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When biologists talk about keystone species, they are talking about a species so important to the entire ecosystem that a threat to that species threatens the ecosystem itself. The honeybee is the poster child for keystone species. There are seven identified species of honeybees within the genus Apis, with our Western honeybee (Apis melifera) being most familiar. Over 20,000 species of bees have been identified globally, and many are important pollinators. The Mason bee (Osmia spp.) and the bumblebee (Bombus spp.) are very efficient pollinators. Leafcutter bees (Megachilidae spp.) are solitary ground bees and vital to the pollination of alfalfa. Without question, however, the honeybee is the most significant pollinator for human agriculture.

It is estimated that $15 to $20 billion dollars’ worth of American crops are pollinated annually by insects with a full 80% pollinated by bees. Many of those crops rely on honeybees for all or most of their pollination. Almonds top the list. About 80% of the world’s almonds are grown in California, and the crop is 100% dependent on honeybees for pollination. With 800,000 acres of almonds, the task of pollination is so huge that it requires bringing in virtually half of all honeybees in the United States. As the U.S. has 2 to 3 million honeybee colonies, this means that over a million colonies are brought into California each year for this pollination ritual.

Almonds aren’t the only crop dependent on honeybees. More than 90% of avocados, apples, blueberries, and cherries are honeybee pollinated. Honeybees are the primary pollinator for squash, pumpkins, cantaloupe, watermelons, raspberries, cucumbers, strawberries, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, onions, papaya, chestnuts, safflower, oranges, grapefruit, lemons, limes, lima beans, kidney beans, green beans — you get the idea. Honeybees are critical to our agricultural system.

Although 2 million to 3 million honeybee colonies in the U.S. might sound like a lot, the fact is that the honeybee population has declined by more than 50% in the last half-century. There are multiple causes, and scientists accordingly diagnose the decline in bee numbers as Multiple Stress Disorder. Probably the most devastating factor was the introduction of the Varroa destructor (Varroa mite), a bloodsucking parasite accidentally brought in from Asia in the 1980s. This mite attaches itself to the bee and can pass on viruses including the Deformed Wing virus which can spread quickly and wipe out the entire colony.

Another major factor is the loss of habitat and nesting sites as our species multiplies and clears land for cities, factories and agricultural fields. This not only eliminates major feeding sites but also corridors between those sites.

Climate change is also a factor as it disrupts bloom times for trees and other flowering plants, putting them out of sync with bees’ normal cycles. Another factor is the overuse of chemicals. Pesticides kill many flowering plants that bees rely on, and insecticides kill not only harmful insects but many beneficial insects including pollinators and natural predators of harmful insects.

Another obstacle for bees is our obsession with green lawns. For bees, a green lawn is as helpful as a rock garden. When a dandelion appears in a lawn, many homeowners see an eyesore and reach for the insecticide spray. To the bee, that dandelion is an island of nectar in a desert.

What can you do to reverse this trend and save the honeybee? First, plant more perennial flowering plants in your yards. Consider removing some lawn and replacing it with flowering trees or flower beds.

Cut down on or eliminate your use of pesticides. Familiarize yourself with Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approaches to garden pests and learn to be more effective with fewer chemicals. Avoid using any insecticides when trees or other plants are flowering.

Support local beekeepers by buying local honey. Learn more about our debt to honeybees and spread the word. Teach your children the importance of saving the honeybees. You might even consider becoming a beekeeper yourself.

On May 17 and 18 Tubbs Berry Farm will be hosting this year’s Bee Day event. On Friday from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., there will be demonstrations and classes on all aspects of beekeeping and related subjects. The event is free. This is a great opportunity to explore the fascinating world of honeybees. There will be activities for children, food available at the concession stand, and booths of local organizations interested in protecting our pollinators. The Master Gardeners will be there and invite you to stop by our booth. The farm is located at 1250 South Park Ave West, Twin Falls. Tubbs Berry Farm can be reached at 208-961-0969, and the event website is tubbsberryfarm.com/beekeeping/bee-day.

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Garden Wise is presented by the Magic Valley Master Gardener Association. We will try to answer questions of general interest submitted by the community. Email questions to gardenwise@cableone.net.

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