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It was another off-Reecer Creek meetings of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog and Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association. After the three of us performed our new traditional elbow bump greetings all around, we moved to our primary agenda topic. We are officially into spring and heading for blooming time for everything from flower beds to fruit trees, thus, the topic was bees — and how much trouble these major pollinators are really having.

Bees are important. It turns out that a third of what we eat actually depends on bee pollination, and that includes most fruits and vegetables, nuts, herbs, spices, oil crops — and coffee. Then, too, crops grown to feed animals, plant-based medicines (like aspirin or morphine), and cotton and other fibers are also bee-pollinated. A good many of our trees also depend on bees.

Before we continue to the question of bees and trouble, here’s a brief primer. Bees occupy the Kingdom Animalia, the Phylum Arthropoda, the Order Hymenoptera, and the Class Insecta.

They begin life as eggs, hatching into larvae to feed and pupate, eventually emerging in their adult form. As members of the insect class, bees have three parts to their bodies: a head (with two antennae), a thorax (with six legs), and an abdomen. Bees have two pairs of wings and all have “branched” hairs somewhere on their bodies. Only the females of a few species have stingers (modified ovipositors, which were originally used to lay eggs). We associate most bees with colors of black and yellow, but a large number of bee species employ other color schemes, with greens, blues, reds, and blacks. Some have stripes and a shiny metallic appearance. They range from an inch in length (carpenter bees and bumble bees), to less than a tenth of an inch (the Perdita minima).

There are some 4,000 North American native bee species. Our honey bee, originally a Eurasian bee and domesticated across the globe, is only one of more than 20,000 worldwide bee species. They occupy virtually every ecosystem and forage exclusively on nectar (sugar) and the protein in pollen from flowering plants. In that foraging, bees carry out pollination. As it enters a flower to feed on nectar and gather pollen, some of the pollen sticks to the bee’s body, to be deposited on the next flower visited. This fertilization allows the plant to reproduce and generate the fruits and seeds relied on by so many other animals and humans as a food source. Bees actually pollinate about 80 percent of all flowering plants (some three-quarters of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables grown in the United States).

The “Save the Honey Bees!” chant we’ve been hearing off and on over the past decade and more is a bit misdirected. Honey bees are a domesticated and globally distributed creature.

While various diseases or pesticides have wiped out large communities locally, and overall numbers are declining somewhat, for a variety of reasons, this bee is in no danger of extinction. Other, equally (or more) important pollinators are in need of more help, however.

Honey bees probably get more credit than they earn — in the pollination world over all, they are sort of slackers. In several studies and observations over the past few decades — for dozens of crop systems across the world, it seems that the vast majority of pollination was carried out by native bees and other insects which evolved along with the crops themselves. Even common fruits like tomatoes require bigger bees than honey bees, relying on large bumble bees. Given that most of those bees are not communal — and thus not creating hives of honey for our culinary delight — they get too little attention.

Modern farming and landscaping methods have made much of North America’s landscape inhabitable for native wild bees, so the domesticated honeybees have been asked to pick up the slack. This is not an easy challenge. In one example, the near-doubling of acreage for almond trees (that vast increase in sales of almond milk) in California has stretched bees to the limit, even though bee hives arrive from across the US to help out with the pollination. To help maintain bee health and populations — of both honey bees and native wild bees — large areas in and around the almond orchards are now being planted to appropriate wildflowers.

Year to year, as agricultural demand grows bees may or may not be in sufficient numbers for needed pollination. Many initiatives across the country are aimed at restoring domestic and wild bee populations through habitat and native plant restoration.

Then, too, as bees become more and more in demand, organized crime steps in. With growing sophistication, thieves are targeting been hive operation across the country. Indeed, “stealing and reorganizing” operations in California have been described as “chop shops for bees!” Several law enforcement organizations through Central California and other agricultural regions now have officers trained to specialize in “hive crime.”

We appear to have enough pollinators here — or coming — in Central Washington for the season ahead. Still, bees of nearly all species, along with other pollinators, are critical to our food supply and our very existence. The issues are many and complex. Not enough is being done across America, but initiatives are getting bigger and more effective each year. Google any aspect of bee health, threats or future to know more.

Jim Huckabay is retired from the Department of Geography at Central. His “WILD WINDS and Other Tales of Growing Up in the Outdoor West” is available online and at bookstores. Contact Jim and join in discussions at www.insidetheoutdoors.com.

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