Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Bees love Dandelions

One of our girls enjoying a Dandelion
     It was a beautiful, sunny 15 degree celsius (60 fahrenheit) day in the garden and the bees were very active.  At this time of year there are a wide assortment of blossoms available to be foraged upon but one of the favourites is an unplanted native, invasive plant, the Dandelion (Taraxacum) of the Asteraceae (Aster) Family. Many still think of the Dandelion as an unwanted weed but I hope that attitude is changing along with the need for a manicured lawn.  For us the Dandelion can flower throughout the growing period and if the seed heads are allowed to mature you are guaranteed a plentiful crop.
     My garden is a 4 acre community garden close to downtown Vancouver and through the years I have grown to appreciate the weeds (?) and the invasive plants.  Being a very multicultural city it is so interesting to hear the perspective of different cultures on particular plants.  Gout weed ( Aegopodium podagraria) for example is an extremely invasive plant, native to Eurasia which although enjoyed by the bees is impossible to remove and an irritant to all of the gardeners.  One day two Chinese women approached me and asked if they could harvest our gout weed.  Attempting to hide my enthusiasm I asked them why.  They told me of it's medicinal properties (primarily to treat stomach ailments- thus the name gout weed) and told me how they boil it and prepare a tea.  On the same day I saw two older men harvesting dandelion leaves.  They explained to me that in Italy they cherish the leaves and fry them in olive oil and garlic.  The entire plant is edible and the flower petals, along with other ingredients, are used to make dandelion wine. The leaves are best when they first appear or after the first frost (Recipes). The ground, roasted roots can be used as a caffeine-free dandelion coffee.  Dandelion was also traditionally used to make the traditional British soft drink dandelion and burdock, and is one of the ingredients of root beer.  Also, Dandelions were once delicacies eaten by the Victorian gentry mostly in salads and sandwiches.  Dandelion leaves contain abundant vitamins and minerals, especially vitamins A, C, K, niacin, riboflaven and are good sources of calcium, potassium, iron, manganese and beta carotene.  Lecithin in the flower detoxifies the liver.  As well Dandelions nourish other plants through it's long (up to 3 ft) tap root which brings minerals and nutrients from a less contaminated part of the soil to the surface where it is utilized by the shorter roots of neighbouring plants.  If you break the stem of a dandelion the white fluid that appears can be used to ease the pain of bee stings or sores.  Wow!  What an amazing plant.

     Like us bees are healthier, live longer and perform better when feeding on a mixed diet.  The worldwide practice of monoculture agriculture cannot sustain a honey or native bee population (Hidden Costs of Industrial Agriculture).  In addition this singular diet experienced by bees of professional pollinators causes a weakened immune system and subsequent health issues.

"There is a growing body of evidence showing that poor nutrition can be a major player in affecting honey bee health. Eischen and Graham (2008) demonstrated that well-nourished honey bees are less susceptible to Nosema ceranae than poorly nourished bees.  Naug (2009) tested the hypothesis that nutritional stress due to habitat loss has played a major role in causing CCD by analyzing the land use data in U.S. He showed a significant correlation between the number of colony loss from each state and the state’s ratio of open land relative to its developed land area."   Zachary Huang, Michigan State University

     Bee Friendly Farming practices are essential for a healthy bee population.  Specifically, adopting a 6% diverse pollinator beneficial planting farming practice.  Different pollens have different nutritional value to bees and studies have shown a slight improvement in performance when feeding on Dandelion (Nutritional Value of Bee Collected Pollens).  Interestingly for me two of the best pollens for bees, blackberry and cottonwood are aggressive volunteers in our garden.

     Although the plum and flowering cherry blossoms are finished for us there is an amazing number of plants coming into blossom like the apple, pear, cherry, bulbs, purple deadnettle and marsh marigold.  Also, today was the first day I saw Raspberry flower formation which for us is the major bee forage in May through June.
     Please put away the Roundup and let your Dandelions grow.  You can control the spread of the plant by removing the flowers before they go to seed (Dandelion Wine ?).  Your bees will thank you.

Saturday, April 6, 2013


     We need to act urgently to stop the spread of genetically modified food products.  The effects of gm seeds are untested and the spread of gm seeds to non gm farms through cross pollination is inevitable.  The effects of gm crops on bees is devastating.  The systemically toxic nature of BT Corn, roundup resistant crops and neonicotinoid pesticides has resulted in significant bee colony losses.  

     "Farmers from across Canada describe how genetically engineered (genetically modified or GM) alfalfa would affect them. Do farmers need GM alfalfa? This year there is a new industry push to pave the way to introduce GM alfalfa into Canada. The company Forage Genetics wants to sell GM alfalfa seeds in Canada (seeds with Monsanto's Roundup Ready herbicide tolerant trait). Its not legal to sell GM alfalfa seeds in Canada until Forage Genetics gets variety registration. In October 2012, the industry group called the Canadian Seed Trade Association began to push a plan for "co-existence" of GM and non-GM alfalfa, to pave the way to introduce GM alfalfa in Canada via Ontario. However, "co-existence" is not possible - GM alfalfa cannot be controlled but will contaminate farmers' fields across the country. Take action today or find out more info at www.cban.ca/alfalfa.

