By Roger Repohl
THE BRONX, N.Y. - It’s been an erratic spring in New York so far, and the living things seem confused. In January it was so warm for so long there were daffodils blooming in Central Park. Then the cold returned, and it has remained, with few exceptions: an occasional tepid day, followed by a freeze and occasionally a light snow. The leaves on the daffodils and tulips are shriveled and brown on the edges from freezer-burn, and the blooms that have appeared are scrawny, pale, tentative.
An old adage around here is that you should plant your first crop of peas on St. Patrick’s Day. I couldn’t perform that ritual this year; on St. Patrick’s Day it snowed three inches. The obsessive crocuses, which had just started their splash of early color that gladdens the winter-weary soul, were buried. The cardinals and finches and catbirds incongruously continued singing, staking out their mating territories while perched on branches fluffy with snow.
Every winter I get anxious about the honeybees I try to keep in Genesis Park Community Garden here. When the weather is cold, bees stay inside their hives, clustering in a ball to keep warm. They’ll venture out in small numbers on sunny, temperate winter days, but it’s nearly impossible to assess a colony until spring. All winter, I wonder: Are they surviving the cold, or will they freeze to death? Do they have enough accessible honey and pollen to eat, or will they starve? Are they tolerating losses to their arachnid predators the mites, or are they being eaten alive?
Old-time beekeepers say that during the winter you can check the strength of a colony by knocking on the hive; a strong colony will respond to the disturbance with a collective baritone buzz. I’ve knocked on my hives for years; no reply. Maybe I’m hard of hearing. This year I even bought a stethoscope and put it to the sides of the hives but still could hear nothing. I also put it to my chest but couldn’t hear anything either. Maybe I don’t know how to use a stethoscope. Or maybe I’m dead.
We had a couple half-warm days last week, and I could tell by the activity outside the hives that two of the three colonies seem to have overwintered just fine. Bees were falling all over themselves at the hive entrances, shoving to get inside with big packets of pollen on their back legs. Most likely the pollen comes from the pussy willows that grow in abundance in the New York Botanical Garden and along the Bronx River. These are the first plants to bring forth huge amounts of pollen in early spring: For allergy sufferers, they are the harbinger of bad days to come, but for honeybees (and beekeepers), they are blessed relief. When you see bees entering the hive loaded with pollen, you know their queen is laying and there are lots of new mouths to be fed.
This does not mean that they are out of danger, though: A prolonged cold snap or series of rainy days that keep the foraging bees inside just when the need for food is greatest could quickly result in starvation, what they call “spring dwindling.” That’s why weird weather can lead to big problems for bee and beekeeper alike.
There was no activity outside the third hive. I looked inside; the colony was dead. I’m not exactly sure why it happened, but the queen was old and the colony was not particularly strong last fall, making it susceptible to cold and disease. One thing I do know: The cause of death was not “Colony Collapse Disorder,” the latest affliction to hit the honeybee, which even the experts are calling a mystery.
I know it wasn’t CCD because there were piles of dead bees in that hive. The evidence of CCD is exactly the opposite: The beekeeper opens the hive and finds no bees at all, dead or alive, except the queen herself, healthy and still laying, and a few young bees nursing the brood. For some reason, the foraging bees leave the hive as usual, in search of nectar and pollen, but do not return. The population of the colony “collapses” in a matter of days, and without incoming food, the remaining bees will die as well.
Beekeepers can save underpopulated colonies like these by feeding them man-made supplements - corn syrup and soy-based pollen substitutes - which bees readily take when natural nectar and pollen are unavailable. But CCD bees won’t touch them. Another inexplicable phenomenon is that neighboring bees, which normally sniff out weak or dead colonies and rob their honey stores, will not enter CCD hives for at least two weeks after they collapse.
What is going on here? The scientists cannot determine a cause as yet; all they know is the effect. It’s not a disease but a “disorder,” a description of a destructive behavioral trait. They speculate that the bees do not come home because their navigational skills are impaired. Whereas a healthy bee will fly up to three miles to a food source and return precisely to its own hive, CCD bees may lose their way.
Various causes for this syndrome have been proposed. The most likely may be some lethal cocktail of pesticides and medications that addles the bees’ brains; the least likely but not discounted may be the ingestion of genetically-engineered pollen and the microwave radiation emitted by cell-phone towers.
Another possible cause is stress. Most of the losses to CCD have occurred among industrial beekeepers, who truck thousands of colonies to seasonal pollination spots like almond and citrus groves, leave them for the blooming period, collect their money, and move on to the next site. May bouncing around the country over multiple generations possibly have led to a hereditary disorientation?
It remains to be seen if CCD is yet another dire consequence of agribusiness practices, like the e-coli on spinach or the rat poison in dog food, or if this will also affect bees like mine that stay in one spot all the time, unstressed and peaceful.
“Bees know things,” a woman involved in the organic gardening movement told me recently. “They’re wise. Maybe they’ve had enough abuse. Maybe they’re saying good-bye.”