The state of our bees

Photo by Kirsten Elstner

WILL Jewish families still dip apples in honey for Rosh Hashanah if there are no more honeybees?

Beekeepers in Maryland and elsewhere are sounding the alarm on a significant decline in the bee population and the effects it could have on everything from the food Americans eat to cherished high holiday traditions.

‘Insect Armageddon’

“I didn’t know about the honeybee crisis when I started,” said Kara Brook Brown, the founder of Waxing Kara Honey House, a retail store focused on honey products.

Brown first got involved in beekeeping in 2010, when she was studying encaustic painting, a form of art that uses beeswax, among other ingredients, for paint. She began keeping bees as an inexpensive source of art supplies, until beekeeping and selling related products became her primary profession.

“It didn’t take long at all in my studies to learn that the honeybees were dying,” said Brown, who lives near Baltimore. “And, yes, they continue to die.”

Luke Goembel, vice president of the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association, who holds a doctorate in chemistry from Johns Hopkins University, noted that there are two studies that have found a 75 percent worldwide decline in flying insects in general. Another study found that there has been a 48-fold increase in the toxicity of the environment to bees.

“You will hear from people that will swear on a Bible that bees are doing great, and you will hear from people that will swear on a Bible and say that we have an insect Armageddon in process,” said Goembel, a resident of Idlewylde.

Goembel began keeping bees in 2009 after he took a class in mead making. He wanted an affordable source of honey, and he currently maintains seven hives. He has since given a congressional briefing on pollinators and pesticides, and in 2015, he spoke at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Based on his own experiences as a beekeeper, and on conversations with other Maryland beekeepers, Goembel said there has been a dramatic reduction in the lifespan of queen bees, and hives die when their queens do. Queens in past decades could live from three to five years, but beekeepers today have told him that they are lucky if they can get a queen to survive for just one year. He estimated that, nationwide, the country is losing between one-third to one-half of its hives each year.

“Everybody who’s been alive for, I don’t know, five decades or so, will remember the days when at almost every fill-up, we would take a squeegee to wipe the dead bugs off our windshield,” Goembel said. “That doesn’t happen anymore. That’s the windshield test for the decline in flying insects.”

Rabbi Avraham Laber of Chabad-Lubavitch of Southern Rensselaer County in East Greenbush, N.Y., has also noticed a decline in the honeybee population. A beekeeper since 2004, Laber got involved in the practice after a neighbor recommended it to him. He currently maintains two hives, with an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 bees between them.

“In my experience, [the U.S. honeybee population] seems to be weakened, because, over the past few years, they’ve often not made it through the winter,” Laber said. “They seem to be facing more threats.

“Because they used to [live], the earlier years that I did it, for about 10 years, I never had to purchase new honeybees,” Laber continued. “They always survive the winter, and over the past few years, they’ve often died. Then you have to start over.”

The unusual suspects

There are several different possible culprits behind the decline in honeybee numbers, Goembel said. They include the varroa destructor mite; small hive beetles that lay their eggs in honey; the loss of forests that provide sources of nectar and possibly climate change. One other important threat to bees, and the one Goembel spoke the most about, was pesticides.

“Since the advent of pesticides, like neonicotinoids, … there has been [not only] a huge increase in hive losses for beekeepers, but also that loss in flying insects in general, which appears to be worldwide,” Goembel said, noting that numerous laboratory studies had implicated these new insecticides in the loss of pollinators. “So I think the two can be correlated.”

Goembel noted that some researchers will focus on non-pesticide-related explanations for the decline in the bee population, such as the varroa destructor mite. While Goembel acknowledged that these mites can be a potential factor, he emphasized that some of these experts receive partial funding from pesticide producers and therefore cannot claim objectivity on the subject.

In the past, professional pollinators have also avoided drawing a link between pesticides and bees, as they commonly are hired by those who use pesticides, Goembel said.

From nectar to noshing

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that, out of every three bites of food an American eats, one results from pollinators. While bees are not the only pollinators, they are important ones, particularly on an industrial scale.

“When you see an apple on a tree, or a pear, before the apple could grow it starts off as a flower,” Laber said. “In order for the flower to become a fruit, the pollen, the powder, has to be transferred from flower to flower, and the tree can’t do it by itself.

“So our Creator, God, created the trees in a way that they don’t just have to beg for help,” Laber continued. “He gives them a means to trade, commerce, free trade. So the trees offer a reward to the pollinators to service them.”

Some crops would simply not exist at all without the honeybee, said Brown. Some foods reliant on bee pollination include blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, avocados and legumes such as butter beans and lima beans. Laber said peaches, plums and nectarines are also dependent on pollinators.

Almond production is especially dependent on honeybees, said Brown.

“We wouldn’t have an almond crop in the United States if it weren’t for honeybees,” Brown said. “They’re the only insect that can actually pollinate almond crops.

“So every beekeeper in the world goes to California once a year with their bees to go offer pollination services,” Brown added. “It’s how the almonds get born.”

Then, of course, there is honey. And what would Rosh Hashanah look like without the time-honored tradition of dipping apples in honey?

“The tradition of honey is very significant,” Laber said. “What’s special about honey is that it’s not only sweet, but it actually has the power, it transforms. So if something foreign falls into it, it will actually overcome that other taste. It won’t just fight it, it will actually conquer it, and it will make it all sweet.

“That’s one of the symbols of dipping in honey, is that for the sweet year, that even things or events that could be even any bitterness could become sweet,” Laber said.

Laber doubts that honey will cease to be readily available any time soon, but on the question of whether it could happen in future decades, he said, “I don’t know. … We look forward to the coming of Mashiach.”

Hope on the horizon?

To help the honeybee population, Laber said certain chemicals and pesticides should be limited or discontinued. He noted that some had already been outlawed in Europe. He also encouraged individuals, as well as institutions like college campuses, to curb their use of these substances on their lawns.

“It’s OK to have a few clover flowers growing for the honeybees,” Laber said. “You don’t have to pour chemicals just to make it 100 percent perfect that there shouldn’t be anything growing in the grass. … It would contribute to the health of the world.”

In addition to curtailing pesticide use, Brown encouraged buying safe plant materials that provide honeybees with food, such as clover, and supporting beekeepers by purchasing their wares.

However grim things may look now, Goembel said the Environmental Protection Agency is now taking more positive steps than it had been during the previous four years, even though they are “beholden to the pesticide industry,” he said.

Goembel felt more positive about Maryland’s efforts. He noted that a number of pollinator protection bills had been passed since 2016.

“I have hope that we’re going in the right direction,” Goembel said.

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