Vol.18 Issue 2, Summer 2013
by John Bennett
The golden, white, light or dark amber food produced by honey bees begins as nectar in flowers across our farms, fields and neighborhoods. Foraging bees are ladies who search out high-energy nectar sources, tell all their friends and gather all they can. Honey bees collect, process, concentrate and store this precious liquid in wax comb and, in so doing, create a sweet energy source they, under protest, share with us.
No two years provide the same rainfall, temperatures or even available sunlight. Therefore, no two flower seasons are identical. Each harvest is unique in color, flavor, aroma and intensity. These hardworking ladies are documenting a point in history unique for every location, season and year. Honey bees enable you to smell, taste and enjoy what these wonderful creatures have recorded.
There is much controversy in the honey markets today leaving many of us concerned about the purity, authenticity and even safety of the “honey” products available to us. The commercial honey producers in the United States compete with imported products not subject to the quality and safety regulations governing U.S. honey. Imported sources are intermixed, and the honey we find on the shelves of our markets has become suspect.
In an effort to assure ourselves of the wholesome goodness of natural honey, seek out sources of local honey. Look for honey that has never been heated, altered or contaminated. We want honey as close to what the bees prepared as possible. We search for the unique flavors provided by the mix of local flowers and even the pollens suspended within. In that same spirit, local beekeepers seek the best ways to provide wholesome, natural honey. The Loudoun Beekeepers Association (LBA) and sister organizations across the country are sources of consolidated information for beekeepers. The LBA helps get honey to the public through its information booth at local fairs. Some local beekeepers, such as John LaRocque of Ashburn, Va., also sell honey from their home apiaries. Unfiltered, unprocessed raw honey: as natural as you can get and still have your shoes on!
Mankind has been harvesting honey from bees since before recorded history – generally through the most unkind methods. Today we nurture our bees in ways not conceived in the past. We protect them from an ever growing list of predators, feed them through the winters, restore their colonies when our environment does them wrong, and give them the best housing and furniture we can supply. In turn, they serve us as supper pollinators to enhance our food crops and provide us a bounty of that liquid gold we call honey.
Just 50 years ago, if you wanted to raise bees, all you had to do was set up housing and the bees would find you. Not so today. Wave after wave of predators and blights have arrived on our shores and destroyed both domestic and wild bee populations and humans have generated even more hazards for these creatures.
The latest major problem, the Small Hive Beetle, arrived in Loudoun County in 2011 and has already destroyed many hives. To calibrate the magnitude of the threat, last year the beetles destroyed over half a million colonies of honeybees in Hawaii in their first year infesting the islands.
Today, without beekeepers, there would be no honey bees. Doing our best, we still expect to lose as many as half of our bee colonies in any year. It’s a harsh world out there for our honey bee friends, and we owe it to them to work year-round to support them. We house and protect them locally, and work with governing bodies to protect them with regulations.
The Environment and the Foraging Bee – Close to Home
If you spend time on the W&OD bike and horse trails in eastern Loudoun County, you may have noticed something this year – or rather noticed something missing. Bees. As I write, it is near the end of May 2013, and so far this year, I have seen only one bumble bee on the trail. I have hopes of seeing more, but the year is already almost half over. Populations are absolutely down. Something has happened. Bees are delicate. They are constantly sampling our environment and they quickly succumb to the maladies they encounter.
Earlier in April, other local wildlife showed impact. A frog was seen floating belly-up in a creek, uneaten for two days. Mice and moles were laying feet up along the trail. The hawks that feed on these creatures were also missing; two piles of feathers marked their demise. Box turtles that frequented the trail last year were missing and there were no turtles to be found in the creek.
The W&OD trail west of Belmont Ridge Road did not appear to be affected like the east side. So the phenomenon was more local to Ashburn. Still, it begs an answer. This answer may also help explain the unusually high failure rate of bee colonies in Ashburn over this past winter and spring.
What We Can Do
When you, as a fellow inhabitant of the land we share, are presented with an opportunity to rid yourself of mosquitoes, ticks or other insect pests with a blanket pesticide service good for the entire summer season, please think again. You have been presented with the ability to indiscriminately kill. You would not poison your neighbor’s dog or cat. Why would you poison their bees, butterflies, birds and other wild inhabitants? Why would we poison an entire food chain?
Here is some food for thought. An estimated 30 to 40 percent of what we eat requires the pollinating support of bees; due to various factors, it is becoming increasingly diffcult to keep bees alive, especially through winters. Further, it is estimated that we have lost 60 percent of our bees over the past few years. Understanding this leads to the very sobering realization: America is one harsh winter away from a food crisis. All of us need to fully think about the consequences of our actions. A shortcut in the form of blanket pesticide spraying, which sounds politically correct today, may ring very hollow next year.
After all, it’s a mutual thing, if it is bad for a honey bee, can it be good for you?
John Bennett is the Willowsford Farm Beekeeper and lives in Ashburn.