My husband's 24 fruit trees have been a joke. Their blossoms are pretty to look at in the spring. They offer good backdrops for pictures. Other than that, the trees have served no purpose.
We've never gotten fruit, except for the one year a man who lived about a mile away kept bees. But then he got rid of them, and our fruit never came back.
Until our neighbor had bees, we rarely saw a honeybee pollinating the blossoms during the 20 years we've lived here.
There are virtually no feral bees in this region. We have so altered the landscape that we have nearly eliminated them. Bumblebees and other insects pick away at pollinating, but do little compared to the workhorse honeybee.
Most pollinating is now done by commercial beekeepers and is essential for more than 100 fruits and vegetables, one-third of all our food. But beekeeping has hit an all-time low. The number of honeybee colonies is less than half of what it was 25 years ago.
Diseases and poisons are part of the reason. Debilitating mites introduced from Asia in 1986 have taken their toll on bees. And bees encounter many pesticides. For example, neonicotinoid pesticides, which keep grubs, ticks, termites and virtually all insects out of our lawns, can harm bees. These poisons are available to the public and some homeowners use them with reckless abandon.
Stress also takes a toll. Hives are trucked on flat bed trailers, in the heat, up and down the Eastern Seaboard and across the country to pollinate crops as they flower. The travel taxes the honey bees' immune system, making them susceptible to disease and mites.
In the spring of 2007, a mysterious episode of colony collapse disorder occurred, in which bees vanished from thousands of hives. Poisons, genetically engineered crops and parasites have all been suspected, but so far, scientists have reached no conclusion on what caused the collapse. Studies continue across the country and around the world.
In the meantime, the good news is that the public has heard more about the vital role that honeybees play in U.S. agriculture. Without them, we starve. Fewer bees mean less food.
That hits home, even to the most disconnected citizen. People are learning where their food comes from. They are learning that all things are connected, and we can't separate and destroy one thing without greatly affecting everything else.
Honeybees are an indicator species. Their health reflects the health of the environment. They are not alone in their decline. We are losing pollinators around the world at an alarming rate because of land development, pollution and pesticide poisoning.
But we can help.
Michael Embrey, Extension Apiculturalist at the Wye Research and Education Center in Queenstown, MD, says, "We need people to increase nectar resources for bees, especially in the mid-Atlantic region. Development is taking out so much....Blacktop doesn't make good nectar. Today, our bees have a poorer quality of diet, which can set them up for more diseases, pesticide influence and the inability to take care of problems in their hive. All compound on each other."
Embrey works with Master Gardeners, showing them that what is good for butterflies is good for honeybees.
More flowers are needed. Local beekeeping organizations are spreading the word about honeybees' importance. They are conducting seminars, giving workshops and will help home gardeners get started with a hive or two.
A good place to find out about local beekeepers is through one's county agricultural extension office. The offices record who will collect swarms, sell honey and pollinate crops and orchards. Many counties put on "Open Hives," a daylong seminar about beekeeping. Each state also has an organization of beekeepers that can provide information.
I'm happy to say that our family has joined their ranks. A local beekeeper put a hive on our property and taught my husband the ropes. Amazingly, we had abundant fruit.
The presence of honeybees can help even the small home gardener and orchard keeper, as well as the whole country's food supply. Rebuilding the honeybee population may have to begin at home.