During the summer months, butterflies, hummingbirds, bats and beetles can be seen darting from flower to flower, collecting nectar and carrying pollen. But no pollinator has quite as close a relationship with humans as the European honeybee. Found on every continent except Antarctica, the honeybee has been facing enormous environmental pressure in recent years, resulting in mysterious mass die-offs. Learn more about this iconic insect—and what you can do to help—with this list of nine honeybee facts.
1. The European honeybee is an introduced species. Honeybees may be one of the most recognized insects in the nation, but they’re actually relative newcomers to North America. Just like sheep, cows and chickens, honeybees were brought from Europe by early settlers, arriving in Virginia around 1622.
2. Those swirling swarms are nothing to worry about. A teeming cluster of honeybees may seem menacing, but a swarm of honeybees is actually when the insects are at their safest. When a colony gets big enough, the queen bee will fly off in search of a new home, taking a portion of the colony with her, while a new queen takes her place in the old colony. Because they’re not defensive of a hive or stores of honey, these swarms pose little threat to humans. They may make brief stopovers on tree branches, walls or road signs, but will most likely take off on their own within a day or two. If a swarm makes you nervous, call a local beekeeper to come safely remove the bees.
3. Honeybees typically only sting when they sense the hive is threatened. When out foraging, bees will rarely sting unless they’re roughly handled. If a bee is buzzing around you, she may smell a flowery perfume or lotion and think the smell is a food source—but if you stand very still, she will realize there is no nectar and fly away.
4. The average American eats one pound of honey each year. To make that pound of honey, a colony of bees would have to fly more than 55,000 miles and visit two million flowers. One bee collects just 1/12 teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.
5. Close to one-third of all the food Americans eat is directly or indirectly benefitted by honeybee pollination. This amounts to more than $15 billion in crop production each year. Crops like fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts benefit from honeybee pollination, and some foods—almonds in particular—are completely dependent on honeybees.
6. A syndrome has caused the honeybee population in the U.S. to drop by more than half since the 1940s. Colonies affected by Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) appear as a suddenly empty colony—no adult bees or dead bee bodies are near the hive, but the queen and some immature bees may still be present. No causes have been proven, but scientists are researching pesticides, disease, parasites and habitat degradation as possibilities.
7. Honeybees are highly social insects that are able to communicate through complex movements. Their “round dance” and “waggle dance” allow them to communicate the direction and distance to nectar and pollen. But the use of pesticides—in particular those containing neonicotinoids—may cause disorientation and memory loss, meaning bees have difficulty finding food or returning to their hive.
8. A diverse diet helps bees resist the effects of disease, parasites and even pesticides. But single-crop fields often lack the variety of plants needed by bees for proper nutrition. By planting wildflowers in marginal land, at the end of fields or along streams, farmers can help provide the variety of pollen and nectar that bees need.
9. To a honeybee or other pollinator, a manicured lawn is more like a desert. Reducing the size of your lawn and allowing native wildflowers to grow benefits honeybees, native pollinators and other wildlife. You can also plant a pollinator garden, with native plants that flower at different times to provide a consistent source of food.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released EJSCREEN, an environmental justice mapping tool that combines demographic and environmental data to help identify communities who may face a higher risk of environmental harm.
The tool allows users to select a region by drawing on a map, searching by city or selecting a census area. Reports on the selected area relate environmental hazards—including air pollution, lead paint and toxic waste sites—to demographic factors, such as the percentage of the population that is low-income or minority.
Environmental justice supports equal access to a clean and healthy environment. EJSCREEN could help target programs, policies and funding toward communities in need of increased environmental protection, access to health care, improved infrastructure and climate resilience. Promoting environmental justice is one of the guiding principles of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. The tool will help guide the Chesapeake Bay Program’s work under the Agreement in engaging diverse communities and mitigating toxic contaminants.
The EPA is looking for feedback on the tool from users, and plans to release a revised edition next year.
Former Maryland State Senator Bernie Fowler saw his sneakers through 44.5 inches of water at this year’s 28th annual Patuxent River Wade-In on June 14. This marks the deepest measurement of the “sneaker index”—the deepest point at which Fowler can still see his shoes as he wades into the water—since 1997.
Fowler holds the wade-in each year on the second Sunday in June to bring attention to the polluted waters of the Patuxent River and the Chesapeake Bay. After decades on Broomes Island, the event moved to Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in 2010.
