Green Scene: New year’s buzz

Save the Bees with these: The silver amulet contains a drop of honey, the life’s work of a single honey bee. Dr. David Tarpy, assistant professor of entomology at N.C. State University, runs a research program that would be one recipient of funds raised by the campaign. “The three main areas researchers have been focusing on for reversing the decline in the honey bee population are nutritional stress; pathology (a novel parasite or changes in an existing one); and environmental contaminants (such as chemical pesticides),” he says. “The conventional wisdom among most researchers is that a combination of two or more of these factors are likely responsible for bee losses in general.” Photo by Jerry Nelson

“For so work the honey-bees, creatures that by a rule in nature teach the act of order to a peopled kingdom.” — William Shakespeare, Henry V

When you think of ecological services — the free life-support systems on which we all depend — think honeybees. And thank them.

After all, bee pollination is essential to some $15 billion worth of U.S. crops annually, particularly such specialty items as nuts, berries, fruits and vegetables. About one in three mouthfuls of the American diet benefits directly or indirectly from honeybee pollination.

How does such a little creature pull this much weight? The answer, of course, is cooperation: Related individuals live together in colonies, employing a division of labor that shows no evidence of complaining, slacking or cheating.

These days, however, honeybees are in big trouble. No one knows how badly wild bees have been hit, but among their cultivated brethren, colony health has been declining since the 1980s. And in 2006, beekeepers began observing “colony collapse disorder,” a mysterious malady that leaves a live queen with few or no adult workers. Often there’s still honey in the hive, and immature bees are present — but not enough adults to care for them. Although no single cause has been identified, researchers have ascribed the phenomenon to a combination of factors, including environmental contaminants as well as introduced pests and pathogens.

Happily, the bees themselves seem to point a way forward. And thanks to the coordinated efforts of local beekeepers, restaurateurs, innkeepers and others, this area is shaping up as “a world-class ‘nuc’ for honeybee activism,” notes N’ann Harp of the Asheville-based nonprofit Friends of Honeybees. (A “nucleus colony” is a core group of worker bees organized around a queen.)

The “Thank the Bees for These” campaign has big plans for the coming year, Harp reports, including restaurant fundraisers to support bee research, using a menu that mentions all the ingredients bees help provide.

The group is reaching out to some 500 restaurants in North Carolina (10,000 nationwide), urging them “to take up the fun and important concept of becoming human worker bees, educating their staff and the public, while helping support North Carolina honeybee research,” Harp explains. “The idea being that every small group — restaurants, for example — is a corollary to a subgroup of workers within a beehive. Every group has specific tasks that it can perform on behalf of the larger community.”

Restaurants, argues Harp, are ideally positioned to carry the message, because “They’re dependent on the continued availability of the crops that, in turn, depend on honeybee pollination. ”

The campaign is also selling the Life's Work Amulet, a silver necklace featuring a vial that contains one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey — the lifetime production of a single bee. An educational tool as well as a fundraiser, the locally designed amulets are part of the nonprofit’s pitch to restaurants. Harp hopes to enable wait staff to wear the amulets at work, “because it always stimulates questions from diners,” she explains. participating eateries, she notes, will “also get a window decal to show they support honeybee research and local beekeeping.”

Another possibility is placing hives on the roofs of city-owned buildings. And if a baking-hot rooftop sounds like a less-than-ideal place for bees that expend considerable energy keeping the hive cool and aerated, Harp replies, “Siting is critical, of course, but it's being done successfully in major cities such as Chicago and New York City. The Paris Opera rooftop hosts a collection of hives, and there's a waiting list for honey from that illustrious locale.”

Asheville City Council member Cecil Bothwell says he’s raised the question of rooftop beehives here, particularly in connection with a nascent plan to install solar panels atop the Civic Center. In fact, he asserts, “The new roof just installed on the Civic Center is a perfect substrate for a [living] green roof,” which he says could triple the roof’s life expectancy by reducing rooftop temperatures. “I've got to think that bees would be ecstatic to inhabit a green roof!” Bothwell reports.

To learn more about the Friends of Honeybees, visit their website (friendsofhoneybees.org).

— Susan Andrew can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 153, or sandrew@mountainx.com.

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