Save the Bees

Neonics spell disaster

Illustration by Trask Bedortha

Do you eat almonds? I do — lots of them. But for how long? California almonds are just part of the 70 percent of our food supply that depends on honeybees for pollination. But colony collapse disorder (CCD) has made life tough for bees and for beekeepers, who have struggled in recent years to supply the hives needed to pollinate crops.

There is no question that products with neonicotinoids (neonics for short) kill bees. Wilsonville, Ore., hit the national news last summer when a pesticide containing a neonic was sprayed on flowering linden trees and 50,000 bumblebees died on the spot. And hundreds of bees died in Hillsboro from feeding on trees that had been sprayed six weeks earlier.

Neonics are systemic in action (meaning they make the entire plant toxic) and long-lasting, sticking around for weeks or even months. Exposed to doses that are not immediately lethal, bees become disoriented and may not get back to the hive or nest. If they do return to the hive, they carry contaminated pollen with them, and the toxin is spread to other bees and builds up in beeswax.

Neonics hide in products with names that give no clue as to contents, and their use is becoming ubiquitous, both in agriculture and in landscape maintenance, as they displace older pesticides that are more toxic to humans and other mammals. A 2013 article in The New York Times stated, “The explosive growth of neonicotinoids since 2005 has roughly tracked rising bee deaths.”

The European Union last year adopted a partial, two-year ban on this group of pesticides while the issue is investigated further. U.S. beekeepers keep lobbying for a ban, but the EPA has refused to act, citing many possible causes of CCD and claiming that evidence implicating neonics is weak.

On Feb. 26, the Eugene City Council voted to ban the use of neonics on city property, the first ban of its kind in the nation, acording to Beyond Toxics.

Many other factors do probably contribute to CCD, among them varroa mites, viral infections and nosema, a highly infectious gut parasite. Neonics, however, have been shown to weaken a bee’s immunity to all these problems. Habitat loss to conventional agriculture and development is another major bugaboo for bees. Large monoculture crops without hedgerows or meadow strips provide nothing for bees when not in bloom and are frequently toxic when they are. The greatest contribution gardeners and farmers can make to benefit all bees is to provide them with a safer food supply. There are some things everyone can do:

Eat organic to encourage farming that is friendly to bees.

Buy organic plants, seeds and starts for your yard.

Don’t use products containing pesticides and weedkillers, and don’t let your lawn service use them. There are virtually no ‘good’ pesticides for bees.

Grow disease resistant trees so you don’t need to spray.

Ask your neighbors not to apply pesticides.

Gardeners can do more. If you have a lawn, let it be a weedy lawn, and don’t mow it too often. Dandelions are a major food source for bees! Include clover in your lawn (it’s drought resistant). Bugle and daisies are good, too. Where possible, leave some areas unmowed through July to let the grasses flower. Grasses are big producers of pollen.

Provide water in shallow containers filled with pebbles. Plant for three seasons of bloom and a variety of flower types. Garden plants that continue blooming into fall provide late forage for honeybees and help ensure they face winter in good shape.

If you grow vegetables, plant squash and borage! Sunflowers last a long time, and so does mint. Let some lettuce, kale and arugula go on to flower. Native plants are great for bees and other beneficial insects. Just a few easy species could give you a nearly continuous succession of flowers: Oregon grape or native currant; riverbank lupine or checker mallow; yarrow; Madia elegans; Douglas aster.  

Don’t be in a rush to clean up: many native bees and other beneficial insects lay eggs in dry, dead plant material.

Call a beekeeper if you find a swarm of honeybees on your property, or go a step further and set up a hive yourself. To learn about beekeeping and gardening for bees, you might want to attend an event 1 to 5 pm March 15 at Cozmic. Organized by Oregon Sustainable Bee Keepers, “Save The Bees” features three speakers and a film showing. There will be a sale of neonic-free, bee-friendly plants.

Thanks to Gary Rondeau of Oregon Sustainable Beekeepers and Lisa Arkin of Beyond Toxics. Both are working to get neonicotinoids off the shelves of local retail stores. And to Jen and Doug Hornaday of Healthy Bees = Healthy Gardens for sharing their experience and encouraging people to keep beehives.