In his youth, Fowler could wade into the Patuxent up to his chest and still see fish, shellfish and underwater grasses. But nutrient and sediment pollution in the river have led to degraded water clarity and fueled algae blooms that block sunlight from reaching the river bottom. The 1960s sneaker index of 57 inches now serves as the benchmark for a restored Patuxent River. While still well below this target, this year’s measurement is close to double last year’s depth of 23 inches.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.
On a verdant spring morning, tie-dye clad students of the Gunston School, a private high school of about 160 students in Centreville on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, gather on the dew-covered front lawn to participate in a team-building exercise. Giggling teens in conga line formations scramble around in an attempt to follow directions shouted through a megaphone by Emily Beck, the sustainability coordinator for the school. It’s Earth Day; there’s an electric energy in the air.
A one-mile access road offers the tranquility of hundreds of lush acres of farm fields, all placed under permanent conservation easement, leading up to 32 acres of campus that are nestled into the nape of the Corsica River. The rural expansiveness sets the tone for a core message that is threaded throughout everything the Gunston School does: sustainability.
Out of the 2,220 schools in Maryland, only 20 percent—or 450—of them, including the Gunston School, are certified through the Maryland Association for Environmental & Outdoor Education (MAEOE) as Green Schools. Certified schools must meet a stringent set of criteria that includes benchmarks such as school-wide environmental behavior changes, water conservation, pollution reduction, instruction on environmental issues and many more.
Certified green schools are also required to hold an annual celebration of green practices; for the Gunston School, that materializes in the form of a daylong Earth Day celebration planned and organized by the students. Instead of attending class, students participate in a morning of workshops conducted by students, faculty and outside presenters and an afternoon film session and green fair. This year’s celebration focused on the intersection of land, livestock and wildlife and offered programs such as poetry in nature; oyster restoration through the Chesapeake Environmental Center; community supported, organic and sustainable farming practices; and a number of road, campus and shoreline cleanups.
Being a green school is embedded in the core of the Gunston School’s identity. “The Gunston School has embraced being a green school; we first applied in 2011 and we reapplied this year,” said Beck. “That has really helped to inform the students, teachers, faculty and administration about what a school can be in terms of a role model in the community.”
The Gunston School’s overarching mission is to help students grow and thrive in a way that way that will prepare them for not only college, but also to be lifelong leaders. The curriculum takes a personalized approach, with instructors working closely with each student to help them develop their leadership skills and academic strengths with a special emphasis on global awareness and sustainable living. In that focus, the school is able to harness their location and pair it with lessons through their Chesapeake Bay Studies program, an integral part of the curriculum that has been in existence for more than 20 years.
Although the Bay Studies program is weaved into lesson plans throughout the year, it culminates in an annual weeklong series of experiential seminars designed to get the students in and on the Bay. By partnering with organizations such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Outward Bound and the Sultana Project, students are directly exposed to and informed about the ecological problems surrounding the Bay and its watershed.
“Students learn in many different ways; we have students who are classic book learners for whom getting into the Bay helps to bring that book learning alive, and we have students who are more hands on learners and they transfer that knowledge that they got during their hands on experience back into the classroom,” said John Lewis, Headmaster of the Gunston School. “I think that if the students aren’t ever really in the Bay or immersed in the watershed, they’re sort of just abstract environmentalists—they’re not actually seeing the impacts and the dynamics of the Bay system and that goes for not just kids, but also the teachers.”
Patience and adaptation are the name of the game when it comes to taking students outdoors for lessons. “The biggest fear [for teachers] of taking students outside is that they will run wild, and it’s a downside of our current education system is that the only time that kids get to go outside is for recess. So, the times that you take them outside, their mentality is recess,” said Beck.
At the Gunston School, pairing lessons with the natural world means students have learned over the years that being outside means learning, and they remain engaged. If a distraction happens, like an eagle flying by, teachers are content with taking a moment to appreciate the sighting and even adapting their lesson to their surroundings if need be, because, like many things in life, it’s important to expect the unexpected and go with the flow.
Although outdoors learning is an ideal opportunity for both teachers and students, some challenges can come along with it. Not all schools have the ample space and natural resources that the Gunston School is fortunate enough to have access to. “There are opportunities to create teaching environments in the barest amount of space or make use of your indoor environment if it is not possible to get out of doors,” said Beck. “The natural world is all around us, it’s just changing your focus a little bit to see the learning opportunities.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.
Images by Will Parson