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The Trouble With Bees

By Robert Bryce

Development and pesticides have ravaged Texas bees, and a lot more than honey is at stake.

In a sun-dappled elm thicket in Grimes County on a cloudless day in late March, Binford Weaver is looking for queens.

“Let’s check this little hive here,” says Weaver. “I don’t have a smoker. So we’ll just see if they object to this.” He deftly removes the long rubber band securing the top of a small queen-rearing hive or “nuc.” Once he has removed the top, dozens of bees begin buzzing around Weaver, who is wearing a faded chambray work shirt, jeans and a stout pair of work boots. Working slowly to avoid alarming the hive, he removes a frame covered with bees and begins scanning it. After a second or two, Weaver points his gnarled index finger at the long-bodied queen, the only bee in the hive that lays eggs. It’s a Buckfast, a strain of bee developed about 50 years ago by an English monk. “There she is,” says Weaver with delight as he surveys the egg-filled cells she’s producing. “Is she ever a laying queen!”

After showing his guests the frame and scanning another, Weaver gently replaces them, secures the top of the hive and begins scanning some of the 2,200 other queen-rearing hives on the property. It has been a wet spring, and Weaver’s bee operation, one of the largest in the country, is behind schedule. The rain has prevented the queens and drones from mating and that has slowed his package bee business. Weaver, 73, has been raising bees since he was a child, and he’s renowned throughout the country for producing prolific queens, which he sells to professional and hobbyist beekeepers around the world. In recent years, he has shipped them as far away as Poland, Japan and Saudi Arabia.

And while Weaver’s business has been relatively good — he’ll sell half a million pounds of honey this year, along with 20,000 queens and tens of thousands of pounds of live bees — he’s worried.

Bees are under assault. And that may mean bad news for all Texans, from those who like honey to those who enjoy looking at wildflowers. Researchers are finding that without bees the state might not have bluebonnets, foxgloves or columbines, all of which are pollinated by bees.

Bee populations — both domesticated and wild — are falling. Lower honey prices combined with introduced natural threats such as Africanized bees and varroa mites, an Asian bee parasite, have crippled the Texas bee business. Other threats include pests such as tracheal mites and diseases such as foulbrood and chalkbrood. The combination of these forces could be catastrophic. Not only do honeybees pollinate some $587 million worth of crops every year in Texas, they also play a key role in pollinating wild plants. “We feel like we are a vital cog in the wheel of the flora and therefore the fauna in the wild,” says Weaver.

Native bees, which pollinate hundreds of plants, also are declining. Texas has hundreds of species of native bees, many of which never have been scientifically studied. Like their domesticated cousins, they have been hit hard in recent years. Urban sprawl has chewed up their habitat, and the increasing use of pesticides has reduced their numbers. Although few statistics are available, native bee populations seem to be declining like those of honeybees.

The loss of bee populations will do far more than affect the price of honey at the grocery store. But because little scientific work has been done on native and domesticated bees, the long-term effects are difficult to predict. Weaver and other beekeepers are lobbying the state to fund more scientific work on bees.

“There has been no study of the value of bees to native flora,” says Weaver. “We have it pretty well-documented that bees pollinate billions of dollars’ worth of agricultural crops. But there’s not a whisper about what they do for wildlife.”

Sage Kawecki, formerly a native plant information specialist at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, says bees are critically important because so many of the state’s wildflowers rely on bees for pollination. She points out that many flowers have evolved bee-sized shapes. That architecture helps assure pollination when an insect visits the plant. Other plants, such as the rockrose, which produces delicate violet flowers, have ultraviolet nectar guides that help direct the bee down into the flower. “Plants have very specific pollinator needs, so if something happened to the bee population, it’d be very tough on native plants,” she says.

Native Texans

Jack Neff is too old to say words like “goody.” But on a cool, overcast morning in April, the husky biologist can’t control himself. As we drive slowly past an abandoned driveway on a narrow, deserted farm road in rural Bastrop County, it’s immediately clear to Neff that there are dozens upon dozens of new nests of Andrena sitiliae, one of Neff’s favorite native bees.

