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Requiem for a bee disaster

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Requiem for a bee disaster

Post  Pollinator on 9/22/2014, 12:50 pm

September 22, 2014

Twenty five years ago this morning I stepped out into a new world. During the night, Hurricane Hugo had shredded our beautiful trees, and brought many down. The day before, I had intuitively moved my two trucks and motorcycle from their normal parking spaces under trees, and all three would have been crushed in their normal spots. I was relieved that they were okay, but began to cry as I looked around to see the destruction.

Roofs were peeled off, cars were crushed, and debris was everywhere. One split tree had poked a hole right through my roof, but the building had stood.

The aftermath was almost worse than the storm, but the worst yet was still to come for me - and it was a man-made disaster.

Without power, a lot of food spoiled. One guy set up a grill on the sidewalk downtown and cooked up all the meat in his freezer to serve to anyone who came by. There was some looting, but it was quickly stopped by armed citizens.

Stinking, rotten food was stacked up along the roadsides, together with limbs and other debris in huge mounds. The smell of death was everywhere, as many animals had been crushed by falling trees. Also, the green leaves blown into the rivers caused a fish kill that also stunk.

In fact the smell is the most vivid memory I have. I believe every sewer vent pipe acted as an atomizer in those winds and spewed out raw sewage all over everything.

I had a good stock of canned food, so I did not lack for food - just a way to cook it. And the stock quickly disappeared, as there were neighbors who did not have a good stock of non-perishable food.

Another good thing I did before the storm was to buy an extra bar and chain for my saw, as well as stock up on gas and oil. For a long time, gasoline was unavailable. But that chain saw hardly had a chance to cool off, for the next few weeks. After cleaning up the neighborhood of the fallen trees, I then had to cut my way to all my bees - though fields that had turned to mire.

Actually the bees had not fared too badly. I had 1300 hives, mostly out on farms for fall pollination. I lost 22 on Winyah bay from the storm surge. (Some kind, anonymous boater later rescued the floating and washed up bee equipment from around the bay and brought it back to where the bees had been.

A few hives were crushed by falling trees; more were upturned or lost covers and were drowned or robbed out by yellow jackets. I figured the storm itself cost me less than 100 hives. The storm may have helped the survivors, as the woods were opened up, and we had a huge flush of goldenrod bloom in October.

The real disaster for the farmers and me, was yet to come. The state began a massive aerial mosquito spraying program in October. And much of this was done, in violation of the label, on goldenrod and other fall flowers that the bees were intensely foraging. Rather than obey the labels they told beekeepers to protect the bees! Every day I tried to find out where the planes would be, and often got false information. Some days they sprayed locations that they had not marked for sprays. On a given day, they often sprayed several spots where I had bees - and I could not get to them anyway, because of fallen trees or mud.

Every time I did get to the locations, I was sickened by the smell of the dead bees. Hives that had been roaring strong had only handfuls of survivors - and they were too weak to defend their winter stores from the yellow jackets. For the next couple months, I was in salvage mode.

Combining 3-4 hives to try to get up to sufficient strength to survive winter, I fed them as heavily as I could afford, trying desperately to keep my operation going. All my bees except for about 100 were in areas affected by the spraying.

By spring, I had about 350 hives left - and the majority of them were too weak to make splits. Normally a strong hive is like a cow - in the spring it will give you a calf or two - and this is the way beekeepers survive. But the only strong hives I had left were those that were outside the spray area. From this hundred, I made 300. That was a drop in the bucket to fulfill my spring pollination contracts.

I bought as many bees as my credit would stand, out of Georgia. I took all the early pollination money from fruit to buy bees. Now it's not wise to take current income for capital expenses, but I had no choice, if I wanted to honor my pollination commitments to the farmers.

I was not able to fill all my bee equipment, and the comb that was unoccupied was eaten up by wax worms - another major blow. You have to keep bees in your equipment, or you lose it. I was never able to fully recover from the disaster. And there was no help from anyone, except a little from the Salvation Army to help repair bee equipment.

My bees were not the only losses. It was five years before I began to see significant numbers of bumble bees again. Other wild bees were also wiped out. I tried to call this to the attention of the authorities. They didn't even want to look. Our state bee man was no help at all.

