Our declining bee population: What’s all the buzz about?

Our declining bee population: What’s all the buzz about?
“Chemicals. That’s the No. 1 thing,” reducing the bee population says Encinitas resident and owner of Encinitas Bee Company James McDonald. Photo courtesy Wikimedia

Bees have been making national headlines in recent years. As the bee population continues its decline, many of us sit back and scratch our heads. We read the news stories and wonder exactly what happened and what we can do about it. One resident, James McDonald, owner of Encinitas Bee Company, is taking action. And he urges all of us to join him in solving what he says is a problem that is 100 percent fixable and preventable.

What’s killing the bees?

The declining bee population is a direct result of three specific factors, according to McDonald.

“What’s killing the bees?” McDonald asked. “Chemicals. That’s the No. 1 thing.” He said the “mystery of the dying bee” is a big spin that the companies that produce these chemicals have promoted. The chemicals in systemic pesticides that are so widely used are causing bees to have weak immune systems, and viruses that shouldn’t be killing them are, he said. He added that there is no mystery as the lobbyists behind these chemical manufacturers would have you believe. “Pesticides kill bugs, the bee is a bug,” he said. McDonald cited a recent EPA study which he said declared that systemic pesticides are in fact killing the bees.

He also said that Encinitas is in the 90th percentile of California cities for the amount of pesticides it uses. That is something he is working tirelessly to change.

The second largest contributing factor to the bee decline is habitat loss, McDonald said. This habitat loss is due to both the overdevelopment of land and the overwhelming use of pesticides in both public and private outdoor areas. This leaves the bees with a precious few options for pollination.

While beekeepers everywhere are breeding more and more bees, the amount of bees they breed can’t be enough to make up for the losses. “The bees are dying at a rate that is just unreal,” McDonald said. And it isn’t just the quantity that is unsustainable, it’s the quality of the bees being bred.

According to McDonald, the breeding of these weaker bees is the third contributing factor to the overall decline of the bee population. “They have to get some new blood in there,” he said of the breeders. He pointed to Brazilian scientist Warrick Kerr’s work with African killer bees and honey bees as an example. “The killer bees are stronger and tougher,” he said. “We need to breed them with the honey bee to get a calm strain of killer bee. Retain their hardiness, and lose their aggressiveness.” A stronger bee, he said, would be able to survive the elements of the ecosystem. Instead of chemicals killing the bees, “we need to let natural selection kill off the weak bees.”

What does this mean for us?

Pollinator plants are an important part of our ecosystem, more important than many people realize according to McDonald. He said that it isn’t just our plants that make fruit that survive off of pollination, it’s also the animals that depend on those foods that are affected.

As for the chemicals being used and their effects, McDonald said the bees are just the canary in the coalmine. “The bees are just sensitive,” he said. “The bees are the ones going first, but it’s affecting all of us.” Autism and cancer are both more prevalent now than ever and McDonald points out that many people believe that chemicals are responsible.

Roundup: A commonplace killer?

It is vital that we get the chemicals out of our environment if we want to save the bees, McDonald said. He pointed to the common household gardening product glyphosate, sold under the brand name Roundup among others, which is a systemic herbicide used to kill weeds. Thanks to the efforts of McDonald and other like him, the city of Encinitas no longer uses the products which has been linked to cancer and has recently been declared a carcinogen by the EPA. Products like these, though classified as herbicides, render bees helpless. McDonald said it doesn’t kill them directly, but kills the microbes inside of them that are crucial for their digestion and ultimately their survival.

What can we do?

The first step is to get rid of the chemicals, McDonald said. This is as easy as filling our yards and parks with plants that don’t require any special chemicals to survive. “We live in a desert, we should be planting desert plants,” McDonald said. “Planting succulents is so important,” he said. “They are great pollinator plants that require no chemicals. Any systemic pesticide that goes into the ground is going to be sucked up by the plants and expressed in the nectar and pollen.”

McDonald said we need to let natural selection kill the delicate plants. “The plants that are meant to be here thrive,” he said. For examples of drought-resistant plants that don’t need chemicals, McDonald referred to the Encinitas Community Park, which features rosemary, thyme and sage among others.

Jeff Harms of the San Diego Beekeeping Society knows a thing or two about what we should be planting to save our bees. He worked on a pollination garden in Balboa Park using a variety of pollinating plants native to San Diego. “In the turn of the 19th century to the 20th century, San Diego was known as the honey capital of the world. Harbison Canyon produced a lot of honey based on the great native coastal sage. The local native plants are great planting for that.”

The positive effects of planting varieties like this are threefold. Not only can we increase the amount of great pollinator plants for our bees and save water, there are many plants that bloom all year. “Doesn’t everyone want a garden that always has flowers?” McDonald asked.

Another step residents can take is to provide more environments for bees to thrive. McDonald quoted one scientist and beekeeper who said the best way to prevent habitat loss is to outlaw cement. While not viable option in reality, there are ways to increase the available habitat for bees. While having a bee hive isn’t an option for many, tiny bee houses for native bees can be.

Mim Michelove, a founder and administrator with Ocean Knoll Farm in Encinitas, is doing her part to spread the word about creating native bee homes. Her Farm Lab program will be teaching local students how to design, engineer and create habitats that will attract native bees. “The plan is to take the many homes that EUSD students create and combine them to build a bee hotel,” she said. “This kind of experiential education uses the natural world as a backdrop for hands-on science lessons and also empowers kids to make a meaningful contribution to the process of growing food for their community.”

Many in Encinitas are taking great strides to get our ecosystem back on track. McDonald has partnered with Cheryl Konn of Quail Flower Barn to create a bee and plant sanctuary located at 501 Quail Gardens Drive. They sell what McDonald calls a “health concoction” of honey, lemon, turmeric and cinnamon as well as pollinator plants.

McDonald’s work is hardly done, as he continues to join efforts with like-minded citizens and city officials. “We are getting the pesticides and herbicides out of our land, and we’re going after the private sector next,” he said.

The solution, according to McDonald, is simple. “Avoid chemicals, put out bee houses, and plant drought-resistant plants,” he said. “If everyone followed these rules, the environment would be a much safer place.

For more information about McDonald and humane bee removal business, visit encinitasbee.com. For a list of native plants ideal for increasing pollination efforts, visit wildsd.org/cs3/cs3plants1.html.

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