Friday, April 5, 2013


     Perhaps the greatest barometer of the overall health of bees in North America is the state of annual almond pollination in California.  In a warm, dry area stretching from north of Sacramento to Los Angeles over 800,000 acres and 6,000 almond farmers produce over 80% of the world supply of almonds, all dependant on bee pollination.  This was the first year ever that growers simply could not find bees due to heavy winter losses.  An 8 frame average of bees is the norm with a 5 frame minimum but this year growers were settling for much weaker hives.  Due to a tremendous stroke of luck with unseasonably good weather poor hives provided adequate pollination.  With increased acreage being planted in almonds the future for pollination supply is bleak.

     This from bee expert Kim Flottum (Catch the Buzz):

     U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Assistant Administrator, Jim Jones spent a day with beekeepers and almond growers to learn more about this year’s massive colony losses, and beekeepers’ concerns about the role of pesticides in the decline. The National Pollinator Defense Fund (NPDF) Board provided Jones with a view of the disaster from inside the hive. It was not a pretty picture. Dead hives littered the landscape at one bee yard, and even the hives with bees in them were not at full strength.
“I started out last spring in the Midwest with 3,150 healthy bee colonies; of which 992 still survive, and most of those are very weak.  More than 2,150 of my valuable bee colonies are now just gone,” said Jeff Anderson, third generation beekeeper, and owner of California-Minnesota Honey Farms where the tour began.
     Escalating colony losses are making replacement difficult.  In the meantime, without bees, they are unable to fulfill pollination contracts or make honey.  Beekeepers are not alone—growers of almonds, cherries, apples, pears, berries, melons, and other fruits, vegetables, and field crops stand to lose as well, since their yields will be lower without good pollination.  Almond growers are paying a premium price this year for bees.  The supply isn’t enough to ensure good pollination and fruit set.  “The industry’s ability to pollinate almonds this year is severely compromised because of colony failures.   I expect that next year may be worse,” said Bret Adee, NPDF President, and owner of Adee Honey Farms. “Many beekeepers will just not be able to recover from these losses.”
     In spite of OPP’s mandate, pesticides continue to kill bees.  Acute kills from illegal sprays on blooming crops or weeds are part of the problem.  Jeremy Anderson, fourth-generation beekeeper, noted “Many insecticide labels disallow spraying blooming crops; but if it happens, penalties for violating the rules are few and far between.  Just an acute exposure is enough to kill honey bees.”
     After opening many of the hives and viewing sick honey bees, Jones was able to discern the difference between healthy honey bees, and a sick hive.  He also heard from beekeepers there is a serious need for better enforcement of label restrictions.  “There are no consequences for applying pesticides near beehives—state lead agencies responsible for enforcement usually do not investigate honey bee kills,” Anderson said.
     Beekeepers are also concerned about pesticide exposures that don’t kill the bees outright, but may affect their ability to thrive.  The bee industry is concerned several classes of insecticides, including systemic neonicotinoids and pyrethroids, and some fungicides and  growth regulators may impair the immune system, causing queen or brood failure, compromising homing abilities of forager bees, and/or disrupting communications within the hive, all of which contribute to colony loss.  We strongly urge the EPA to re-evaluate these compounds long term using tier testing protocols that can give us the answers we need to mitigate losses.
     Some pesticides are long-lived and persistent in the environment. The pyrethroid pesticides are found in the wax of most hives that have spent time in agricultural areas. Neonicotinoids are more frequently found in the nectar and pollen stores in the hive.  A recent study of more than 800 hives from Pennsylvania State University found an average of six different pesticides, and as many as 39 in a single hive.  In the paper, the authors noted: “We concluded that the 98 pesticides and metabolites detected in mixtures up to 214 ppm in bee pollen alone represented a remarkably high level for toxicants in the food of brood and adults.  While exposure to many of these neurotoxicants elicits acute and sublethal reductions in honey bee fitness, the effects of these materials in combinations, and their direct involvement in Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) remain to be determined.”

     Because of the close affiliation of the EPA with the agrochemical industry (campaign funding and the constant interchange of personnel between the two) few beekeepers or farmers have any hope of protection from the EPA.  The present system of "conditional release" of agrochemicals based on preliminary, minimal testing is completely inadequate.
     On March 21st a coalition of beekeepers, environmental groups and consumer groups filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency for approving the registration of pesticides they claim are harming bees and other pollinators.  They are asking for an immediate suspension of the neonicotinoid pesticides clothianidin and thiamethoxam which have been proven highly toxic to bees and responsible for major bee kills. For more information go to Boulder County Beekeepers' Association and listen to June Stoyer and Tom Theobald talk with environmental lawyer Peter Jenkins.  In Ontario, Canada after devastating losses beekeepers are asking federal and provincial governments to increase pesticide regulations, particularly those dealing with the neonicotinoid family of insecticides (More pesticide regulations needed).  Similarly, in Britain MPs accuse the government of an "extraordinarily complacent approach" to protecting bees, and urge the government to ban use of neonicotinoid pesticides (Ban Pesticides to Protect Bees).
     With the massive increase in GM Corn and Soy planting (much of it former grasslands) containing neonicotinoid systemic pesticides the available good, healthy forage for pollinators is diminishing quickly.  The agrochemical corporations have monopolized the seed industry and therefore our food supply with the support of the government, leaving farmers with little affordable alternatives. What can we do?  Demand GMO labelling in your jurisdiction.  Buy locally produced, organic, non gmo food products.  Let you local government representative know about your objection to the release of pesticides with substandard testing.


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