants around their homes such as daisies, honeysuckle and sunflowers; herbs that include sage, thyme and lavender; fruit such as pears, peaches and apricots.
“Plant bee-friendly flowers and don’t contaminate these flowers, this bee food, with pesticides,” suggests Spivak. “Plant them in your front yard, in your lawns, in your boulevards. We need a diversity of flowers that bloom over the entire growing season, from spring to fall.
“Maybe it seems like a really small countermeasure to a big, huge problem to say, ‘Just go plant flowers.’ But when bees have access to good nutrition, we have access to good nutrition through their pollination services. And when bees have access to good nutrition, they’re better able to engage their own natural defenses, their healthcare, that they have relied on for millions of years.”
“Sometimes when we look at all the bees and what we have to do, and think that we have to get this done today, it can get overwhelming,” concludes Ann. “But then, you look at the natural beauty and the amazement we find from being around the bees as creatures, and we always find them remarkable. Their orientation is to work for the common good and their societal structure is remarkable.
“And what they do with wax as they build out their frames and build the honeycomb is absolute precision in architecture and is amazing. We humans can hardly duplicate it, yet the bees do it so effortlessly. It’s a wonder to behold.”