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Something’s Missing

By May 31, 2012 2 Comments

Walking my dogs past the small brick church two blocks away, with probably the largest yard of grass in the entire neighborhood it is most noticeable. There has been an abundance of rain lately and whoever does their yard maintenance has gotten a little behind, understandably. This has allowed the white clover to take off ecstatically, flowering profusely as can be observed in the photo above. Some people don’t like clover in their lawn grass. They consider it a weed and pest. Not me. I love clover. I enjoy its ability to stay green even when some of its neighboring grass is turning brown and dormant. Clover is able to grow in soils that many grasses don’t necessarily do well in. Furthermore, growing alongside grasses, clover tends to out grow other species that we generally consider weeds. So generally, clover in your yard is a good thing. And the little white flowers are beautiful additions of nectary goodness. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

What I really enjoy about white clover is that as a legume—a family of plants that include peas, beans, lentils, alfalfa, peanuts, and even locust trees—it has evolved to grow symbiotically with rhizobia, a particular kind of soil bacteria. Symbiosis, the beautiful ability for two separate kinds of organisms or species to “work together” to each other’s benefit. So here’s the deal, plants need nitrogen to survive and fortunately one could think, our environment is simply immersed in nitrogen, 78 percent actually. Unfortunately, however, that atmospheric nitrogen is not in a form that is available to plants. That’s where our rhizobia come in. These crafty little critters have the uncanny ability of converting atmospheric nitrogen into a form that plants thrive on. Dwelling in root nodules of host plants—various species of legumes including white clover—rhizobia provides the plants with nitrogen in a form the plant can use while receiving from the plant sugars and proteins as well as oxygen that the bacteria needs to survive. It’s a win-win for both the legume plant and the bacteria! But it doesn’t stop there. Once that nitrogen has become available as part of the plant, it then can be available to those who consume the plant—think of all those plant protein rich foods mentioned earlier: beans, lentils, peanuts, etc. But even with species like clover or alfalfa, these plants provide higher protein content in the green parts which makes for excellent livestock feed. And still with plant die off, the nitrogen remains more readily available in the soil for other plants to use, thus another positive effect of that white clover in the lawn. The wonders of symbiosis!

But I return to me walking my dogs and that yard full of clover and the rather eerie feeling that I’ve been experiencing that something is missing.  And not only there, but in my own backyard and the church courtyard, and the Highline Park on the westside of Manhattan and any of a variety of other locations throughout New York City, or for that matter throughout much of North America, something is missing. The bees are gone. Well, not entirely, but they are certainly fewer in number than they have been, even compared to last year.

OK, I admit, this is my own anecdotal experience. But at this time of year with a yard full of blossoms, I’ve noticed only a handful of bees buzzing around doing their duty; many are missing. And it’s not only me. This phenomena has a name called colony collapse disorder or CCD. Noticed first in 2006, CCD has been seen throughout the US and parts of Europe and is now spreading to other parts of the world. What is noticed is a sudden die-off of worker bees. What is not yet clear is why. The US Environmental Protection Agency reports these factors as possible reasons:

  • increased losses due to the invasive varroa mite (a pest of honeybees);
  • new or emerging diseases such as Israeli Acute Paralysis virus and the gut parasite Nosema;
  • pesticide poisoning through exposure to pesticides applied to crops or for in-hive insect or mite control;
  • bee management stress;
  • foraging habitat modification
  • inadequate forage/poor nutrition and
  • potential immune-suppressing stress on bees caused by one or a combination of factors identified above.
  • Additional factors may include poor nutrition, drought, and migratory stress brought about by the increased need to move bee colonies long distances to provide pollination services. (from the US EPA)

Some have even speculated that it’s a combination of many of these factors. However, the “why” is still not clear or discernable. The reality is that there are simply fewer bees around.

Fewer bees, so what? That means less honey, right? Sure, that means less honey. Which would upset those of us who consume honey in any great quantities, or anyone who has a penchant for baklava. (For your information, the average US resident consumes 1.3 pounds of honey a year, requiring importing it just to keep up with current demand!) The larger issue with bees has to do with the service they provide as pollinators. It is said, “one out of every three bites of food we eat” has been pollinated by bees (Michigan State University, Native Plants and Ecosystem Services). That includes over 70 different crops and $15 billion a year of economic output. All of which seems so staggering and of such importance that we should all indeed be concerned that the bees are missing.

But what really gets at me is how these little creatures work so efficiently seemingly unnoticed to our benefit. We provide a few flowers here and there beautifying our environment (maybe even allowing the clover to stay in the yard) and these bees get what they want. It really can end up being mutually beneficial, almost symbiosis.

To draw out a biblical metaphor about community and working together seems rather trite, so I won’t do that here.

One other thing that I find simply amazing about bees and why I surely don’t want to loose them. As the world becomes increasingly urbanized, bees not only connect us—all of us—to a natural and agri-cultural reality, they also demonstrate a wonderful ability to thrive amidst diversity. I remember reading some years ago about bee keepers in Chicago claiming that their bees were healthier and had more food available to them than typically compared to bees in the countryside. It is now shown that bees in urban areas are actually healthier. Even amidst the often time increase in various urban pollutants, the city has fewer pesticides and insecticides. But even more so, the bees’ food sources are often more abundant and varied than in the typical rural environment. The variety and diversity works to their advantage compared to the monotony of boom and bust monocultures. Perhaps there are other things we can learn from bees.


  • Thomas C. Goodhart says:

    "Benefits provided by ecosystems are vastly undervalued. Take pollination of crops as an example: according to a major United Nations report on the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, the total economic value of pollination by insects worldwide was in the ballpark of $200 billion in 2005."
    New York Times
    Protecting Many Species to Help Our Own
    Published: June 1, 2012

  • Sara Tolsma says:

    Pollinator loss is a serious problem. Unfortunately, unless you are looking for it, it tends to be something that isn't noticed until it is too late. Here in Iowa, native bees can increase soybean pod set and agricultural yield in general. More farmers need to think about setting up a pollinator habitat. This would benefit their own production and contribute to preserving valuable biodiversity. Thanks for bringing this important issue to our attention!

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