Whether honeybees or native bees, local or global—bees are in trouble. And since nearly a hundred of our crops are pollinated by them, their trouble is our trouble! What can we do? In this installment of 89.1 WEMU’s “The Green Room,” Barbara Lucas talks with a few of the many people in our local area working to save bees.
Dr. Meghan Milbrath: See those two feeding each other? Here comes one that's covered with yellow pollen, and there's one with orange pollen. The darker is the Goldenrod.
Barbara Lucas: Sorry, but the fuzzy bees buzzing around us all look alike to me! Not to MSU’s Dr. Meghan Milbrath. We’re standing next to her teaching hives at Matthei Botanical Gardens. She points out the young bees. They’re flying clustered—like a gang of teens—around the hive entrance.
Milbrath: See all these facing? They are doing orientation flights.
BL: She can even tell from a particular scent that today’s honey, which the bees are fanning to dry to just the right consistency, is made from one of their favorite blooms: goldenrod.
Milbrath: Yeah. So cool.
BL: She’s obviously totally fascinated by honeybees, and by Michigan’s 470 native bee species. She’s also extremely concerned: 30 to 40% losses each year for honeybee keepers. Native bees are declining too.
Milbrath: The silver lining is it's gotten so bad that people do have to stand up and pay attention.
BL: For our food supply and for our ecosystems…
Milbrath: They're just so, they're just so important.
BL: I’m with Lisa Bashert, manager of Ypsilanti’s Local Honey Project. We’re in the alley next to the Ypsilanti Food Co-op.
Lisa Bashert: This is the “Honeybee Alley.” Oops! There went a bee! We usually have two hives here. And what's particularly fun about this is it was just a little gravel alley between these two buildings and I have to say when we first put in the wildflowers I had some doubts as to whether they were going to survive.
BL: Bashert says the Local Honey Project hopes to encourage beekeeping in urban areas, where a variety of blooms and pesticide-free yards can provide healthy havens for pollinators. In contrast to agricultural areas, where pesticides may be high, and flowers few.
Bashert: …they've done really, really well. Many of these plants are adapted to just this kind of soil.
BL: To learn more about pesticides and bees, I consult with Dr. Milbrath. She says there’s lots we can do to reduce pesticide use. Not just in agriculture, but in lawns and gardens.
Milbrath: There’s an assumption that if I can go to the store and pick up a colorfully labeled product that I can spray around my kids that surely it’s ok for bees but that’s really not true.
BL: We discuss the possibility that some purchased plants could harm bees due to nursery-applied neonicinotoids.
Milbrath: The issue with the systemic pesticides is they are taken up in the plant and incorporated in the pollen in the nectar and even excreted out on the leaves.
BL: She says the research on this is complex, and more funding is desperately needed. But for those concerned, she notes there are alternatives.
Milbrath: …you can grow things from seeds or buy it from our awesome consortium of native plant growers in Michigan.
BL: In addition to pesticides, Dr. Milbrath points to the loss of flowers. Not just “grown-in-your-garden” flowers, but the weedy ones.
Milbrath: So if you’ve got a ditch, or an abandoned lot, or an old hayfield or something, that used to have all these flowering weeds on it, and it used to be a resource, and then you turn it into a desert…
BL: What’s the “desert” she’s referring to?
Milbrath: …just these manicured lawns. I know people love to see that sea of unbroken green but as a beekeeper it just kills us to drive by and see there's no food there, there's no food there, there's no food there.
BL: She wants less lawn, more blooms. And more blooming plants within the lawn, too.
Milbrath: My lawn is a beautiful mix of the Narrowleaf plantain, the White Dutch clover and the dandelions. Bees absolutely love it.
BL: I note that many folks would not call that beautiful.
Milbrath: It’s where you place your values. For me it’s important to have a healthy lawn, that is contributing to the land around me and not making it worse.
BL: Another who feels the crisis calls for action is Germaine Smith.
Germaine Smith: Yeah, so we are going to be driving out to that field there.
BL: Smith is a grad student at Eastern Michigan University, and recent founder of New Bee Apiaries. She drives me to a back field at Tillian Farm in Ann Arbor to check out her hives and future pollinator paradise.
Smith: This—just imagine—will someday become a giant lavender field and wildflowers!
BL: She tells me about big news in the bee world: a neighborhood in Ypsilanti recently received “Bee Safe” certification, the first in Michigan. Quite an accomplishment considering 75 different yards, contiguous, need to pledge...
Smith: …three things. Either to not use any neoniconotoids, which are a systemic pesticide that's highly, highly toxic. Secondly, to not use any pesticides on your lawn, and thirdly, to plant more native plants and more nectar plants that are good for the pollinators.
BL: She tells me other Ypsi neighborhoods are expressing interest, too. She’s excited.
Smith: Essentially, what is evolving here is that these neighborhoods that are surrounding EMU really want to be part of the BeeSafe campaign. So I’m kind of thinking strategically here, like, “Oh, well then maybe we can go into EMU, which is pivotal to the work in the Washtenaw food policy Council Pollinator Policy Work Group that we are trying to achieve.
BL: She says the goal is for the big institutions to sign on. She tells me St. Joe’s Hospital is already on board, and plans to turn much of their turf-grass into wildflower meadows.
Smith: They did worry that this is just going to look overgrown and that we don’t have money to mow our lawn, or something like that, and we are just letting it go wild.
BL: To deal with this, she says they plan to post signage, letting folks know the benefits to bees.
Smith: But what they’ve done now is to turn that into an educational teaching moment. To get that signage and show people these sustainable initiatives that they are working on.
BL: Next stop: Downtown Ypsilanti. Mayor Amanda Edmonds has been instrumental in the campaign, which she says benefits not only bee health, but human health.
Ypsilanti Mayor Amanda Edmonds: There’s so many green, sustainable organic alternatives.
BL: She’s proud of the recent progress.
Edmonds: Ypsilanti Township became the first certified bee city USA in Michigan, Ypsilanti city became the second in Michigan. Supervisor Stumbo from Ypsilanti Township has been super-supportive and went over and above and has now established a 10 hive apiary at the township, which is super exciting!
BL: She says they hope to include schools and adjacent neighborhoods, because children are especially vulnerable to environmental toxins.
Edmonds: There’s a level of readiness that is really exciting. So, hey, it’s catching on!
BL: But, she’s aware of the challenges.
Edmonds: I can talk about a DIY recipe for vinegar in your sidewalk cracks, but what if we do it the scale of a city, Township, a hospital?
BL: Mayor Edmonds is confident it can be done.
Edmonds: There are a lot of examples to look at, including a lot of whole university campuses.
BL: Creating landscapes that are safe for bees can’t happen too soon, for local beekeepers.
BL: Back at the Ypsi Co-op with Lisa Bashert…
Lisa Bashert: It's heartbreaking to pour all your energy into caring for the bees and not have them survive. A lot of people, even people that have been doing it for a lot of years, just lose heart.
BL: Germaine Smith is one of the many unwilling to give up.
Germaine Smith: Some people say there’s nothing you can do, but I’m not going to listen to the naysayers!
Barbara Lucas, 89 One, WEMU News.