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Seeking Higher Ground: Be a friend to bees

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“Remember when we were kids and a field like this would be buzzing with bees? We were always afraid of getting stung.”

My friend Jae Gregory said that while standing in a meadow near the Maroon Bells that was bursting with dandelions. And she was right. There were very few bees.

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At home, my xeriscape garden stands in marked contrast to the flowerless green lawns and agricultural monoculture that rob both wild and cultivated bees of much of their diet. Right now, more than a dozen types of flowers are blooming there: columbines, lupines, hollyhocks, sweet peas, Canadian roses, lavender, bee balm. The bees are especially drawn to my humongous catmint bushes. If I squat down nearby, I can actually feel their buzzing.

Though I’m not savvy enough to recognize different species, I have seen at least five different kinds of bees in my garden. That’s a small number, considering that Colorado, home to 950 bee species, ranks fifth in bee diversity of any U.S. state.

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That’s the good news. The bad news is that worldwide, bees are in trouble.

A couple weeks ago, a bright 20-something named Jennifer rang my doorbell to tell me about it. She had come from Denver, camping out with other young volunteers so that they could go door-to-door in Western Slope towns pollinating public opinion. Her message: “No bees, no food.”

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We humans rely on bees to pollinate 71 of the 100 crops that provide most of the world’s food. This past winter – a good one in terms of snowfall and summer water supply – was murder for honeybees. The Bee Informed Partnership recently conducted its 13th annual survey of “managed” honeybee colony losses, polling 4,696 beekeepers who collectively manage 319,787 hives. The survey found that around 37.7 percent of domestic honeybee colonies in the U.S. were lost last winter!

After Jennifer alerted to me to this terrifying buzz kill, I emailed Mark Burrows. In addition to being an accomplished photographer whose work often appears in the Sopris Sun, Mark is also a local bee guardian.

When I asked him for the three best ways to aid bees, his first piece of advice was to stop using pesticides to “fix” to the soil and kill the weeds. “Consider the biome of the soil,” he urges. “Every application of a pesticide, herbicide, fungicide, etc., damages it for many years.”

Pesticides — specifically the insecticides known as neonicotinoids, or “neonics” — are about 6,000 times more toxic to bees than DDT. Because neonics work their way into the pollen and nectar of the plants, they weaken even surviving bees.

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Neonics sap the strength that honeybees need to fight off the varroa mite, a parasite that specifically attacks Apis mellifera. When honeybees die off, we humans rally to help them. Or at least some of us do. A few years back, the USDA provided grants and technical assistance to farmers. European nations have banned several bee-killing pesticides.

But last week — in a decision that Earthjustice attorney Greg Loarie called “nothing short of reckless” — the Trump-era EPA removed restrictions on the pesticide sulfoxaflor. Following a lawsuit brought by beekeepers, environmental groups, and honey-industry advocates, sulfoxaflor, sold under the brand names “Closer” and “Transform”, had been banned in 2015. Now it’s back (albeit with warning labels). But the EPA’s own studies have showed that sulfoxaflor harms wild pollinators like bumblebees, even at low doses.

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As Mark Burrows points out, “There are some 20,000 pollinator bee species in the world. We are paying attention to only one species. When honeybees die off, as they have been, we have gotten really good at bringing them back, partly because bees are very adept at building up their populations. But what are the native bees and other pollinators doing? Are they able to come back as adroitly? I seriously doubt it.”

Mark’s second piece of advice is to buy only local honey. “It’s being estimated that about 40 percent of the worlds honey being sold on the open market is not honey, but corn syrup with flavorings. How can you tell?” he wrote. “You can’t. Buy from a local producer. Support your local farmer and beekeeper.”

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Mark’s third piece of advice was to plant “flowers, low-water sedges, and grasses for the local population of solitary bees to nest in.” 

About seven years ago, my husband Mason and I pulled out about half of our front lawn and planted native perennials — pretty much what Mark recommends. 

If you’d like to take that bit of advice, please consider this column your invitation to visit my garden at the corner of Rock Court and Wald. You can see for yourself what kinds of plants our local bees like best.

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