Here's a garden-wise holiday that's picking up buzz: Happy National Honeybee Day!
Today is devoted to those busy bees that sweeten our lives and help our gardens (and farms) to thrive.
But it's not easy being a bee. Colony collapse disorder and drought continue to take their toll. Urbanization also destroys or fragments bee habitat, cutting down on their natural food supply.
"Bees got through the winter a little better," said UC Davis bee expert Eric Mussen. "This spring, we saw bigger, earlier and more swarms."
But the losses are still startling. According to the Apiary Inspectors of America annual survey, beekeepers lost up to 29 percent of their bees over the winter.
"Only 17 percent of bee colonies lost were attributed to CCD," Mussen added. "That's compared to 30 to 35 percent two years ago. The bad news: A lot of bees are starving."
The nationwide drought is taking its toll, Mussen observed.
"The whole country seems to be stuck in a California summer all heat and no rain," Mussen said. "That means no food for starving bees. It's a really, really tough year for honey production."
The lack of food disrupts the hive's life cycle.
"If nectar and pollen are not available, bees get into a state of malnutrition," Mussen said. "Out here, beekeepers have found if they don't feed their bees in June, July and August, the hive will shut down brood rearing. If there's no food, it's practically impossible to raise a brood."
And if hives don't get to work on a new generation of bees in summer, there will be no bees to pollinate the almonds next March.
Weak bees also are more susceptible to mites, viruses, pesticides and other potential causes of CCD, the mysterious and complicated malady that's devastated honeybee populations worldwide.
"If we knew what caused CCD, then we could work to undo it," Mussen said.
Until then, the emphasis is on helping bees stay healthy.
Said Mussen, "One of the most critical things for honeybees, their immune system has to be robust."
A Florida company with Italian ties hopes to help bees worldwide with a new approach to CCD that tries to build up bees' immune system. Now being tested on two continents, it's believed to be one of the first successful products in the fight against CCD.
Call BeesVita Plus, the product was created by Italian researcher Francesca del Vecchio. The owner of a farm in Tuscany, del Vecchio saw her neighbors lose half their bees or more.
"They were dying," she said of the bees. "I wanted to make something that helped them."
Distributed by BeesFree, BeesVita Plus comes in a solution that can be added to the bees' drinking water in a patented "BeeSpenser." The 4-foot-tall solar-powered dispenser attracts bees with vapor-emitting fans that spread the scent through the air. Once a few bees taste the solution, they return to the hive with news of its location. Eventually, the BeeSpenser is swarmed with feeding bees, who absorb the concentrate into their bodies.
"It's basically powerful nutrients and antioxidants and anti-microbial agents," del Vecchio said. "The nutrients make their immune systems much stronger. The bees can then fight adversity because they're healthier and stronger."
One liter of the BeesVita Plus concentrate, which costs about $70, is enough to treat 1 million bees for 30 days.
BeesFree hopes to introduce its product to the United States later this year.
"The California market clearly is going to be very important for us," said David Todhunter, BeesFree's chief executive officer. "Bees are needed for the pollination of so many crops. Our goal is to get in and help."
Meanwhile, bees also are stressed by urban life.
Gretchen LeBuhn, an associate professor at San Francisco State University, has been busy counting bees. This month, she spearheaded the first Great Bee Count, an outgrowth of her five-year Great Sunflower Project.
LeBuhn enlisted more than 100,000 volunteers nationwide to survey their gardens for bees during two 15-minute sessions twice a month. What she found was that urban gardens averaged 23.3 bees per hour, compared with 30.4 per hour in rural areas and 31.6 in forests and wildlands. Volunteers in desert areas counted an average of 31.9 bees per hour. (The results can be seen on LeBuhn's website, www.greatsunflower.org.)
Larger urban or suburban gardens drew more bees. In particular, community gardens proved to be bee magnets, averaging 41.9 bees per hour.
"We were surprised that community gardens had such high visitation rates," LeBuhn said, "but that's good news because they're important sources of food production, and we want to make sure they're getting enough pollinators."
SEE THE BEES
Where: Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, UC Davis' west campus
When: Dawn to dusk daily
Details: http://beebiology.ucdavis.edu, (530) 754-9390
Home to more than 6 million bees, the Bee Haven is next to the Laidlaw Honey Bee Research Facility at 1 Bee Biology Road, off Hutchison Road. See website for directions.
Also: For more information about the Great Sunflower Project and backyard bee count, click on www.greatsunflower.org.