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'Bee' the Solution

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'Bee' the Solution

Honeybees are the only insect to produce food eaten by humans. To make just one pound of honey, worker bees have to fly 55,000 miles and tap two million flowers. Each honeybee's wings beat about 200 times per second, creating their infamous buzzing.

Throughout history, countless cultures and civilizations have venerated the bee. Aegean cultures believed bees were a bridge from the natural world to the underworld. Records from 2,500 B.C. show honeybees carved into ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Honey was revered as a medicine and, when excavating pharaoh’s tombs, archeologists have uncovered jars of honey, buried alongside these leaders.

Coach Mark Smallwood tends to bees at Rodale Institute. Photo credit: Rodale Institute

Sadly, today honeybees have lost their place of prominence in our society. They have been drawn into industrial agriculture and, each year, hundreds of thousands of honeybee hives are shipped from Coast to Coast, providing pollination for everything from almonds to zucchini. This system focuses on the economic value of the bees and disregards the life of the animal. We’re not taking care of the bees—they’ve become a commodity, much like CAFO beef or GMO corn.

For the past 70 years, the number of honeybee colonies in the U.S. has steadily declined. In the 1940s, there were 7.5 million colonies nationwide. Today, there are only 2.5 million. That’s 250 billion fewer honeybees. Clearly, if honeybees are any indication of the health of the environment, then they are sounding a warning to us all.

At Rodale Institute, we believe the backyard beekeeper is the key to honeybee health. We need more hobby beekeepers.

I’ve been a beekeeper for nearly twenty years. And part of my goal is to share my passion for the bees with others. Over the years, I’ve introduced a number of colleagues and friends to beekeeping: Stefano from Azure Bees; Adam from Whole Foods Market; and, most recently, Michael from Rodale Institute. Each has described beekeeping as a meditative, spiritual experience that has taught them patience, trust and increased their belief in the value of hard work. Working with the bees has changed their lives for the better.

At Rodale Institute, we believe the backyard beekeeper is the key to honeybee health. We need more hobby beekeepers. Photo credit: Laurie Schneider Photography

When I welcome new employees to the Rodale Institute, I share the history of our organization, our core values and mission. To impress upon them the importance of our work, I relate our planet to a bee’s hive. We are the stewards of this planet, much as the bees are the stewards of their own colony.

After a bee stings, she dies. She only gets one chance to make this sacrifice for the hive.

We humans are lucky. We get many chances to protect and preserve our hive, our colony—this planet we share with so many amazing creatures.

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At the end of each meeting, I ask my team, “What is your sacrifice? What will you do today to protect, strengthen and preserve our hive?”

It’s up to us to “bee” the solution.

My beekeeping philosophy is focused on preservation versus production, respect for the bees and trusting my intuition when dealing with them.

For the past 70 years, the number of honeybee colonies in the U.S. has steadily declined. In the 1940s, there were 7.5 million colonies nationwide. Today, there are only 2.5 million. That’s 250 billion fewer honeybees. Photo credit: Rodale Institute

Here are my tips for healthy hive stewardship

  1. Find a mentor who fits your beekeeping values. I recommend that you never feed your bees sugar and avoid all antibiotics and chemical treatments. Each spring, Rodale Institute holds a two-day workshop on backyard hobby beekeeping.  Check our online calendar for dates.
  2. Many beekeepers use smoke when entering the hives—they believe it calms the bees. I do not. I know how I feel when someone blows smoke in my face—and I only have two “scent receptors.” Bees have 170. After they are “smoked” it takes up to two weeks for them to regain full use of their scent receptors.
  3. Bees get a bad reputation for stinging but most “stings” are actually bites from wasps or hornets. Bees are industrious and focused on pollination. Traditionally, they won’t sting unless they feel threatened. When purchasing bees makes sure to find a local source. Check with other local hive stewards to ensure that your breeder is respected and that you’re getting a calm strain of bees.
  4. Be present with your bees but don’t overwork them. During the warm weather when bees are most active, check on your hives about once a month. Bees can actually begin to recognize your shape—they will get to “know” you as you continue to work with them.
  5. Make sure your bees have a clean source of water.
  6. Don’t take too much honey—especially in the fall. The bees need the honey as food to survive the winter. The National Honey Board selected September as “Honey Month.” In my opinion, that’s all wrong. July should be Honey Month—that gives the bees time to build up their reserves before winter sets in. Our team at Rodale Institute is working with Wedderspoon, an organic honey company, to increase awareness about honey—and get Honey Month changed!

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Cottongrass blows in the wind at the edge of Etivlik Lake, Alaska. Western Arctic National Parklands / Wikimedia Commons / CC by 2.0

By Tara Lohan

Warming temperatures on land and in the water are already forcing many species to seek out more hospitable environments. Atlantic mackerel are swimming farther north; mountain-dwelling pikas are moving upslope; some migratory birds are altering the timing of their flights.

Numerous studies have tracked these shifting ranges, looked at the importance of wildlife corridors to protect these migrations, and identified climate refugia where some species may find a safer climatic haven.

"There's a huge amount of scientific literature about where species will have to move as the climate warms," says U.C. Berkeley biogeographer Matthew Kling. "But there hasn't been much work in terms of actually thinking about how they're going to get there — at least not when it comes to wind-dispersed plants."

Kling and David Ackerly, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley, have taken a stab at filling this knowledge gap. Their recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the vulnerability of wind-dispersed species to climate change.

It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.

Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.

Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.

One of the study's findings was that wind-dispersed or wind-pollinated trees in the tropics and on the windward sides of mountain ranges are more likely to be vulnerable, since the wind isn't likely to move those dispersers in the right direction for a climate-friendly environment.

The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.

They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.

"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."

That's important, he says, because wind-dispersed species like pines, willows and poplars are often keystone species whole ecosystems depend upon — especially in temperate and boreal forests.

And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.

"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."

Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.

"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.

The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.

"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."


Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan

Reposted with permission from The Revelator.