Unlike honeybees, which live in colonies that number in the tens of thousands, native bees are solitary and each nest is founded by a single female. Many species, especially those that nest in the ground, live close to each other in loose aggregations, possibly for mutual nest defense against predators and parasites. The andrena bee that Neff studies is typical. It’s a small, stingless bee that nests underground. (About 90 percent of the species that are native to Texas nest below the surface of the earth.) The entrance to its nest is marked by a small mound of dirt that sticks out of the ground like a tiny volcano. As soon as his car rolls to a stop, Neff bounds out to examine new nests on the small patch of dirt. The rainy spring has been good for the bees. In his years of visiting the site, Neff never has seen so many nests. Tiny mounds, hundreds of them, jut through the surface and small, black andrena bees flit among the plants.

During the past two decades, Neff, an independent researcher with a Ph.D. in biology, has seen a sharp decline among native bees. Neff estimates that about 800 species of bees are native to Texas. That’s a big number. For comparison, consider that 622 species of birds have been recorded in the Lone Star State. And unlike birds, which have a large and growing constituency, native bees have been largely ignored by the state’s scientists, which means that Neff’s estimate of 800 species may be too low.

Despite the solitary nature of his work, Neff continues documenting bee populations, and he has found some shocking declines. At the University of Texas Brackenridge Field Laboratory in Austin, where Neff does some of his field research, he has documented 218 different species of native bees. But today, that number is less than 100, says Neff, and the number probably is falling.

Like many other native bees, the bee that Neff studies is host-specific, meaning it favors a certain plant over all others. For andrena, the favored host is the false dandelion, a common, bright yellow spring flower on which it depends for pollen. The male and the queen will forage for pollen for about three hours per day, then disappear back into their tunnel, which may extend three feet under the surface.

Neff gathers his net and other gear from the car, and we spend the next 30 minutes capturing andrena bees – many of them by hand – and examining them at our leisure. For people wary of bees — and their stingers — handling the andrenas is an odd experience. They are remarkably easy to catch. And though their buzz is a bit disconcerting, it quickly becomes clear why they are often referred to as “tickle bees.” They lack stingers and the rapid vibration of their wings is exhilarating. Neff makes a few more notes about the site and we begin looking for other native bees. We are rewarded quickly. We find a bee called Diadasia afflicta, another native, stingless bee that prefers small violet flowers known as winecups.

What Happens Next?

Scooter Cheatham had to work quickly. The renowned botanist had arrived at the site east of Vidor before daybreak to photograph a plant uncommon in Texas, Aureolaria flava. The plant, which occurs in only a few locations in East Texas, produces a beautiful but delicate yellow flower. And Cheatham knew if he was going to get a good photograph of the blossoms, he’d have to vie with a mass of bees eager to rob the plant of its nectar.

Cheatham got the shot he wanted. But he was amazed at the bees. “An hour after we got there,” he says, “the flowers were starting to turn black and curl up because the bees had been working them so hard.”

Cheatham is the principal author of The Useful Wild Plants of Texas, the Southeastern and Southwestern United States, the Southern Plains, and Northern Mexico, an encyclopedia of some 3,000 plants native to the region. (The second volume of the 12-volume set has just been published.) In his three decades of work on the project, he visited every corner of the state, cataloging, researching and photographing plants. And he has no doubt about the value of bees. “It’s clear that without the bees, the plant kingdom would go away. There are other pollinators, but bees are the dominant ones.”

Cheatham and other scientists point out that the value of bees goes far beyond beautiful flowers. The American diet is highly dependent on bees. Watermelons, cantaloupes, almonds, apples, citrus and many other food products depend on pollination by domesticated bees. Modern farmers must have a reliable source of pollination for their crops, and that usually means hiring a beekeeper to bring in a load of beehives for several weeks while the crops are flowering. Such contract pollination has become a key source of income for many beekeepers. And while many are worried about pests and honey prices, there are some positive developments on the horizon.

