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Blueberry Bee photo by Ed Spevak Saint Louis Zoo, taken at Missouri Botanical Garden
So, when did we start hearing about Colony Collapse Disorder? Two, three years ago, was it? Der Spiegel called it then and there, reporting that pesticides manufactured by Bayer (a German company, mind you) were linked to mass bee deaths. In America, that story was laughed at, while scientists chittered and chattered about viruses, nosema and the like. Well, now The Christian Science Monitor, which is not exactly a comic book or the National Enquirer, has reported that yes, indeed, it is Bayer pesticides that are causing mass pollinator die-offs. No fewer than three studies have linked neonicotinoid pesticides to CCD, one of them published by the well-respected journal Science. The studies that the EPA used during its green-lighting of neonics in the United States were undertaken by Bayer's own scientists, which is kind of an ethical problem. (Those studies have also since been discredited in large part, too.) Though exposure to neonics comes mainly from huge cash crops like corn and sorghum, we gardeners are unwittingly poisoning pollinators as well, when we use the same kinds of chemicals on a small scale. (Here is how to avoid using them in your garden, if you are of a mind to do so. The bees thank you in advance.)
The St. Louis Zoo is also doing its part to help struggling pollinators, a class that includes not just bees but small mammals and birds. These little creatues pollinate nearly 100 percent of the Earth's flowering plants, and one-third of our food crops. "We should not be afraid of bees," says Ed Spevak, curator of invertebrates at the Saint Louis Zoo (who took the photo of the blueberry bee above, an insect that has not been seen since the 1930s). "If we leave bees alone, they will not harm us, and they help us enormously. With 20,000 species of bees in the world, bees are invaluable to the functioning of many habitats and to the birds and other animals that feed on the seeds, nuts and fruits from the labors of these pollinators."
Spevak directs the zoo’s newly created WildCare Institute Center for Native Pollinator Conservation, which has just installed five "bee boxes" on the zoo grounds to provide nesting places for leaf-cutter, mason and masked bees, who nest in holes made in trees and wood made by other bugs. The center has also worked to establish an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) SSC Bumblebee Specialist Group, which is organizing an international network of researchers who study bumblebees, whith the goal of looking at all 250 species so they can establish their conservation status.
If you are addicted to tidiness and don't like leaving pollinator-friendly corners in your yard (long grass, dead wood, etc.), you can find directions on building a bee box (which just looks like a tiny birdhouse) at stlzoo.org/pollinators. You will also find plant lists for pollinator gardens, and a native bee identification guide. Any master gardener will tell you that building your soil and practicing impeccable garden hygiene will prevent most weeds and pests, and that can aid in cutting down use of chemicals, or eliminating them completely.
And....if you have some serious scratch....you can now start your beekeeping hobby courtesy of William-Sonoma, which has just launched a line called "Agrarian." If the $500 price tag for one hive doesn't throw you, maybe the price of two will, because as one astute commenter notes, "You need to start with at least 2 hives, so this would be an outrageous way of doing so. Beekeeping is a commitment, you become the guardian of tens of thousands of little bees. It shouldn't be undertaken to be chic." The next commenter points out the pros of this hive: "Looks nice." Cons? "No bees." Right. For that price, it still doesn't come with bees. (Which, if the purchaser is undertaking this hobby to be chic, may be a good thing.) Garden Rant also filed Agrarian line under "a fool and his money are soon parted," with an excellent point-by-point crititque of the chicken coops, including the fact that the design doesn't really match the actual day-to-day living needs of real hens.
One very positive thing I see here, though: the fact that Williams-Sonoma has invested so much time and money into developing this line means that the ecologically aware/homesteading/locavore thing is a real force in the culture, not just a passing fad. People who are new to this whole nature thing may pay too much for a blackberry bush or a pair of garden gloves, but that's one more person connecting with nature and the outdoors. And inevitably, that means they'll wise up and figure out that lettuce is lots cheaper when you grow it yourself from seed.