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Eco Talk: How to help stop bee depopulation

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Now that summer seems to have arrived, both calendar- and temperature-wise, I have been seeing more pollinator activity in the flower garden. Pollination is a valuable and necessary service provided by both managed bees, primarily honeybees, and wild native bees.

Between 75% and 95% of flowering plants worldwide need to be pollinated. Bees accomplish this by moving pollen from one flower to another in order to produce fruit. I cannot imagine what a summer picnic would be like without a ripe tomato, or a Thanksgiving dinner without cranberry sauce.

The Pollinator Network at Cornell University estimates there are a total of 416 bee species in New York. During a survey conducted in 2015, over 110 wild bee species were documented visiting flower blossoms in orchards across New York state.

The majority of the bees are considered digger bees because they dig a hole in the ground for their nest and live alone. Other bees, however, produce a hive and live together in a social order, including honeybees. It is estimated that honeybees are responsible for pollinating $15 billion worth of crops in the U.S.

Besides pollination, bees are beneficial to the global population and ecosystem, as they contribute to food security, sustainable farming and income, and biodiversity. They are also used by environmentalists to assess environmental health.

Declining bee populations have been in the news for several years. There are several contributing factors to the decline, which include loss of habitat, disease and parasites, use of pesticides and climate change.

Studies have shown that wax and pollen in the majority of the hives in the U.S. have some pesticide in them, which lowers the bee’s immunity to varroa mites. These tiny mites are a parasite that feeds on the bee’s blood and stored fat, and transmits deadly viruses throughout the hive.

Researchers at Cornell have developed a technology that can provide beekeepers, farmers and consumers with a way to offset the harm pesticides are causing to wild bee populations and help beekeepers who are losing, on average, a third of their hives each year. Researchers have developed pollen-size particles that are filled with an enzyme that detoxifies the pesticide before it can harm the bee.

The development of this technology that delivers an antidote for pesticides in bees has moved from the lab to a new company, Beemmunity, which is based in New York. According to an article published in The Cornell Chronicle May 21, Beemmunity is running large-scale, colony-size trials of the new product on 240 hives in New Jersey, with plans to offer the products in February 2022.

As mentioned earlier, loss of habitat is a major factor affecting all pollinators. According to the Great Pollinator Project, as land is developed the loss of sites for overwintering, foraging for pollen and nectar, or nesting can be detrimental even when pollinator gardens are provided.

The changing climate is also impacting all bees by altering the scent of plants, changing the seasonal timing of when plants flower,  contributing to habitat loss. Plus, a warming climate also increases stress on bees.

If you are interested in assisting bees, consider planting native plants that bloom throughout the growing season and offer plants of various heights and colors. Also, leaving some bare ground in the garden will allow bees to dig in the ground and build a nest or provide a bee “house,” also called a bee nest or bee hotel. These allow solitary bees a chance to nest. They can be purchased, or directions to make one can be found online.

My neighbor purchased a bee house several years ago and had moderate success with bees using it. This year it was moved to a new location, as their garage is being painted, and the bees are flocking toward it. This reminds me that nature may take some time to work, so do not give up if at first you do not succeed.

Looking for more information on native plants for pollinators? Be sure to check with the Master Gardener Volunteers at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Cayuga County. The helpline is staffed from 10 a.m. to noon Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at (315) 255-1183.

Take some time to consider your potential impact on the environment and pollinators before you use pesticides around flowering plants and other bee habitats. Enjoying nature and watching foraging pollinators hard at work is one way for you to relax while they do their important and critical work.

Judy Wright is the senior agriculture specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Seneca County. For more information, visit or call (315) 539-9251 ext. 109.


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