There’s a basket full of seed packets on the counter at Lakeview Organic Grain in Penn Yan. On this basket is a cute little cartoon bee; below the bee is a not-so-cute but truthful message: “If we die, we’re taking you with us.”
Lakeview Organic Grain, owned and operated by Mary-Howell and Klaas Martens, is giving away these packets of wildflower seeds to anyone who walks through the door. Because anyone - and everyone - can help grow the flowers that provide both food and habitat for the bees that help keep food on our plates.
Jeff O’Brien, seed manager at Lakeview Organic Grain, came up with the idea. He had heard a lot of conversation around the mill about how people haven’t been seeing many bees this year. O’Brien hasn’t seen many bees on his own property either.
“There’s a lot of things in bloom right now, flowers that I would normally be kind of leery of in my garden, ‘cause they’re normally crawling with bees,” says O’Brien. “But there aren’t any. So it’s kind of worrying for the future.”
Mary-Howell Martens shares his concern. She and Klaas farm over 1,000 acres of organic grain crops; they have apple and cherry trees in a small, personal orchard. The Martens have yet to see any bees among the flowers in the field or on the trees this year.
“Usually a corn field, at this time of year, is filled with bees harvesting on henbit,” says Martens, referring to the short plant with tiny flowers found growing in corn fields before they’re plowed. “There’s nobody out there.”
Theirs is a concern we should all share because bee populations across the country - both honey bees and wild bees - are in trouble. And our food system is highly dependent on the pollination services these bees provide.
Up to 35 percent of the world’s food production is dependent on pollinators. In the United States, the value of crops that rely on pollinators is estimated to be around $15 billion; bumble bees and other wild bees provide more than $9 billion in benefits to American agriculture. Food crops that are bee — and pollinator-dependent (fruits, squashes, and nuts for example) provide significant amounts of the micronutrients that our human bodies need to function: vitamin A, vitamin C, lycopene, antioxidants and folic acid, as well as plant-based calcium and fluoride. Some of New York’s most important fruit and vegetable crops — including apples, cherries, and squash — are dependent on bees.
“They’re pollinating a lot of our crops that are necessary for the food chain,” says O’Brien. “Bees are not going away completely right now, but even a decline in them are going to make the prices of food go up.”
Survey results from the Bee Informed Partnership show that beekeepers in the United States lost 44 percent of their colonies during the 2015-2016 season; commercial beekeepers in New York reported colony losses of up to 57 percent in 2016, according to information from Cornell University. While the status of wild bees is harder to assess (most species are solitary and don’t live in nicely-contained boxes that people can monitor), significant data has been gathered over the last decade. Recent work from the University of Vermont estimates that the abundance of wild bees across the nation declined 23 percent between 2008 and 2013. Just this past January, the rusty patched bumble bee became the first bumble bee ever to be listed as an endangered species. This bee was once commonly seen in New York and throughout the Northeast; since the late 1990s, however, the population of rusty patched bumble bees has decreased by almost 90 percent and is no longer found in our state.
People who study and work with bees agree that there is no single factor causing these declines. In fact, it’s more likely that several causes combine to have a devastating impact on bees; populations weakened by one factor become more susceptible to others.
Parasites and disease: There is a range of different pests and pathogens that are cause for concern. Varroa mites are a serious threat to honey bees and are present throughout New York. They suck blood from both adults and brood, significantly weakening and shortening a bee’s life; newly emerging brood often have deformed wings and legs. Nosema bombi is a parasite that infects both managed and wild bumble bees; research has shown this disease to be present at much higher rates among declining species of bees than in stable species.
Pesticides: Neonicotinoids are the most widely used class of insecticides. They attack an insect’s central nervous system, causing paralysis and death. While most uses aren’t intended to kill bees, research shows that significant incidental harm can occur; even at sublethal exposure, neonicotinoids can damage a bee’s ability to communicate, smell, navigate and simply move its body. Whether sprayed on foliage, drenched in the soil, or applied as seed treatments, these systemic insecticides become present in every part of the plant — including the pollen and nectar. Neonicotinoids have been found to spread to neighboring flowers, seep into water sources, and persist in the soil. Ornamental flowers and plants bought at garden stores are frequently treated with neonicotinoids; “insect control” sprays and products for use in the garden often use this type of insecticide. Common brand names found around the farm include Gaucho, Cruiser and Pancho.
Climate change: Extreme weather events such as storms, floods and drought are all predicted to increase with a changing climate; these sudden events could have damaging impacts on local bee populations just like they have on our own communities. More gradual changes in seasonal patterns — like warmer winters and earlier blooming of flowers — could result in bees being out of sync with their sources of food.
Loss of habitat: Expanding urban development and increasingly intensified agriculture contribute to the disruption of a bee habitat. There is also evidence that many bees species may be caught in a “climate vice”: As climate change causes the southern boundaries of their traditional habitat to move further north with warming temperatures, some bees don’t migrate with those changing boundaries.
Are these factors the reason why people aren’t seeing many bees this year? Perhaps. Conversations with Cornell University bee researchers Scott McArt and Maria van Dyke provide additional considerations. There is general agreement that last summer’s drought had a definite impact on honey bees; the drought limited the amount and quality of food available, the lack of water-stressed the colonies, and the bees stopped brooding because of these conditions. However, Varroa mites were also extremely common in honey bee colonies in Central and Western New York during 2016.
It’s much harder to know the status of wild bees in our region. Apple bloom has been early this year and spring has been particularly cold; wild bees may yet emerge. The Cornell researchers feel it is far too early to make any definitive statement about the abundance of our wild bees this season.
Regardless of the specific causes at play, there’s a surprisingly simple step that the average person can take to protect bees: plant more wildflowers. Increase the food sources and habitat that keep bees healthy.
Martens says the seed mix produces incredibly beautiful flowers. And, because they’re wild flowers, they require relatively little maintenance once they get established.
The one-ounce packet that Lakeview Organic Grain is giving away provides enough seed to cover over 200 square feet (about the size of an average room in your house). Planting is fairly easy: Pick a spot with partial to full sun, loosen the soil, spread the seeds over the whole area, water, and lightly cover with mulch to hold moisture in while the seeds put down roots.
Martens sees this as a win-win for everybody. “Especially if we can help the bees,” she says.