The next time you pour some almond milk over your cereal, be sure to say thanks to honey bees. If not for them, you wouldn't have any of these nut products to enjoy. The California almond crop is 100 percent dependent on honey bees, says Maryann Frazier.
She should know: She has a master's degree in entomology, specializes in apiculture (bees) and has worked with them her entire career. She will speak on declining pollinator populations next Saturday as part of the Garden & Landscape Symposium at Shady Side Academy's Hillman Center for the Performing Arts in Fox Chapel.
Ms. Frazier became interested in bees while still in high school. She was invited to participate in a youth conservation program.
"I met a woman who had a brother who collected bees, and he was able to hive a swarm of bees. I was dumbfounded. Why would anyone collect a swarm of bees? I was fascinated by the things she was telling me and certain that the things she was telling me could not be true."
During her junior year at Penn State, she took a course on beekeeping and found them to be "incredible creatures." And even though she was warned that she would not find work in the field, she has, in fact never not worked with bees.
For the past 25 years, she's been the honey bee extension specialist for Penn State, teaching about and doing research on bees. Her vocation has taken her around the world. She spent two years in Sudan and recently returned from Kenya. These days, she and her husband, Jim Frazier, and Chris Mullin are focusing on how pesticides are affecting pollinators.
It's a crucial question because bees are extremely important to agriculture. Yet they and other pollinators are being wiped out by the pesticides used to control pests in most commercial crops. In addition to almonds, apples, cherries and many other crops are dependent on bees for pollination.
"Commercial pollination has become a critical part of agriculture in this country," she says. "For many crops, this is how it's done: Beekeepers move their bees in and then the beekeepers move them out before the growers need to apply pesticides," says Ms. Frazier.
Colony collapse disorder and varroa mite infestation has also hobbled the industry. She said that commercial beekeepers and mail-order companies have helped spread diseases, mites and other pests.
"The whole way we manage bees is supportive of moving pests and diseases around," she says.
Colony collapse disorder, which Ms. Frazier says was at its peak four or five years ago, seems to have many causes.
"It's a manifestation of a declining honey bee population caused by mites, pesticides and starvation, and, sometimes, when colonies die we don't completely understand why they did."
She also says that development has severely reduced bees' foraging habitat and notes the worldwide impact of the varroa mite.
"They were a parasitic mite on an Asian bee, and that bee evolved to tolerate the mite. When the European honey bee was moved into the area and was infected, the European honey bee had no tolerance to the mite and it caused lots of problems."
It's not just our country having pollinator issues. "Certainly in Europe, honey bee decline is an issue. Because of the good record-keeping, we know that European bees are declining. In Africa and South America, the documentation has not been as good, so we don't know for sure the cause of the decline."
Unlike their European cousins that remain stationary in hives, African bees migrate from place to place and, because of that, are now widespread in the southern United States.
"The killer bees are African bees taken to South America," says Ms. Frazier. "The African bee quickly replaced the European honey bee. Beekeepers try very hard to keep their stock Europeanized, and people sometimes have run-ins with them. It's just not quite the sensational story that it was several years ago."
Bees are native to Africa and have evolved there over a long period of time. "Studying those colonies might also help understand potentially how we can look for ways to more naturally manage our bees to help them resist mites and disease without chemicals."
Here on the home front, Ms. Frazier is seeing a change of heart when it comes to bees. She does her part by educating as many people as she can about their benefits. She lists a few things homeowners can do to protect the local bee population:
* Be very careful with pesticides/herbicides and don't get rid of the dandelions and clover. Don't use insecticides on blooming plants when pollinators are likely to be visiting them.
* Plant for pollinators. There are many books about what to plant and how to attract pollinators. What's good for butterfly gardens is often good for bees, too.
* Support local beekeepers.
Those of us with dirty hands remain the first line of defense, she says.
"As we lose frogs, butterflies, bees and bats, we all need to be concerned about that. Gardeners are more in tune with that and more concerned and interested in trying to preserve the natural habitat," Ms. Frazier says.
Her lecture will help continue that quest.
Post-Gazette garden editor Susan Banks: email@example.com or 412-263-1516.