While scientists around the world try to unravel the ongoing mystery, Decatur beekeeper Tim Bailey is doing what he can to support bees, one hive at a time.
According to Bailey, a professional beekeeper for nearly 40 years, it is high time that humans do something to help these prolific pollinators.
“I presently have four overwintered colonies,” he said. “We do produce some honey for sale, but I intend to produce queens and nucleus colonies, simply because bees have been suffering many perils these last several years. If we don’t do all we can to preserve their numbers our food supply is in jeopardy.”
The value of honeybee pollination to U.S. agriculture is more than $14 billion annually, according to a Cornell University study. Experts say bees are needed to pollinate fruit, vegetables and nuts as well as various flowers. It is also the only insect that produces food eaten by humans.
“Experts say one mouthful in three of the foods we eat depends on pollination by honeybees,” Bailey said. “Although honeybees are only one of several pollinating species they are the most versatile and easily managed of all.”
Their extinction, according to experts, would mean not only a colorless, meatless diet of cereals, rice and cottonless clothes, but a landscape without orchards, meadows of wildflowers and the collapse of the food chain that sustains animals and wild birds.
Honeybees, which are not native to America, are also carted from farm to orchard and raised to produce honey by professional beekeepers. Bumblebees, native to this country, are wild pollinators.
Bailey, who began a life with bees in Ohio in 1973, said once he got his first hive he began to read everything he could about bees.
“The more I observed and read, the more fascinating they became,” he said. “In time I came to have 75 colonies and had good success at producing queens and nucleus colonies for sale. A full-strength colony of bees contains 30,000 plus bees, mostly workers which are females, some drones which are males and one queen.
“I am still fascinated by the way over 30,000 individual insects act in unity of purpose, as though they were individual cells in a larger body. Each colony has it’s own ‘personality’ reflecting the genetics of the single queen.
“Some are calm and quiet — easily worked with — others act nervous and flighty while others are quite aggressive. The personality traits of the colony can be changed in as little as a few weeks, simply by replacing the queen.”
The problem for humans is that nothing can replace the bee. When as much as a third of the food we eat depends at least partially on honeybee pollination, the threat of their extinction is enough to worry any modern civilization. Bailey, however, is not as worried.
“Honeybees have been resilient considering the many things they have had to deal with in the past 40 years,” Bailey insist. “One big hit was the Varroa destructor mite — a parasite of honeybees imported in the 1970s. It spread like wildfire and wiped out countless colonies all over the country. But they survived.
“Pesticide use has been a big factor in bee decline. Consumers’ desire for perfect fruit and vegetables has led to mass poisoning of land, water and air. Bees are the most vulnerable because they are the ones that are in closest contact as they pollinate those crops.”
According to studies recently published online in the journal “Science,” new research suggests the class of pesticides called neonicotinoids — designed to attack the central nervous system of insects — reduces the weight and number of queens in bumblebee hives. These pesticides also cause honeybees to become disoriented and fail to return to their hives, researchers concluded.
“Here in the U.S. we have a relatively new pest, the Small Hive Beetle, that can actually cause the bees to abandon their hive because of the honey stores being contaminated and fermenting from the feces of the beetle larvae,” Bailey explained.
“Another factor I won’t rule out is ‘well-intentioned’ man — always breeding for the ultimate producer — has weakened everything he touches in his quest for the more profitable ‘unit.’ Genetics isn’t something to be toyed with and humans have a record of harming everything they touch.”
Bailey, who made his living as a bricklayer, said he was plagued with tendinitis and tennis elbow to the point it would keep him awake nights. But he learned early in his beekeeping career that “bee venom therapy” is a natural way of treating physical pain for many people.
“In a very short time after my first work with the bees the tendinitis and tennis elbow were gone and didn’t return till next spring,” he said. “At the time I subscribed to Gleanings in Bee Culture magazine and read with interest a regular column by a Charles Mraz who was doing a lot of work and research using bee venom for treatment of arthritis on people that came to him.
“I have occasional bouts with tendinitis and other joint pain in my knees, shoulders and back. Whenever I have a flare-up, I simply catch some bees in a jar, pick one up with tweezers, and touch it to whatever part of me that hurts. The bee will automatically sting and I will do that as many times as it takes to get relief.
“A chronic knee problem, with swelling and inflammation, is usually calmed down by six or seven stings in the tender parts of my knee joint, and repeated several times over the period of a week. The swelling goes down, the pain subsides after a couple of treatments and it doesn’t hurt any more for a long time.”
Bailey said, “A compound called Mellitin is the part of honeybee venom that does the work. As I understand it, in an attempt to relieve the sting, the body is induced to increase blood/oxygen flow to the affected area and that alone aids in the healing process.
“A sting causes the production of cortisol — a natural hormone with anti-inflammatory properties. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, a natural pain killer. There are a lot of books and articles on the Internet that explain all that. I just know it works for me.”
Whether toxic substances or something in nature is playing a role in the demise of bees, the disappearance of these prolific pollinators has beekeepers, farmers and scientists a bit worried. Bailey, however, said he has faith that the Creator of all living things has something better in store for their future.
“I hope to live in that world where man will learn how to care for the earth and all that is in it and not just exploit it and its resources for profit,” he said.
“Honeybees are one of the most wonderful things ever created. She goes about her work, not interfering with anyone, pollinating plants and enabling them to produce seed. Honey is a wonderful food. It has complex sugars and enzymes that cannot be found anywhere else. It is also known to be an antiseptic.”
Secreted from glands, beeswax is used by the honeybee to build honey comb, but it is also used by humans in drugs, cosmetics, furniture polish and candles.
“What a reward bees gives for just a little consideration,” Bailey said. “I believe with all my heart that the honeybee will be here for a very long time despite man’s depredation. The Bible contains God’s promise that all creatures, great and small — especially man, will not do any harm or cause any ruin in all God’s holy mountain; because the earth will be filled with the knowledge of Jehovah as the waters are covering the very sea. I believe that promise will be fulfilled.”
Natural health pioneer Royden Brown said, “Unique among all God’s creatures, only the honeybee improves the environment and preys not on any other species.”