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Pollinators in Peril

Pollinators have a staunch ally in Graham White. White, a small-scale hobby beekeeper in Scotland, has been an international campaigner on the dangers of neonicotinoid pesticides since 2003. To this endeavor, he brings his background in environmental education and teaching, a fascination with the biodiversity of life and his long-term involvement in environmental issues.

Graham White, a small-scale hobby beekeeper in Scotland, has been an international campaigner on the dangers of neonicotinoid pesticides and their affect on pollinators since 2003.

Born into a family of coal miners and glassmakers in an industrial town near Liverpool, England, White developed his love of nature exploring remnant woodlands and abandoned 19th century canals. As a teenager he was introduced to hiking and as a university student in the late 1960s he became an avid rock climber. He credits his 1976 expedition, hiking the John Muir Trail from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney in California, with changing his life.
When White returned to the UK, he decided to make it his mission to introduce John Muir, his writings and environmental values to the people of Britain. Muir, who founded the Sierra Club in 1892, was from Scotland, but was virtually unknown there. White founded the UK’s first Environment Centre in Edinburgh in 1978 and served as founding director for 23 years. In 1994 he proposed the creation of The John Muir Award for environmental excellence as a personal development program for people of all ages. In recent years over 200,000 people have completed this national challenge award.
White is also an accomplished nature photographer, author and editor of environmentally themed books and articles, and radio broadcaster, whose productions include the BBC interview series Deep in Conservation with environmental luminaries such as David Brower, Satish Kumar, Vandana Shiva, Wangari Maathai, Amory Lovins, and Bill Mollison.

Interviewed by Tracy Frisch

ACRES U.S.A. How did you come to be a campaigner for bees?

GRAHAM WHITE. I started keeping bees in 1994, with four hives; within two years I had 10 hives. I harvested about 20 pounds of honey per hive each year, to share with friends and family. I only became a bee campaigner around 2000, when my bees began to die for no apparent reason. The Varroa mite arrived in 1998, but we treated for it, and I didn’t lose any colonies. The French have had Varroa mites since 1963 without any impact on honey production. In 2001, I moved to the Scottish Borders, an area where wheat, canola, barley and potatoes are intensively farmed. I soon noticed something odd happening with the bees; my colonies didn’t die, but they no longer thrived or made as much honey. They seemed weaker and lacking in vigor. In 1998 Bayer’s imidacloprid appeared in the UK. I wasn’t living among the wheat fields back then, so I wasn’t aware of it. When clothianidin appeared, around 2003, people began to lose bees on a large scale — 50 to 80 percent of hives died each winter. After some online research, I discovered that mass bee deaths had occurred in France since 1994. We were just the next in a line. I began to educate myself and try to alert my fellow beekeepers in the UK. Continue Reading →

Beehive Construction: Innovative Beekeeping and Value-Added Marketing

Beehive construction isn’t limited to a single set of blueprints. There are options, and within those options, thousands of sustainable variations exist.

Beekeeping construction can even include a temporary box for a second swarm. Photo courtesy Sparrowhawk Farm

Les Crowder always had a great curiosity about insects when he was a kid growing up in Bernalillo, New Mexico. This interest was particularly pronounced when it came to social insects such as ants, wasps and bees. He was fascinated with the organization of ants as they adjusted their behavior to the food he would bring them. Crowder said it appeared that the ants showed intelligence, as they got to know he would feed them at a certain time and a certain place every day and had the ability to communicate this information with their “sister” ants. Later, he managed to catch a bee swarm, which he put into a box. From that point, he was captivated by bees and would eventually spend the greater part of his life studying and making a business out of them. He now owns an apiary at Sparrowhawk Farm with his wife, Beth, and family.

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Mushrooms May Save Bees

A decade ago, honeybee populations around the world began declining at an alarming rate. In the early years of this trend, beekeepers lost 60 percent or more of their hives to a mysterious phenomenon that came to be known as colony collapse disorder (CCD). In each of these cases, worker bees simply disappeared, and it doesn’t take long for a colony to collapse without workers to provide food and to care for the young. Although this trend seems to have leveled off somewhat in recent years, the current average rate of 30 percent annual mortality is still nearly double the average rate reported prior to 2006.

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Healthy Pollination: Horizontal Hives Support Natural Beekeeping

A bee pollinates a flower.

A bee pollinates a flower.

Healthy pollination is the goal almost every beekeeper starts with, but it is often easier said than done.

