Commercial beekeepers have been devastated in recent years by the mysterious illness known as colony collapse disorder, which causes honeybees to abandon their hives and never return. One-third of all honeybee colonies in the U.S. have succumbed to the disorder since its discovery in 2008.
Saving the honeybees has become the rallying cry of backyard beekeepers, whose numbers have grown in recent years as they try and prevent the complete extinction of these valuable workers. But backyards may be no safer to honeybees than pesticide-covered commercial farms.
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In October 2012, a cluster of 16 backyard beekeepers living in the same general area of Montecito, California (a suburb of Santa Barbara), woke up to find their bees acting strangely and unable to fly. Over the next few weeks, the beekeepers lost all their bees to a strange illness that didn't seem to be caused by flies, mites, or other parasites.
After investigating possible causes, the Santa Barbara Beekeepers Association wasn't able to pinpoint a "smoking gun," as its president Paul Cronshaw put it, but he told the Santa Barbara Independent that several common household pesticides had been discovered in bee food stores, their brood cells, and wax, which are used to help give bees a helping hand in getting their combs started.
The pesticides included bifenthrin, which is used on lawns, and cyhalothrin, which is present in lawn products and used to kill everyday household bugs like ants and termites, but also kills wasps and bees. The beekeepers also detected fipronil, a common ingredient used in pet flea-control products.
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Bees that collect pollen from nearby yards, golf courses, or other public spaces that have been sprayed with any of these pesticides can easily contaminate a hive, which is why the Santa Barbara Beekeepers Association is now encouraging the city and its residents to switch to organic lawn and garden maintenance.
But it could also be a case of too much intervention. "Often, the real culprit is the beekeepers themselves," says Erik Knutzen, a backyard beekeeper and coauthor of Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World (Rodale, 2011). He says that it's common for beekeepers to intervene a little too much in their beehives by purchasing combs and feed (which in some cases is high-fructose corn syrup that can be contaminated with pesticides). "We prefer to let the bees be bees," he says.
If you're interested in starting your own backyard bee colony this year, his hands-off approach may leave you less susceptible to the added stresses of your neighbor's pesticides and other as-yet-unknown, external forces. Beekeeping is complicated—you can get a detailed tutorial in Knutzen's book—but here are a few of his basic rules for establishing a hive:
• Don't buy bees. "I get local bees by capturing a swarm," he says. "It saves a lot of money and you get bees adapted to your local environment," which makes them more likely to survive in your specific weather conditions. And an existing swarm allows the queen to determine how many drones stay in the hive, which leads to a healthier colony.
• Check with your neighbors. Too many hives in one area can mean less food for your bees. "The pollen and nectar sources in a given area can only support a certain number of bee colonies," he says. When food starts to run out, you'll have to resort to artificial food, such as potentially contaminated high fructose corn syrup, which could kill your bees.
• Find local starter wax. Both hands-on and hands-off beekeepers need starter wax for their hives, and Knutzen suggests getting it from local beekeepers to avoid contamination issues.