In 2006, adult honeybees started to disappear from hives. Few, if any, dead bees were found in or around the hives. They were simply vanishing.
A mysterious phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder – when the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave the queen behind – began affecting bee numbers. Once so prevalent they were taken for granted, the decline of bees has increasingly brought them into the spotlight as an important species that needs protection.
Scientists and farmers have long known that bees are much more than some random flying insect good only for producing honey. According to the University of California, Berkeley, native and honey bee populations pollinate a whopping 70 percent of flowering plants, which include a large variety of the fruits and vegetables served up daily across the nation. In fact, pollinators such as bees, birds and bats affect 35 percent of the world's crop production.
This kind of information is particularly near and dear to Cory Koger, a senior chemist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District. Koger has been doing his part to bring bee numbers up in California since 2008 when he began backyard bee-keeping just for fun. But what started out as a hobby has become something much bigger for Koger.
In 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added seven species of Hawaiian yellow-faced bees to the endangered species list – species familiar to Koger because they once dominated the Corps’ Honolulu District where he serves double-duty providing munitions characterization and cleanup on the district’s formerly used weapons ranges.
As a result of the 2016 listing, Koger is now particularly vigilant and responsive to one of our greatest agricultural weapons – the humble bee – when dealing with cleanup and response to man-made weapons and chemicals.
“If we find endangered bees or bee habitat on a remedial project, then under the Endangered Species Act, our remedial actions must avoid harming the bees or their habitat,” said Koger.
While bees nationwide have continued to struggle with declining numbers due to factors such as habitat loss and pesticides, colonies in California have fared better and many are even rebounding. Many experts point to hobbyist bee-keepers like Koger and those who have helped bees by planting bee-friendly gardens as a factor in the rebound of California bees. However, commercial pesticides and other factors continue to be of concern.
“People don’t think about it, but even spraying common weed-control chemicals on your yard’s weeds can mean that the bees will also get it in their system,” said Koger.
Koger recently hosted a lunchtime discussion at the district headquarters on all-things-bees, including how anyone can learn how to become a backyard beekeeper.
“It’s pretty easy and would only cost around $300 to $500 to get started,” said Koger. “Hobbyist beekeepers may be the salvation of bees. They introduce a great deal of diversification not found within large commercial apiaries.”
There are approximately 1,600 species of bee in California alone, all doing daily duty for our ecosystem.
But just how important are bees?
Without the actions of pollinators, our agricultural economies, food supply, and surrounding landscapes would collapse, according to the Pollinator Partnership website. In fact, it is commonly said by experts on bees that they are responsible for approximately “every third bite of food we eat.”