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Educating Biff about Bees

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I walked over to my neighbor’s house with a couple of beers in hand and found him leaning over a table on his porch sobbing and making strange huffing noises. “Watcha doin’ Biff?” I quipped. Biff straightened up and turned to look at me with a panicked expression, keeping his hands firmly on the table. I glanced down and noticed a honeybee being held down on its back with Biff’s two index fingers. “I’m trying to save this poor bee!” he answered in an exasperated voice, then leaned back down and attempted to blow air into the bee’s proboscis. I was taken aback by the whole scene and stood there for a few seconds, holding a beer in each hand and watching as I attempted to organize all of the questions bouncing around my brain like houseflies in a mason jar. Should I explain to him that mouth-to-mouth resuscitation wouldn’t work on a bee because its “mouth” is basically a tube used for feeding on nectar, or most importantly that insects don’t breathe through their mouths? Should I tell him he would need to place his mouth on the side of the bee’s abdomen and blow air through the little holes called spiracles found there? Should I tell him that the reason for the bee’s demise is most likely not through asphyxiation and mouth-to-mouth (or mouth-to-abdomen) resuscitation is a waste of time? Should I let him know that if, for some reason, the bee revives he will probably get stung on the mouth and the bee will die anyway? Should I not tell him this and get a cheap thrill out of watching this crackpot get stung? Has he already been drinking too much? Should I just turn around and walk away and make a phone call to the loony bin? After a few seconds of wresting with these questions in my head I simply ended up uttering “uh… why?”

deadbee

Biff turned and looked at me with bloodshot eyes and, perhaps realizing that his efforts are futile, says in a defeated tone “Don’t you realize that we NEED bees to survive? They are dying and it’s all because of people like you spraying your pesticides all over the place! Once all the bees are gone, we’re all gonna die man! Maybe, maybe I could’ve helped by saving this one bee.” He then dropped his head and stared at the lifeless insect lying on the table. I chuckled and said, “Look Biff, I love you man, but you’ve GOT to do a little more research before going off the deep end like this.”

“What do you mean?” Biff mumbled while still staring at the dead bee. “Well, sit down and I’ll explain.” I replied. Biff sat in a nearby chair. I opened one of the beers and handed it to him, then opened the other one for myself. “You are correct that honeybee populations have declined over that past few years, and while many people blame pesticides as the sole cause, there are actually several other reasons for their decline. One of these is the varroa mite.”

“The wha..?” Biff tips the beer bottle and takes a sip.

“Varroa mite. It’s a large parasitic mite that feeds on the bee’s hemolymph… uh…er… blood, like a vampire. They’re really big too comparatively; it would be like having a bug the size of a dinner plate latched on to you sucking out your blood. When they get into a hive they multiply and spread disease and can decimate the colony. You know, colony collapse disorder type stuff. They are found infecting bees all over the world except in Australia and their honeybee populations have not been declining which further implicates varroa mites as the main cause. These mites are causing major problems for beekeepers. Apiculturists, uh… bee scientists, are having a tough time trying to figure out how to control them. They were using strips coated with acaricides, pesticides that kill mites, but the mites have developed resistance to them. Pesticides in low doses are sometimes used, but it’s hard to find the balance of applying them strong enough to kill the mites but not affect the bees.”

“Hmph” Biff grunted before taking another swig of beer.

“And don’t worry, we’re not all going to die if the honeybees disappear. Although it would be very devastating because they pollinate many of our crops but not everything is dependent on honeybees. They are not even native to this country.”

“Really?”

“Nope, they were brought here by European settlers. Native Americans prospered in this country long before honeybees arrived. But, we have become reliant on honeybees for many things over the centuries and it would be disastrous if we lost them all. Remember when I mentioned before about many pest species coming from Asia?”

“Yeah I remember you saying we’ve gotten lots bad pests from there but we’ve given them some of ours too.”

varroa

“Right. Well, the varroa mite is from Asia as well. Interestingly, the Asian honeybees can recognize the presence of varroa mites in their colony and they seek them out and destroy them so they are not as big of a concern for the Asian bees. But the European honeybees don’t have that trait and don’t recognize the mites as invaders. Some scientists are trying to breed this trait into the European bees but they’re still trying to work out the kinks. That would be a huge victory if it works out and we can control the mites without the use of pesticides. I also read about an invention that was designed to be placed in the hive to help control the mites. It monitors conditions in the hive and if the temperature drops to the optimal egg laying temperature of the mites it then heats up the hive a couple of degrees to discourage egg laying from occurring. Pretty cool stuff, huh?”

“That is cool. I wonder if it works though.”

“Dunno, but I bet this mite problem will be solved one day soon. In the mean time the pest control industry is committed to doing everything we can to reduce or eliminate any ill effects on honeybees from pesticide applications. The industry has grown and evolved over the years and is way more sensitive toward non-target organisms like honeybees. This is partly due to people like yourself that have brought attention to some of the, uh, unintended consequences of products used in the past. The majority of the products in use today are considered to be very low risk, especially when used appropriately. Unfortunately there are some people that don’t take the time to read labels and learn how to safely apply the products, and these people ruin it for the rest of us that want to be responsible.”

“Like using those neonick, uh.. neonickoids, or whatever they’re called?”

“Neonicotinoids. Actually, in my own personal opinion, these are some of the best pesticides out there. I can’t speak for agricultural use, but for urban uses they are applied at extremely low rates, are effective at controlling large infestations of pests, and have extremely low toxicity on mammals. Unfortunately, a product containing this chemistry was used, not incorrectly according to label but perhaps irresponsibly, to treat trees in an Oregon Target parking lot which resulted in the death of thousands of bumble bees. This incident ignited the debate on the use of neonicotinoids and ultimately led to their ban in some areas and restricting their use in others. While I do think many people and governments overreacted, and continue to overreact without researching what’s really going on, it certainly brought attention to honeybees and the importance of their conservation – which is not a bad thing.”

“So you don’t think I’m nuts?” Biff tips the bottle and empties the last few drops into his mouth

“Well, maybe a little. But mostly just a bit dramatic. Next time you have a bug concern, talk to me. And if you want to help out the bees, get a small hive to keep in your backyard. It’s a great way to learn how fascinating they are.”

“How ’bout I just get another beer?”

“Sounds great buddy.”