Article by Liz Corcoran, originally published May 2010 on Tonic.

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The dwindling honeybee population has the world abuzz, and from the White House garden to Great Britain and beyond, the fight is on to save agriculture’s busiest workers. Here’s what you can do to help.

Environmentalists and bee keepers have long advocated the planting of wildlife gardens to provide nectar for foraging honey bees. But with bee colonies dwindling dramatically in recent years, ravaged by disease as well as loss of habitat, beekeepers and the agriculture industry that relies on their hives, are facing an uncertain future.

With much of the food we eat reliant on honey bee pollination, Tonic looks at some of the ways the public can help support the bee population and research into bee health.

Armchair beekeepers in the UK have Adopt a Beehive, a fundraising initiative from the British Beekeeping Association, which supports research into honeybee health and beekeeper education. Sign up for a nominal £29.50 (US $50) donation, and supporters get to choose a hive to support — anywhere from an inner city London garden to Scottish highland farm.

The scheme is tapping into the huge interest in honeybees and their decline, says Martin Smith, the British Beekeeping Association’s president. “People were interested in doing their bit, but they wanted to do more than just planting some bee-friendly plants,” he says. “We introduced Adopt a Beehive so that they could be involved in the life of a honey bee, in the knowledge that the money they were paying was going towards researching their decline and towards training new people to be competent to maintain healthy honey bees.”

To date, more than 2000 individuals have signed up. Funds are channeled into a larger pot used to pay for wide ranging research on bee health, including recent funding for a post-doctoral research post at the University of Sussex in England.

In the US, similar organizations are open to public donation. The Bee Native group is working with The Honeybee Conservancy to introduce holistic organic beekeeping to indigenous communities throughout America, with one project completed on the Menominee Indian reservation in Wisconsin and others planned in New York and Oklahoma.

The Foundation for the Preservation of the Honey Bee, the charitable arm of the American Beekeeping Federation, has used public donations since 2004 to help provide five annual scholarships of $2000 each to help graduates in bee science embark on their professional careers.

And university research facilities are also open for donations. Häagen Dazs, whose Häagen Dazs loves Honey Bees campaign has done much to promote public awareness of the honey bee crisis since it launched in 2008, has spurred the public to donate more than $30,000 in additional funds to support honey bee research at UC Davis (as well as donating a hefty $500,000 from its own bank account to support UC Davis’ and Penn State’s research programs). UC Davis’ Honey Bee Haven, a bee friendly garden designed to encourage public awareness of the plight of the honey bee and the planting of bee friendly gardens, will open to the public on Sept. 11, 2010.

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What’s at Risk

So why all the buzz over bee health? Bees are responsible for pollinating more than 100 crops across America. The honey bee population is in serious decline with gross colony losses in America averaging over 30 percent in recent years. Reasons for the decline are complex and varied. Martin Smith points to the erosion of habitat as a major factor, as the countryside is “concreted over,” not just in terms of building, but through the introduction of swathes of intensive mono-culture which have replaced patchwork landscapes of fields, meadows and hedgerows.

A second major challenge, he says, has been the varroa mite, which is endemic in bee populations and weakens the colony, making it susceptible to viruses. Dr. Jamie Ellis, Assistant Professor of Entomology at the University of Florida agrees. “Varroa mites remain the world’s most destructive honey bee killer,” he says.

Control of the mite is not easy. “Traditionally miticides (mite-killing chemicals) have been used, however, we are beginning to realize that these may harm bees,” he says. Instead he and his research team are promoting an Integrated Pest Management model, which uses non-chemical control approaches to reduce varroa populations, such as simple hive screens which allow mites to fall away from the hive once they drop from a bee. Only when populations exceed a certain level are “soft” miticides temporarily reintroduced.

But the most talked about phenomenon in relation to bee colony losses is CCD — Colony Collapse Disorder — identified in 2006 and the subject of the award winning documentary Silence of the Bees.

Collapsed colonies have several features in common: while the queen remains, the worker bees appear to have disappeared, presumed dead, leaving large amounts of food in the hive and capped brood which are still to hatch.

The cause of CCD, despite extensive research, remains largely a mystery. “At this point, almost every conceivable and realistic cause remains a possibility,” Dr. Ellis says. Traditional bee pests, while not the sole cause he says, may exacerbate the situation. Poor hive management strategies and the use of chemical toxins to control bee pests and pests in the environment could also contribute. Then there is the varroa mite, the effect of moving hives around the country for pollination needs and the possibility of mixing healthy and diseased bee colonies and malnutrition among colonies which is linked to weakened bee immune systems.

A recently discovered parasite called Nosema ceranae has been found in some colonies with CCD symptoms. Its role in CCD is not yet understood, but according to Dr. Ellis: “When this disease is present in bees in elevated levels, the bees leave their colonies never to return.”

While research continues, one sure way of supporting the bee population is to start your own hive. Even before Michelle Obama had one set up in the White House garden, beekeeping was enjoying something of a resurgence — not only in rural areas but on city roof tops too. New York City beekeepers celebrated in March of this year when the ban on keeping honeybees in the city was lifted. The interest in beekeeping is such that classes at the New York City Beekeepers Association this spring are booked to capacity.

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Can’t manage a hive? If nothing else, get writing in support of Christopher Stowell, a boy scout from Skiatook, Okla., who is doing his best to encourage a new generation of beekeepers by lobbying the Boy Scout Council to reinstate the Boy Scout Beekeeping merit badge which was discontinued in 1995.

“I believe that now more than ever before the survival of the honey bee is important to all,” he says. “If other boys are not encouraged to learn how to become beekeepers, the honey bee will surely die out. Not only do I feel this way, but beekeepers all across America believe in the importance of teaching the younger generations the importance of the honey bee.” Christopher is taking his proposal to the council in July, so get those letters out or sign his petition at Experience Project.

What You Can Do Now to Help

Start Beekeeping yourself. Unless a person is allergic to bee stings, says Dr. Ellis, then he or she can become a beekeeper. But contact the American Beekeeping Federation or your local beekeeping association for information on courses and purchasing equipment first.

Support bee and pollinator research — consider donating time and money to local bee research efforts. Contact your local beekeeping club or university for information about pollinator research projects.

Make a honey-bee friendly habitat: Any outdoor space can be transformed to encourage honey bees. Plant sunflowers, hollyhocks, foxgloves and flowering herbs. If you have room, go for fruit trees, buddleia and hebe. Forego the use of herbicides and pesticides.

Encourage your city to exploit unused parks to create bee-friendly habitats. Even a few hanging planters will provide valuable food for bees.

Lastly — simply — purchase locally produced honey and beeswax to support your local beekeepers.

Image Credit: John Severns, David.nikonvscanon, Migco