While celebrating the New Year, think as you dip

By Joel Magalnick

I  have a bush outside of my house that blooms brilliant flowers each spring. With those flowers come honeybees. Lots and lots of bees. When the bush starts growing out of control and I have this urge to break out my clippers and start trimming, something stops me: The knowledge that these bees, whether they know it or not, have to work extra hard since they need to pick up the slack from the billions of others that have been dying prematurely over the past decade.

Known as colony collapse disorder, a perfect storm of factors has come together to decimate our bee populations, and the answers to why it’s happening have only begun to become clear.

Here’s what’s happening, in no particular order: The one-two punch of a virus and a fungus known as nosema ceranae, which alone aren’t enough to kill off the hives, but knock them out when brought together; a number of pesticides which in the lab were thought to be harmless to bees are actually showing up in nearly all bee carcass samples collected by government agencies; many of these pesticides sprayed on crops are drifting to wildflowers where bees collect pollen, increasing the chemicals in their fragile systems; dust that drifts from industrial harvests coats bees’ bodies and kills them — and there may be more factors. And these findings are still relatively new.

“Nosema ceranae was only recently described in the U.S., the first time in 2007,” Walter (Steve) Sheppard, a professor of entomology at Washington State University, told the WSU news service. “But while no one really noticed, it has spread throughout the country.”

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Researchers in Sheppard’s department also discovered that nearly all of the dead bees sent to the WSU lab found “fairly high levels of multiple pesticide residues,” according to Sheppard.

While the pesticides didn’t kill the bees outright, they did affect the bees’ immune systems and significantly reduced their life expectancies.

The magnitude of this problem can be viewed in thirds: Every year since 2006, beekeepers have seen a loss of a third of their colonies. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that one of every three bites of food we eat is dependent upon bee pollination. And as much as third of our crops could be wiped out completely if we don’t have the bees to pollinate them.

So why am I thinking about the bees right now?

As Rosh Hashanah approaches, many of us begin thinking about the direct result of the bees’ pollination efforts: honey. It’s wonderfully sweet, it’s about as close as we can get to directly commune with nature, and it’s endangered.

Thinking about just the honey doesn’t take into account the apples, which we of course use for dipping. What would it mean for the Washington State economy, not to mention access to one of our most ubiquitous fruits, if the apple harvest imploded? Or the disappearance of cherries, peaches, blueberries, squash, grapes? What would you hang in your sukkah?

While I don’t want to run around screaming as if the sky is falling, this is a most serious issue. Many of farming’s greatest minds have begun to devote all of their energies to mitigate the problem, as it appears we may be too late for a real solution.

In the spirit of renewal, here are some suggestions to do your part to keep the honey on our Rosh Hashanah tables:

* Contact your legislators, both state and federal, and let them know you support any efforts to help save our remaining bee populations, including tighter regulation of pesticide use.

* When you can, buy organic produce and products. Yes, it’s more expensive, but the more we buy, the more it shows support for pesticide alternatives and our bees.

* Write to pesticide companies and let them know your concerns. Yes, most of these companies are major conglomerates and tend to ignore comments from a handful of activists, but if they hear from many people who just want to be sure they can have their honeycake, it could make a difference.

So many of us try to live the good food life — and it all starts with bees. When you wish your family and friends a sweet New Year, remember where the honey you’re dipping into comes from and the effort the bees make to bring it to you.

In the meanwhile, I’m going to grab my tree clippers. Their work is done; now mine can begin.

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