Beekeepers are successfully domesticating the bumblebee, an important pollinator. Bumblebees often are better pollinators than honeybees because their larger, fuzzier bodies collect more pollen from the stamens of plants, and they make better contact with the pistils than honeybees and other insects. Bumblebees, which are native to Texas and many other parts of the world, are being raised in the northern United States, Israel and other countries, and breeders have used them successfully to pollinate crops such as tomatoes, that are grown in greenhouses.

There are other positive developments: A new breed of varroa mite-resistant bee known as the Harbo, a line bred by U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists, is being tested in the United States. If the varroa-resistant stock is a good honey producer and exhibits other positive characteristics, it may become an alternative to better-known varieties such as the Buckfast.

In addition, the scientific world has grown increasingly aware of the importance of bees and other animals in pollination. During the past few years, several scientists, including Gary Nabhan, Stephen Buchmann and others, have published books and magazine articles about the roles pollinators play in our ecosystems.

Beekeepers have been heartened that although the Africanized bee has infested large areas of South Texas, it has not come into the state’s big cities, and its progress throughout the state has slowed considerably.

But researchers such as Neff believe more aggressive conservation efforts will be needed if the state’s bee populations are to recover. Education, money and intensive efforts to preserve large stretches of habitat will be needed.

“It’s hard to put a value on one particular bee, but it’s all part of the whole ecosystem,” he says. “Honeybees are not a universal pollinator, nor are bumblebees. There’s no such thing. Each bee has its role.” Whether that role is pollinating bluebonnets, row crops, apple orchards or fields of cotton, Neff insists that our civilization needs bees. “We really are dependent on these things.” O

Bumblebees often are better pollinators than honeybees because their larger, fuzzier bodies collect more pollen from the stamens of the plants.

Honey and Allergies: A Sweet Cure?

Honey’s medicinal uses have been known for millennia. Some 1,500 years before the birth of Christ, the Egyptians were using honey both internally and externally for the treatment of more than 200 different maladies.

While some of those nostrums may seem silly today — such as using honey and animal fat to cure baldness — honey’s reputation as a healing agent remains strong, particularly when it comes to dealing with allergies. Although modern medicine has not concluded that locally produced honey helps reduce symptoms, many allergy sufferers swear by it. The rationale is this: local bees harvest pollen and other plant products from a region, then refine those products into honey. By eating honey produced from local plants — including those that produce allergy-causing pollen — people with allergies can bolster their immunity to those plants. (Keep in mind that children younger than 18 months old should not be fed any product containing honey.)

Treating allergies with honey requires that the honey be minimally processed and produced as close as possible to your home. Getting that type of honey may require a bit of effort. Much of the honey now sold in America is imported from countries as far away as China, Argentina and Vietnam.

“Almost everybody is buying honey from elsewhere and packing it and selling it,” says Clint Walker, owner of Lone Star Honey Co. in Rogers and president of the American Beekeeping Federation. Walker says most commercial honey is heated, clarified with diatomaceous earth, then run through a fine mesh filter system. While that process makes the honey look prettier on the shelf, it also strips it of much of its nutritional value. “Zero pollen makes it through that filter,” he said. “So if you are using honey to treat your allergies, you aren’t helping.”

Walker says the best way to get unprocessed honey is to buy it directly from beekeepers. The easiest way to do that is by frequenting your local farmers’ market. (If you can’t find a beekeeper, call your local agricultural extension agent, who can probably put you in touch with the local beekeepers association). You can also shop at roadside stands and small country stores. If the label doesn’t specify where the honey is produced, ask the proprietor.

When shopping for locally produced honey, expect to pay a bit more than you would at the supermarket. Texas beekeepers say they sell much of their product for about $3 per pound. Bill Bates, who has been keeping bees for more than 50 years in Bell County, says that he sells about 60 percent of his honey to people interested in treating their allergies. And none of them quibble with him over price. “They can buy cheaper honey,” says Bates. “But they can’t buy honey that will work on their allergies.”

Supporting honey producers like Bates helps sustain Texas’ struggling beekeeping industry –— and assure a healthy population of pollinators for the state’s diverse ecosystem. And it may even provide some sweet relief from your allergies.

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