Six years ago, honeybees began to vanish. If you’re predisposed to a squeal and an awkward dance in public every time an airborne stinger comes your way, you may not be too bummed about this. Good – you might think – less likely to embarrass myself at this year’s company picnic. Truthfully, you should be concerned (and yes, a little embarrassed).
The disappearance of bees could radically change the food we eat and how much we pay for it. According to Stephen Repasky, Vice President and Apiary Director for the local bee-loving non-profit, Burgh Bees, honeybees are responsible for pollinating over one third of the food we eat citing apples, pumpkins, berries and cucumbers as examples. There are many foods like almonds, which will not grow at all without pollination from honeybees. The Agriculture Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture (ARS) estimates that “Bee pollination is responsible for more than $15 billion in increased crop value each year.” Not to mention how vital they are to the flowers we all love in our parks and gardens.
Recently, we’ve been losing about 30% of the honeybee population annually. While this phenomenon has a name – Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) – the cause is still up for debate. According to the ARS, “The main symptom of CCD is very low or no adult honeybees present in the hive, but with a live queen and no dead honeybee bodies present. Often there is still honey in the hive, and immature bees are present.” It is widely believed in the apiary community that the cause for CCD is the emergence of a new type of pesticides called neonicotinoids which were developed in the mid-1990s. There have been studies to support this hypothesis, but they have not been deemed conclusive by the ARS. Other theories have included mites, fungal and viral infections, and even cell phone tower transmissions.
While the use of pesticides in an urban setting is still problematic, Repasky says that people actually pose the greatest threat to city honeybees. “We as a society are too quick to take a can of raid to that nest of ‘bees’,” he says. “The more we can get people to understand that honeybees are a necessity, even in the city, the better off we will be.” He points out that honeybees are actually quite docile, and that since they’ll die if they sting you, they reserve their aggression to protect their hive. They’re also unlikely to care about your picnic lunch or the sugary cocktail you drink on your back deck. “Honeybees are not the wasps and hornets that people usually associate with being stung,” laments Repasky. “Unfortunately society lumps any stinging insect into a ‘bee’ and that is not the case.”
Burgh Bees is trying to change that in Pittsburgh. In 2008 they established to create a community for urban beekeepers and to provide places for them to have hives if they don’t have a place of their own. They created and manage the nation’s first community apiary in Homewood where people participate much in the same way they would at a community garden. They teach beekeeping classes and try to educate Pittsburgh residents on the necessity of honeybees. Recently, they partnered with The Porch at Schenley restaurant in Schenley Plaza where they manage a hive on the roof that may be producing 40-60 lbs of honey annually by next year.
At the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, we appreciate the importance of the ecological health of our parks, a system in which honeybees play a vital role. To do your part, the ARS advises not to use pesticides indiscriminately and to avoid applying such chemicals at mid-day when the bees are out in the greatest numbers whenever possible. They also suggest planting native plants that are good sources of nectar and pollen such as red clover, foxglove, echinacea and joe-pye weed.
Kathleen Gaines is a Development Associate at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. To learn more about the bees at The Porch, check out the upcoming issue of our newsletter.