In the following couple years, I saw many cases of small farmers, who had always (usually unknowingly) relied on wild bees for pollination, see total crop failures. There were whole fields of watermelons without a single marketable fruit in the field. The fruit was small, misshapen, often even shriveled. And the small farmers generally didn't even know why this was happening.

There's a general but rather dim awareness that bees are needed for pollination, but not a full understanding that MANY bees are needed.

Most people think that a bee goes to the blossom, and then it's pollinated. Most folks don't realize that a watermelon blossom needs about a thousand grains of viable pollen, evenly spread across the three lobes of the flower stigma. This is not accomplished in one bee visit; it takes MANY visits.

When too few grains of pollen are delivered, the melon may abort, or grow into a deformed and unsaleable fruit. This is true for all multi-seeded fruits. So squash, cucumbers, and cantaloupes all took a hard hit. I know of at least one farm bankruptcy caused by these failed crops, and I'm sure there were others.

So the memory of Hugo is a sad time for me. The storm was bad enough, but it was compounded many times over by the human-caused disaster that followed. Still there are many people that don't understand this.

Today we are losing our bees. The hardest hit are the wild, native bees, because they have no human protectors and few who care; fewer still who really understand. Loss of habitat is a factor; new diseases and parasites are factors; but the biggest and most persistent factor is pesticides.

The question still remains: If we continue on our current path, who will feed our grandchildren?

Dave Green, Coastal SC
Retired Pollination Contractor

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Re: Requiem for a bee disaster

Post  sanderson on 9/22/2014, 2:35 pm

Thank you for sharing your story. I simply can not imagine what you went through during recovery, and the heartache you felt with your bees and the native species.

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Re: Requiem for a bee disaster

Post  camprn on 9/22/2014, 5:43 pm

Was it really so long ago? I'm feeling gutted. Thank you for sharing your story.

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There are certain pursuits which, if not wholly poetic and true, do at least suggest a nobler and finer relation to nature than we know. The keeping of bees, for instance. ~ Henry David Thoreau

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Re: Requiem for a bee disaster

Post  quiltbea on 9/22/2014, 10:28 pm

That's a heart-rending story and well told.  It gives us better insight on what is happening.  I'm so sorry you had to go thru such a disaster.  It also explains a lot for me this summer.

In my raised beds my cukes and squashes didn't do well at all and tho I realized it was a pollination issue, I was surprised.  I have bee balm in my flower garden and there are dozens of bees harvesting thru those every day all summer.  That's probably why my potted cuke nearby did well this year when the others failed.  I'll have to plant some bee balm in my veggie beds for next year.

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Re: Requiem for a bee disaster

Post  NHGardener on 9/24/2014, 7:16 am

Dave, did you publish that? I hope you did! It needs to be sent to a syndicated national publisher. Very well written, succinct, this is a story that needs to be told.

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Re: Requiem for a bee disaster

Post  Nonna.PapaVino on 9/24/2014, 10:54 am

Yes, Dave, Publish!  Let the world know.  Mother Earth News would be a good venue. Great article.  Nonna

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Re: Requiem for a bee disaster

Post  sanderson on 9/24/2014, 12:28 pm

@Nonna.PapaVino wrote:Yes, Dave, Publish!  Let the world know.  Mother Earth News would be a good venue. Great article.  Nonna
+1
Besides MEN, which is like preaching to the choir, try NY Times, Huffington Post, Slate Magazine, The Blaze, etc.

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Re: Requiem for a bee disaster

Post  NHGardener on 9/24/2014, 1:15 pm

Yup, or just submit as a letter to the editor to many major news outlets.

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Re: Requiem for a bee disaster

Post  sanderson on 9/24/2014, 2:00 pm

Plus submit your avatar as a photo.

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Re: Requiem for a bee disaster

Post  Kelejan on 9/25/2014, 1:06 am

Pollinator, that was heartbreaking. Something you can never fully recover from.
It makes me even more determined to plant bee-friendly plants next year and I will also do my best to spread the word and get my neighbours involved.

I already have a neighbour who has a lovely cherry tree in his yard and this year we stood under it chatting and I remarked on the hundreds and hundreds of bees there were and he said he would never cut that tree down or spray anything on it.

I have taken a cutting from it and it is surviving, so in time I will have this lovely cherry tree, and also a flowering crab apple that I took a cutting from and they are both surviving.

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