The Plight of the Bumblebee

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Karen O'Leary

by Karen O’Leary

My mom always called me a “noticer.” This summer, as I venture outdoors, I’m noticing that certain wild things – things I recall from dog days past – have gone missing.

I’m no scientist, but I know what I don’t see. The clover growing in my lawn used to be a minefield of stinging honeybees and gentler bumbles requiring careful negotiation. This summer, I noticed a child tripping barefoot across blooming clover. It made me strangely sad to know that he probably wouldn’t get stung.

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This year, sixty scientists wrote to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services requesting immediate protection for several populations of wild bumblebees. According to their letter, four species of formerly common native bumblebees have experienced “steep decline” since the late 90s, and two species “teeter on the brink of extinction.”

The problem seems to be commercially raised bees, which are transported far and wide across North America for greenhouse pollination. The stressed-out traveling bees often carry deadly intestinal parasites in their guts – some accidentally introduced from Asia – which they pass on to native wild bees.

The disappearance of bumblebees from my yard, and maybe yours, should foster more than nostalgia in us. There are over 4,000 species of wild, native bees in the United States, and their pollination efforts account for $3 billion in U.S. crop production annually. Without their buzzy activity, we may soon see more absences: a decline in blackberries, blueberries, squash, and tomatoes.

Vanishing, too, from my summers are honeybees. Colony Collapse Disorder – where bees abandon their hives en masse never to return – continues today. A report to Congress last January put bee colony losses between 2006/2007 and 2007/2008 at more than 30 percent. The cause is still unknown, but blamed are habitat loss, pesticides, parasites, and the stress of trucking commercial beehives from state to state to pollinate crops. Fewer honeybees means fewer apples, almonds, avocados, broccoli, onions, carrots, cherries, cotton, peanuts, and more – a potential $15 billion loss to U.S. agriculture.

In the summer twilight, I recently noticed another memory gone missing. As a little girl I used to watch transfixed from my South Boston back porch as a neighbor – an elderly Italian gardener and winemaker – threw grapes to a whirl of circling bats. Bats have since disappeared from the urban landscape. Now they face extinction in their rural retreats.

In the Northeast, a devastating epidemic has removed them from my evening rambles. White Nose Syndrome, a previously unknown fungal disease discovered in a bat cave near Albany, New York in 2006, has spread like wildfire from New Hampshire to Tennessee. Some bat caves are seeing 100 percent mortality. “We are witnessing one of the most precipitous declines of wildlife in North America,” Thomas Kunz, director of the Center for Ecology and Conservation Biology at Boston University, told the Associated Press and MSNBC.

As with bees, a loss of bats threatens people too. Bats eat their weight in mosquitoes and moths daily, safeguarding crops and forests from severe insect damage, while also protecting us from West Nile Virus and other mosquito-borne pathogens. Bats are important pollinators and seed-spreading agents, too. Though feared and often reviled, they are vital to a healthy ecosystem. A world without bats is now the greater fear.

One of my favorite summer haunts is World’s End – a peninsula of glacial drumlins covered in forest and field jutting into Hingham Harbor and offering spectacular views of Boston. This May, when I strolled there, no bobolinks rose from the tall grass in lustful displays of beating feathers and joyful gurgling. I missed them.

The intrepid bobolink annually migrates from the tip of South America to the United States and Canada to mate. And like other migrant birds, it is seeing significant decline, harmed by the usual list of environmental suspects: habitat loss, climate change, invasive species, and pesticide use.

As we look at the terrible oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, it’s easy to overlook the many small creatures that once delighted us and that have vanished or are disappearing from our home landscapes: the bees, birds, bats, and butterflies gone from the air; American elms gone from city streets; and wildflowers gone from forest and meadow.

What have you noticed missing or becoming rare in your own yard, on walks in your neighborhood, or at your favorite park? Let us know by leaving a comment at www.blueridgepress.com/plight-of-the-bumblebee and we’ll publish your observations on our website.

The more we notice now, the better chance we have of acting quickly to save the wild sights and sounds of summer.

Karen O’Leary is an amateur naturalist and illustrator, a master gardener, and a failed farmer who writes for fun. A Boston, Mass. native, she now lives in Montpelier, Vt.

© 2010 www.blueridgepress.com


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