honey beekeepingHoney bees are critical to agriculture. They not only gather nectar and make honey but they pollinate crops in fields, orchards and gardens. Many plants require an agent, often bees, to carry pollen from one flower to another. Adequate pollination is important because it increases crop yield and quality by ensuring fruit set, complete development and viable seeds.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, bees pollinate one third of the food we eat. That includes fruits, nuts, vegetables and herbs. Thank bees when you eat asparagus, carrots, celery, cucumbers, onions, pumpkins, radishes, squash and turnips. Think of bees as you enjoy apples, blueberries, citrus, peaches and strawberries.

Hobby beekeepers typically keep their hives in one spot; professional beekeepers transport their hives to various locations. Bees can be delivered in large numbers when needed to pollinate crops. In addition to fruits and vegetables, farmers use honey bees to pollinate fields of cotton and soybeans.

European colonists brought honeybees to North America about 400 years ago. There are between 3,500 and 4,000 species of bees in North America of which about 50 species are honey bees. Native bees, like honey bees, are pollinators.

What scientists have named Colony Collapse Disorder has been in the news since 2006 when a significant decrease in the honey bee population became evident. Scientists have not yet identified one clear cause, but believe more than one issue may be at the root of the decline in numbers. Researchers are looking at pests and parasites, pesticide use, loss of natural habitat, stress and inadequate nutrition.

The drop in the honey bee population is now recognized as a global problem, affecting Canada, South America, Europe, Asia and Africa, as well as the U.S. The U.N. Environment Program executive director has weighed in on the issue by pointing out, “The fact is that of the 100 crop species that provide 90 percent of the world’s food, 70 percent is pollinated by bees.”

A U.S. report from the National Academy of Sciences on pollinators has identified the need for land owners and managers, farmers and homeowners to adopt “pollinator friendly” practices.

Beekeepers and gardeners need to protect bees from pesticides. If you must use a pesticide, apply it after the sun goes down when bees have returned to their nests or hives. Choose an organic product. Know that some insect damage in your garden is unavoidable.

Avoid spraying blooms with any type of pesticide –bees can carry contaminated pollen back to their nests. Use the force of water from your hose to knock aphids and other pests off flowers.

Provide a pesticide-free source of mud and water for bees and other wildlife. Plant a pollinator garden. Select native plants that bloom successively through the growing season and into the winter. Allow some pollinator food (aka blooming weeds) in your lawn. For example, bees love blooming clover. Consider providing a nesting habitat for bees. Build your own or buy commercially made bee houses.

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