Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Across the country, the fuzzy flyers are dying off or being snatched. Apiarists share their tips for keeping hives alive.
Bees are under attack. For one thing, colonies—which are crucial to pollinating crops—are continuing to die off. One new report indicates that some states, including Illinois and Oklahoma, lost more than 60 percent of their colonies last year.
This die-off is a big problem for many reasons both environmental and economic. The monetary value of bees’ work is estimated at $15 billion, the Washington Post reports.
Bees also face another, more surprising threat: theft. From Chicago to California, there are reports of beekeepers whose hives seem to have flown away overnight. Jan Kisman, who maintains more than 30 hives across Chicago’s South and West sides, recently discovered that three had gone missing. She expressed surprise to the Chicago Sun-Times, remarking:
“I never thought this would happen in an urban environment because bees are something no one would mess with.”
Other sticky-fingered people are also braving the swarms. Northern California has seen a rash of heists, in which thieves steal bee boxes to start their own colonies or rent out to other farmers. In February, more than 120 hives were nabbed in two large thefts in Fresno County. In this region, bees are in high demand as pollinators for almond trees. (The California almond industry, which has recently come under fire for its water usage, grows 80 percent of the world's supply, and has doubled its production in the last decade.) The crime has a steep cost: One convicted stinger snatcher in Yolo County, near Sacramento, received a $65,000 fine and a three-year jail sentence.
Compared to environmental factors, like harsh weather, theft is an uncommon cause of bee loss. "It’s so difficult to get full, established hives off of rooftops that if someone were to be able to steal one and get it down undetected, I might want to hire that person," Andrew Cote, President of the New York City Beekeepers Association, wrote via email. He’s only seen one instance of bee theft in the last eight years. In contrast, cold, windy winters in contributed to a loss of as many as 80 percent of Michigan’s managed bees in recent years.
Environmental and human-impact factors are the focus of a new plan announced by the Obama administration on Tuesday. The National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators aims to reduce colony loss and restore or improve seven million acres of pollinator habitats within the next five years.
In the meantime, there’s plenty that both urban apiarists and casual bee enthusiasts can do. Joan Mandell, organizer at City Bees Detroit and co-owner Green Toe Gardens, shared these ways that you can help make your neighborhood more bee-friendly:
Rethink your lawn. Instead of laying down sod, plant ground cover or scatter clover seeds. Flowers—especially varieties that attract pollinators—are another option. “We ripped up our front yard and planted wildflowers and perennials that we don’t have to water,” Mandell adds. “When we started, people thought it was really weird. Now, 10 years later, three of the six houses on our street have done the same thing.”
Plant a tree. Bees often live in trees, and use the sticky sap, or propolis, to seal their hives. Check out urban tree initiatives to get more in your area.
Know your nursery. Transplanting potted seedlings or putting up a hanging basket? Learn as much as you can about the blooms. Were they drenched in pesticides or fertilizers at the nursery? If so, what kinds? “Plants are bees’ food source,” Mandell says. “They either feed them or kill them.” She’s especially concerned about neonicotinoids—insecticide ingredients that are chemically similar to nicotine. Recent studies have suggested that neonicotinoids can have a negative impact on hive health. In 2013, the European Union banned three types—a decision that has elicited mixed responses. However, a new article published in Nature concluded:
There is no question that all three neonicotinoids banned by the EU— imidacloprid, thiamethoxam and clothianidin—are highly toxic to bees.
Many organizations, such as Beyond Pesticides, offer suggestions for chemical-free ways to combat infestations.
Host a hive. Maybe you don’t want to be the one actually interacting with the bees. If you’ve got prime bee real estate, you can open up your space to beekeepers looking for a place to set up shop. To pursue this, contact your local apiary organization.
Don’t take too much honey. Mandell has this tip for amateur beekeepers: Don’t get greedy. Throughout the winter, “The whole cluster moves through the hive eating honey that they’re stored there,” she says. “We judge in the fall how much honey is in the hive. If the honey has been overproduced, we take the extra.” Harvesting too much honey could leave the bees with too little to survive on during rough weather.
“We’re all beekeepers,” Mandell says. “Maybe only some of us are going to have bees in boxes or in fields, but all of us can do something.”