Bees once pollinated many acres of Gilpin spuds
By Forrest Whitman
I chatted with a fellow high altitude gardener this week. She’s complaining that should she get any blossoms on her squash she’ll have to pollinate them with a cue tip. That’s because there are just darn few bees about these days to do any pollinating. She’s got a point. Many bee hives are crashing and we’ve got to wonder why. It once was just the opposite when I came to bees.
Pollinating 100 acres of potatoes
In the 1880s the valleys around Rollinsville were planted with acres and acres of spuds. When the railroad came through in about 1905, a side track was established in part to load cars full of red and brown potatoes. Prior to the First World War, Gilpin was known as a high-altitude agricultural country. All of those potatoes needed bees to pollinate the flowers, and there were plenty buzzing around. That’s all kind of interesting since there are no records of beekeepers or tame hives in north Gilpin. Perhaps there were more wild bees. Possibly the bees had hives at lower altitudes and commuted up to do the pollination. There were plenty of bees or so it seems.
Bees aren’t the only pollinators, of course. High-altitude bumble bees do that job too. Many smaller insects like to spend time in flowers also. So it’s possible bees were only one of a number of pollinators. Still, it is bees who do most of the work and our bees are in trouble.
An Interview with a bee keeper
I interviewed an interesting lady this week. She’s been a beekeeper for her whole life. She has many hives and puts them on the back of her truck to take them riding about the country. When it’s winter at 8,000 feet her bees are having a nice time in the date palms of southern California. Not a bad life for a bee, though a lot of work for her. She has a very clear idea about why some of her hives have suffered death in recent years. First on her list is genetically modified crops. She thinks her bees have a very hard time pollinating what she calls “frankenplants.” She thinks the bees just don’t understand these GMO plants. Next on her list are mites. She hates all varieties of mites and thinks they waylay her hives. There are things she can do, but nothing ever completely eradicates the mites. Her third big culprit is “those damn pesticides.” She complains that every year there’s a new one out and all of them are lethal to her little winged darlings. She has a message: “Eat organic and saved the planet!” Needless to say, I bought a jar of her honey. It’s really good and has the tang of last year’s wild flowers in it.
25,000 dead bees in a field in Oregon
Bee deaths have been really spectacular in recent years. Just this year web sites were reporting 25,000 dead bees in one small field. That field had been sprayed with a weed killer, but even so, local authorities weren’t declaring pesticide as the smoking gun and cause of the crime. The Europeans have been responding much more quickly. Since 2006 neonicotinoids have been sprayed regularly on crops. These are particularly tough chemicals and do kill pests remarkably well. It’s not too appetizing to think of biting into an apple sprayed with the stuff, but there it is. The Europeans have been studying these chemicals and especially putting some of the Bayer Companies products under the microscope. Those Bayer chemicals such as Imidocloprid and Clothianidin are directly linked to bee colony deaths in European studies. It’s interesting to note that the “colony collapse disorder” in bees has spiked remarkably since 2006. While the U.S.A. authorities have been slow to act, the Europeans have acted quickly. Over the protest of the Baer Company they’ve banned these pesticides and put teeth in the ban as well. They think the leveling off of Colony Collapse Disorder in Europe this year is at least partly due to this ban.
Those nasty little mites
Another cause of colony collapse disorder is infestation with mites. There are several kinds of these little pests. Once they get started in a hive they are very hard to get rid of. Apparently they bring in all sorts of diseases. If a hive has a tough winter, not enough food supply and so on, the mites take over. Various web sites give suggestions for mite mitigation. Once a hive dies, there are directions for spraying the hive to rid it of remaining mites. I’m no beekeeper, but the various mite strategies are interesting reading.
Why were there more bees in 1905?
Today it’s hard to imagine that we produced enough spuds in north Gilpin to need whole railroad cars for transportation. Why were there more bees? Probably my interview with a beekeeper lady is right on. Hives didn’t have to cope with pesticides in those days. I’m sure mites existed, but robust colonies can fend them off. Wild bee colonies even today survive winter better than tame colonies. The reasons were many, but worth looking at.
How to pollinate with a cue tip
I’ve never claimed to be a great gardener, but I think I may produce some summer squash this year. I’ve already seen a couple of promising flower buds. I’m going to be hovering over those babies with my cue tip at the ready. Then I’ll carefully get a little pollen from each plant and spread it around. Maybe if I make a humming sound I can convince the squash that I’m a bee. Still, I wish I could see a few bees. At least life in 1905 was better in that way.