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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I’M ALL FOR SUSTAINABILITY – BUT THIS IS NUTS!

As everybody that reads this blog on a regular basis knows, I’m all for sustainability and the green revolution, especially in the agricultural and agronomical fields, and, on the face of this, the following sounds pretty reasonable. I found this article on Edie.net, which is a group of newsletters from the UK that I subscribe to. I highly recommend them.

Anyhow, here’s the article:

“A supermarket chain is claiming a UK first by announcing plans for several hundred bees in land around its new eco-store.

Sainsbury's said today (March 16, 2010) it will be the first supermarket chain to have eight hives, made from sustainably sourced timber and recycled materials, on land around a new eco store in Dursley, Gloucestershire. The area is one of the UK's main fruit and vegetable growing areas and farmers depend upon effective pollination to create a harvestable crop.

The store hopes by providing the bees and the hives it will help reverse recent declines in bee numbers. Sainsbury's environment manager, Jack Cunningham, said: "The rapid decline in bee population has had a severe impact upon the productivity of British crops, so we have decided to take practical steps to help. Sainsbury's already has a loyalty scheme where customers can collect Nectar points, so enabling bees to collect the real thing makes perfect sense."

Landscaping surrounding the store has also been 'carefully crafted' to supply a rich and varied diet of pollen and nectar for these industrious little workers, as a lack of forage is considered to be one of the main drivers of bee decline, and bee hives are just one of the ecological initiatives included at the new store, the building has been designed to collect rain water for use in toilets and to irrigate plants. Special reflective pipes in the roof of the building make the best use of natural daylight, while cold air from food chillers is recycled to keep the store cool in summer.”

Doesn’t this sound wonderful? Set up the hives, hire some beekeepers, hire some entomologists to study them and keep them healthy, and VOILA! You’ve helped the farmers with colony die-off, you’ve now got raw honey that you can harvest and sell, you’re giving employment to scientific endeavours, and everything should be rosy, happy – and profitable, right?

Wrong.

There is, to begin with, the spectre of legal problems. What happens when – NOT if – somebody that’s allergic to bee stings gets stung? These hives are going to be close enough to the store that there are a number of other factors that are going to come into play as well. Bees swarm, for example; so what happens when they swarm at one of the store’s entrances? Again, somebody will get stung, and then the bees will have to be removed, which can take anywhere from an hour to a couple of days, depending on how aggressive the bee swarm is. If the bees decide to swarm close to a trash can with soda residue and other sweet foods that’s close to the door, the store’s going to have to shut and lock all the doors on the side where the swarm is, and open up others so that the store can keep operating.

From 1972 to 2006, there was a very dramatic reduction in the number of feral honeybees in the U.S., and a significant, though somewhat more gradual decline in the number of colonies maintained by beekeepers. This decline includes the cumulative losses from all factors such as urbanization, pesticide use, tracheal and Varroa mites, and commercial beekeepers retiring and going out of business. However, late in the year 2006 and in early 2007 the rate of attrition was alleged to have reached new proportions, and the term "colony collapse disorder" was proposed to describe this sudden rash of disappearances. Most bee colonies in the U.S. are trucked up and down the country, going to fruit and vegetable growing areas that don’t have bees, to pollinate the fruit trees.

I don’t know about y’all, but I don’t think that I’d like that very much. Do insects have hysterics? One of the patterns reported by the group at Penn State was that all producers in a preliminary survey noted a period of "extraordinary stress" affecting the colonies in question prior to their die-off, most commonly involving poor nutrition and/or drought. This is the only factor that all of the cases of CCD had in common in this report; accordingly, there is at least some significant possibility that the phenomenon is correlated to nutritional stress, and may not manifest in healthy, well-nourished colonies. This is similar to the findings of a later independent survey, in which small-scale beekeeping operations (up to 500 colonies) in several states reported their belief that malnutrition and/or weak colonies was the factor responsible for their bees dying, in over 50% of the cases, whether the losses were believed to be due to CCD or not.

Here in Houston, there have been bee colonies found and removed. University of Houston, in 2007, removed tens of thousands of bees that took up residence behind a 40-foot high section of exterior wall at the University of Houston's engineering building. Nobody even noticed that they were there until somebody noticed honey dripping down the walls. The colony was estimated at 100,000 +. A hive of bees was removed from what wasn’t an old oak with honey dripping from a knot. No, it was a towering metal pole, holding up Holiday Inn Express The Woodland’s sign at 24888 Interstate 45 North in Spring, in 2009. Last spring, there was a stinging death when a colony estimated to be 300,000 + strong was removed from a residence in Orchard, Texas. Two months ago, a house that had partially burned was discovered to be home to a thriving bee colony at least 150,000 + strong.

The only colonies that seem to be suffering die-off are the commercial colonies. Which, of course, brings us back to the Sainsbury’s store in England. I applaud their efforts, while I question their good sense. Bees, even if they are not aggressive, can and will become aggressive when they’re disturbed. I just hope that this little experiment in bee-keeping is a happy one both for the store and the bees.

I'll keep an eye on this, and let y'all know how it works out.

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