You can help the troubled honeybee

July 03, 2007|By ANNETTE IPSAN

Did you know:

· That up to 80,000 honeybees live together in a hive?

· That honeybee queens can lay 1 egg a minute?

· That honeybees dance to tell other honeybees where to find food?

· That one hive can produce 50 pounds of honey?

· That honey was found in ancient Egyptian tombs?

The honeybee is one fascinating insect.

Unfortunately, it is also dying out in record numbers across the country, raising concerns about the impact on food crops that depend on this vital pollinator.


Some U.S. beekeepers have lost 25 to 70 percent of their bees in the last year and no one knows why. Honeybees have been establishing hives, flying away to forage and never finding their way home.

Everything from pesticides to parasites, to pathogens to stress has been blamed, but no cause has been proven.

Pesticides are suspect because many that are used on bee-pollinated crops are toxic to honeybees.

Entomologists at Penn State urged growers recently to avoid using pesticides containing imidacloprid because studies show it impairs bees' ability to navigate and reproduce. Imidacloprid is a common ingredient in many home gardening systemic insecticides.

How could honeybees' dwindling numbers affect our food supply?

Much of what we eat comes from plants that need to be pollinated. And, honeybees pollinate a third of our crops.

From March to October, honeybees visit flowers collecting nectar and spreading pollen so plants can produce fruits, vegetables and nuts. According to a Cornell University study, honeybees pollinate more than $14 billion worth of crops in the U.S. each year.

Yes, there are other pollinators, but they play a lesser role. Other bees, hummingbirds, moths, butterflies and bats spread pollen from flower to flower.

But they have limited range or are active only a few months. Most aren't reliable for commercial agriculture. Honeybees reign as the premier pollinators.

And now, they are dying.

Honeybees have been hit hard before.

Parasitic mites wiped out 25 percent of the honeybee population in 1990. Various diseases have nibbled away at their numbers.

But nothing has come close to the widespread population collapse we are seeing now. Scientists have dubbed it "Colony Collapse Disorder" or CCD.

"We have seen higher losses in area hives in the last two years," says local beekeeper Carl Kahkonen, president of the Hagerstown Valley Apian Society.

"Part of this is due to weather extremes - including January's 70-degree weather - but some of the rapid significant losses are unexplained."

What's a bee lover to do?

Create a good honeybee habitat in your own backyard.

First, avoid chemicals. Instead, manage pests with organic products like horticultural oil, insecticidal soap and Bt. Test your soil before you fertilize and add no more fertilizer than you need.

If you must use chemicals, use them sparingly and only on target plants. Spray in late evening or early morning to minimize the effects on all pollinators.

Building a healthy, balanced backyard ecosystem also helps honeybees. Create a diverse landscape with many different plants and pollen sources.

Choose well-suited plants that will thrive. Include native plants that have naturally evolved with local species.

Use plants that bees like and need. Provide a constant nectar and pollen supply with plants that bloom from spring to frost.

Include bees' favorite flower colors: blue, yellow and purple. Favor old-fashioned flowers over hybrids.

Encourage other backyard pollinators with a kinder, gentler approach to gardening and a few simple additions.

Butterflies and hummingbirds are also sensitive to chemicals, so again, limit their use. Add a hummingbird feeder and plant flowers that attract butterflies and hummingbirds.

Build or buy a bathouse and orchard mason beehouse to support these pollinators.

Get plans at or or by calling me at 301-791-1604 or by e-mailing me at with your mailing address to request copies.

Hopefully, the scientific community will resolve the critical honeybee situation.

Until then, as nature lovers and good stewards of the environment, supporters of the agricultural community and concerned consumers, we can all do our part to help the honeybees survive.

To learn more about honeybees and how you can help, contact:

Hagerstown Valley Apian Society at 240-217-4083 or

Maryland State Beekeepers Association at

Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research & Education Consortium at

Annette Ipsan is the Extension educator for horticulture and the Master Gardener program in Washington County for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. She can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1604, or by e-mail at

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