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Bees: Wing leaders of environmental sustainability

For me, there is nothing like a nice, hot cup of chai tea to start my day.  In fact, drinking tea has become a staple of my morning ritual.  But a few weeks ago, I ran into a bit of a personal emergency.  Between frantically running late and being screamed at by a boiling tea pot, I realized that I was completely out of local honey. 

Sure, it may not sound like a big deal, but you try drinking black tea with no sweetener and get back to me on the experience.  My taste buds were bitter about the whole thing, so I decided to buy some more honey from the beekeeper that works nearby.  To my great dismay, however, the beekeeper said he would be out of honey until later this spring.  Let me just say that settling for store bought honey sent me straight down the rabbit hole of first world problems.

In an attempt to gain some perspective, I started comparing my minor predicament to the worst possible scenario.  What if, instead of waiting a few measly weeks, the beekeeper said there would never be any more honey? What if the bees stopped producing honey altogether, or worse, what would happen if we lost the bees to extinction?

As it turns out, we have a whole lot more to lose than the sweet, golden flow of deliciousness that honey bees produce.  If the Apis Mellifera (European Honey Bee) were to ever face extinction, the agricultural world as we know it would be unhinged from its normal routine and plunged into a downward spiral of worldwide economic proportions.  Thus, keeping the honey bees healthy is imperative to our overall food supply. Additionally, practicing mindfulness and conservationism makes it possible for all bee species to thrive. This is essential to environmental sustainability. 

One of the most obvious functions of the bees is that they pollinate much of the food that we eat.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests that bees, particularly honey bees, are responsible for pollinating 1/3 of the world’s food supply.  Their work as pollinators circulates more than $15 billion in the U.S. industry alone. Locally, these insects play a major part in helping us grow produce like watermelon, squash, and blueberries, among others.  

As the demands for agricultural goods rise, so does the workload for the bees.  To meet those demands, commercial beekeepers haul their bees across different areas of the country to pollinate food crops.  This takes the phrase “busy as a bee” to a whole new level of intensity. 

Instances in agriculture prove that we need the bees, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they need us.  In fact, their “here today, gone tomorrow” attitude has grown as a topic of concern within the last decade.  In April of 2007, the term “Colony Collapse Disorder” (CCD) was coined to define a phenomenon in which a large number of bees strangely disappear from their colonies and leave their queens behind.  CCD has been recorded in areas all over the world, and Statesboro is not exempt from this swarming mystery.

Bobby Colson, owner of B&G Honey Farm, club president of the Ogeechee Area Beekeepers Association and the Altamaha Beekeepers Association, and vice president of the Coastal Empire Beekeepers Association, has been dealing with the issue of CCD since 2006.

“Before CCD hit us, we had around 450 hives of bees.  When it hit, we lost 350 of them.  Since then, CCD has been happening on and off.  It used to be that 10 percent was a natural loss, but now I know people who have lost 40-50 percent of their hives.  You find traces of the bees, like seeing honey in the hives, but the majority of them have disappeared.  You don’t see any signs of death, they’re just gone.  It is still a mystery as to why they leave,” he said.

Researchers of the bee community suspect that CCD is a result of multiple factors, most of which stem from human development.  This includes things like the usage of pesticides on field crops and a buildup of harmful pathogens in the environment.  There is also evidence to support that people hauling bees across the country for commercial pollination leaves the bees in a stressful state and further contributes to their disappearances. 

It seems that despite how much we rely on them, the relationship between humans and bees is a toxic one.  This toxicity can only be explained by the stifling size of mankind’s ecological footprint.  Even when compared to disease and mites, humans have proven to be the most invasive species of all.

Since its original upheaval in 2007, the EPA reports that cases of CCD have decreased in the past few years.  This comes as good news, considering the bee community is now navigating through the murky issues of climate change.  As higher temperatures lead to longer, drought-filled summers, bees will have less nectar, which is their main source of nutrients.  This is a reality that local beekeepers already face.

Chris Carroll, owner of The Creator’s Garden and beekeeper in the Candler and Bulloch areas, is no stranger to the role that climate plays in the structure and productivity of a healthy bee colony.

“When you have a drought and go through a dry bloom, there won’t be any nectar in that bloom,” Carroll put simply.

Extreme drought conditions can cripple the production of popular honey flavors like Blackberry and Tupelo.  Such was the case last year with the production of local Gallberry honey.  

“We usually get a large nectar flow off of Gallberries, but last year we had a drought for about 5 or 6 weeks during the month of May.  It caused all of the blooms to fall off and we didn’t make any Gallberry honey at all,” he said.

Because of these hurdles, it is important for the beekeepers to monitor the phenology of the plants and bees.  With unbalanced weather patterns, we are witnessing warmer days in the middle of winter.  The spikes in temperatures cause some plants to bloom early. Studying how bees respond to plant life cycles helps prepare beekeepers for the changes in nature’s calendar.

“The warm weather we had back in January kick started the season and the bees responded to that.   The red maple bloomed about two weeks early this year and it caused the queens to lay the boxes out pretty heavily.  Piles of bees came in and they tripled in population.  Then, when February saw a late freeze, it killed the blooms, which killed the nectar supply for the bees,” Carroll said.

When there is a shortage of nectar, the bees die of starvation.  To fight this issue, beekeepers rely on sugar water as a substitute for the bees’ diet.  It sounds like an easy fix, but it comes with risks.

“The more you feed them, the more water you put into the box.  Sugar water creates moisture in the hive.  If you don’t vent the hive well enough, moisture inside will freeze [during cold weather].  You can lose a lot of bees to the elements at that point,” Carroll said.  

Amidst the lingering risks of CCD and the detrimental impacts of climate change, it almost sounds as if the bees don’t have a fighting chance at survival. The good news is, there are things we can do as individuals to help alleviate the sting of such threats. All it takes is a trip to the backyard:

• Water your yard during dry spells. Keeping your grass/plants watered will flush out dust and harmful toxins that build up over time. You can take it one step further and add a bird bath for animals to rinse off in.   

• Plant a small, bee-friendly garden Flowers like snapdragons and hydrangeas attract bees as good sources of food. For optimal results, add foliage to your garden that blooms annually. Just remember to avoid using chemicals and pesticides.

• Join the buzz. Stay informed and support conservational efforts. Becoming mindful of the environment will help us make better decisions on how to care for it. In return, we will be more equipped to protect our plants and animals.


So, the next time I’m stirring some good ol’ homegrown honey into a cup of chai tea, I won’t take it for granted. Instead, I’ll just remember that bees are the gold standard for environmental sustainability and without them, life–like my tea–wouldn’t be nearly as sweet.