Our bees are pulling a disappearing act.
The question scientists, beekeepers, even the United Nations are trying to answer is why. Our planet is in the midst of a global bee crisis. Between 2006 and 2007, 32 percent of America's honeybees died, according to a survey by Apiary Inspectors of America and the US Department of Agriculture. The next winter, 36 percent, more than 1 million hives, disappeared. Honeybees across the world are perishing quickly and without warning. The suspected culprit? Beekeepers say it's the pesticides, specifically neonicotinoids, that coat our farmlands.
This massive shift, called colony collapse disorder, doesn't just affect our honey supply. These bees facilitate agriculture, pollinating most of the fruits and vegetables we eat. One of every three bites of food we eat is pollinated by a bee, beekeepers say. And with bee populations at a 50 year low and falling rapidly, there is a fear of an imminent global food crisis.
"The way humanity manages or mismanages its nature-based assets, including pollinators, will in part define our collective future in the 21st century," said Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations' Environment Program, in a 2011 report. "Human beings have fabricated the illusion that in the 21st century they have the technological prowess to be independent of nature. Bees underline the reality that we are more, not less, dependent on nature's services in a world of close to 7 billion people."
CCD is poorly understood -- a combination of habitat loss, pesticide exposure, and invasive parasites and viruses are the most agreed-upon potential causes -- but beekeepers know their work is essential for the continuation of our food system. Central Indiana's beekeepers work furiously to make sure our bees stay healthy and happy, while simultaneously educating the public on the very real threats that will result if bees disappear.
From Kate Franzman's new urban beekeeping initiative Bee Public to the longtime beekeepers of Wildflower Ridge Honey, there are hives hidden all over our fair city. Hobby beekeepers like Ross Harding and Tim Caldwell have become hardcore devotees to honeybee organizations, like the Central Indiana Beekeeping Association. Hundreds of Hoosiers enroll in Indy beekeeping classes yearly, and thousands enjoy the taste and health benefits of local honey.
So, this month, I set out to understand our local bees and their keepers a little better. Beekeepers are an inspiring sort. After all, how many people can say their hobby will literally help feed the world?
- - Katherine Coplen
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Wildflower Ridge Honey sweetens Indy markets
You may have tasted some of Patricia and Dave Barrickman's honey and not even realized it.
Their products sweeten the treats at some of Indy's most popular joints. The couple provides honey straight from their Anderson farm to New Day Meadery, Circle City Sweets and Cornerstone Bakery.
"I was raised around bees, from the time I was little," Dave said one day at the Statehouse Market, the farmers' market held on Thursdays outside the Indiana Statehouse and Government Center. "My grandfather had bees. I was 19 when I got my first hive and I've had bees ever since, in one form or another."
After retiring, Dave increased his honey production. First, he offered pints and quarts of honey from the hives in his backyard. As his wife, Patricia, became more involved in the company, the products provided by Wildflower Ridge Honey expanded quickly. They added whipped and flavored varieties, along with fresh honeycomb, cosmetics and pollen.
But even loyal fans of that simple jug of honey will notice yearly changes from Wildflower Ridge.
"The taste of honey varies year to year," Patti said. "If there's a drought, if it's a dry season, a wet season, Indiana's honey will never taste the same twice."
She mentions last year's spectacular harvest in particular - - after an early spring, blooms from honey locust trees helped create a particularly clear honey that was notable for its light taste.
"We still have people asking for it this year," Patricia said.
The Barrickmans' long relationship with local bees have made them invaluable resources for new beekeepers like Ross Harding (see page 13). Dave was previously president and vice president of the Indiana Beekeepers Association, but he's been involved in other groups besides the IBA.
"We've spawned off about 12 different local groups all around the state that didn't exist before. The Urban Beekeeper League in Indianapolis spawned off of my group, East Central Indiana Beekeepers."
And as groups for beekeepers have grown, so has the general public's awareness of the benefits of bees and raw honey.
"A bee hive is a virtual medicine cabinet that God provides for us," Dave said. "And people are starting to come back around and see that. I'm becoming impressed with the number of people coming up to our booth [at farmers' markets] and saying, 'My doctor recommended that I use local honey.' That's something that hasn't happened for many years."
Overall changes in the way we eat have changed business for the Barrickmans.
"The slow food movement has definitely educated the public," Dave said. "It's enhanced people's knowledge, and enhanced the questions that they've asked. They know the benefits of local honey, they know the benefits of raw honey - - and they know the difference between honey from a beekeeper and honey from a grocery store. I'm impressed. I used to spend all my time educating the customer, and now they want to tell me stories."
Dave has kept up with bee issues since 1988, when a mite infestation killed 10 of his 11 colonies in one winter. That's when he realized there was trouble.
"Colony collapse is a big problem here in the United States," Dave said. "We know what the problem is. Beekeepers know what the problem is. I can sum it up real easy: Monsanto. Bayer. ChemLawn [now TruGreen]. GMO seeds. Every bit of that.
"Everything is sprayed. Herbicides, fungicides, pesticides - - it's a concoction out there. The bees are [picking it up] and bringing to it back to the hives. The bees are also infested with the same mites that we've been dealing with since 1988. Those mites are carrying about seven different viruses. Chemicals are breaking down the bees' immune systems and the viruses take over. In a week's time, they're gone."
Internationally, there have been some recent promising gains. In late April, the European Union adopted a two-year moratorium on the use of three pesticides believed to be part of the reason behind a 30 percent annual decrease in bee populations since 2007.
"[The ban] is another milestone towards ensuring a healthier future for our honeybees," Tonio Borg, the European Union's commissioner for health and consumer policy said right after the decision. "As bees have two important roles to play: Not only that of producing honey but primarily to be a pollinator. About 80 percent of all pollination is due to the activity of bees - this is natural and free of costs."
Unfortunately, within weeks of the E.U.'s decision, the EPA approved a controversial new pesticide called sulfoxaflor for use in America. Sulfoxaflor is classified as "highly toxic" to honeybees.
Monsanto and other agri-chem companies aren't blind to their effect on honeybees, or the public's perception of their part in CCD. On June 14, Monsanto announced the founding of the Honey Bee Advisory Council, comprised of Monsanto executives and bee experts, including David Mendes (past president of American Beekeeping Association), Diana Cox-Foster (Penn State University president) and commercial beekeepers. Bayer is founding a Bee Care Center in North Carolina, set to open this summer.
The pledge by agri-chem companies to investigate their role in honeybee deaths seems promising, but change is not coming soon enough for local beekeepers like the Barrickmans.
"I had a bee kill in one of my yards last year right after corn planting season. ... I had the state chemist come out and take samples," Dave said. "And those samples came back positive [for neonicotinoids]. Now, it's the buildup in the soil that we're getting, between herbicides, fungicides and pesticides that the bees are getting when they're out there and bringing back to the hive."
Urban beekeepers have a few specific problems.
"Nobody wants any dandelions in their yard, so they spray with [TruGreen]. ... [And] up and down the alleys they're fogging and spraying for mosquitoes. [They're] killing mosquitoes, but] they're indiscriminately killing everything else. None of those chemicals are insect specific. They're broad coverage."
When Dave is asked about prospects for bees in the near future, his thoughts are grim.
"In the United States, bees are just being destroyed," Dave said. "There's a lot of problems with the plight of the bee. But in 20 years, it's going to continue to get worse."
But beekeepers like the Barrickmans will continue to be good stewards of the bees.
"We're fighting our US government, we're fighting the Ag Department, we're fighting the chemical companies."
And as the line in front of the Barrickmans' Statehouse Market booth shows, that fight, sometimes, is sweet.
- - Katherine Coplen