If you have ever dreamed of keep­ing bees but found the process com­plicated, expensive, or the potential for losing your investment to disease and pests all too real, then you have never met Dr. Leo Sharashkin. He is a prominent wild bee enthusiast, edu­cator and apiarist who practices an ancient method of catching and keep­ing wild bees in specially designed horizontal hives.

If you have had the good fortune to meet Sharashkin or to hear him speak to a room full of enthusiastic beekeep­ers or the crowd that inevitably gath­ers around his Horizontal Hive booth at growers’ conferences across the country, you already know that his knowledge of bees is boundless and the methods he uses to keep them, truly inspiring. Whether you are a budding beekeeper or an experienced apiarist, you can keep happy and productive bees with less work and money than you ever imagined pos­sible and do so in a sustainable way.

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Queen Bees Impacted by Neonics

Queen k11072-1Throughout the Northern Hemisphere beekeepers have struggled to maintain adequate numbers of honeybee colonies for crop pollination and honey production due to dramatic increases in colony deaths each year. Recent surveys of beekeepers suggest that poor queen health is an important reason for these losses, but why queen health is being affected is not understood.

A research team from Bern, Switzerland and Wolfville, Canada, has found that honeybee queens, which are crucial to colony functioning, are severely affected by two neonicotinoid insecticides, thiamethoxam and clothianidin. In 2013, governments in Europe moved to partially restrict the use of these neonicotinoids while further risk assessments could be performed. The province of Ontario, Canada, followed suit in 2015. This is the first study to investigate the effects of neonicotinoids on honeybee queens. Its findings suggest that these insecticides may be contributing to bee colony mortality by affecting queen health, and it further strengthens calls for more thorough environmental risk assessments of these pesticides to protect bees and other beneficial organisms.

The observation that honeybee queens are highly vulnerable to these common neonicotinoid pesticides is worrisome, but not surprising, says senior author Laurent Gauthier. The study shows profound effects on queen physiology, anatomy and overall reproductive success. The queen, as the sole egg-layer and the primary source of colony cohesion, is the most important individual in the colony; without her the colony will eventually fail to function.

This article appears in the December 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Natural Plant Toxins Aid Bees

Bee1webResearchers studying the interaction between plants, pollinators and parasites report that in recent experiments, bees infected with a common intestinal parasite had reduced parasite levels in their guts after seven days if the bees also consumed natural toxins present in plant nectar.

In this early and most comprehensive study of its kind, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Dartmouth College studied hundreds of eastern bumblebees, Bombus impatiens, and their intestinal parasite Crithidia bombi, using eight separate toxic chemicals, known as secondary metabolites, produced by plants to protect themselves against predators.

The eight chemicals studied were nicotine and anabasine found in the nectar of flowers in the tobacco family, caffeine from coffee and citrus nectar, amygdalin from almond nectar, aucubin and catalpol from turtlehead flowers, gallic acid from buckwheat nectar and thymol from basswood tree nectar.

They found that these chemicals in nectar reduced infection levels of the common bumblebee parasite by as much as 81 percent by seven days after infection.

UMass Amherst evolutionary ecologist Lynn Adler said, “We found that eating some of these compounds reduced pathogen load in the bumblebee’s gut, which not only may help the individual bees, but likely reduced the pathogen Crithidia spore load in their feces, which in turn should lead to a lower likelihood of transmitting the disease to other bees.”

She adds, “Because plants just sit there and can’t run away from things that want to eat them, they have evolved to be amazing chemists. They make biological compounds called secondary metabolites, which are chemicals not involved in growth or reproduction, to protect themselves. They are amazing in the diversity of what they can produce for protecting themselves or for attracting pollinators.”

Adler says results may have implications for growers who depend on pollinators, who may want to think about planting pollinator-friendly hedgerows and gardens containing plants that produce natural herbal remedies for some of the common parasites and diseases that ail bees and other pollinating insects.

“The more we look, the more we see that these compounds are in nectar and pollen too,” she adds. “With so many people looking at bee health these days, it’s taken a long time for us to realize that perhaps we should be paying attention to how floral secondary compounds mediate pollinator dynamics and their interactions with pathogens. Having bees consume these protective chemicals could be a natural treatment of the future.”

Commercial honeybee growers already use one such chemical, thymol, found in thyme plants, to treat mite infestations.

Findings appear in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

This article appears in the April 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.