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I am my brother's beekeeper

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If you like to eat, you should care about the bees.

The League of Women Voters held its Minnesota state convention in Duluth on June 12-14. Hundred of members from all over the state gathered to set the League's agenda for next year. And I learned about the birds and the bees. Well, the bees anyway.

Duluth League members hosted dinners at various restaurants around town. I helped welcome LWV visitors by eating supper with a group at the Zeitgeist Cafe. Sitting next to Patricia Hauser, I soon learned how important bees are to the food on my plate.

"Bees are in trouble and we can do something about it," said Hauser, founder of Humming for Bees, based near St. Paul. "Here they are this little creature that pollinates food and they don't have enough to eat."

Bees are crucial to the world's food supply. Many of our agricultural crops depend on bee pollination, but the number of bees are declining. According to Pesticide Action Network, Minnesota beekeepers reported a loss of 54 percent of their colonies in the 2012-1013 seasons. Nationwide, beekeepers report losing an average of 30 percent of their bees per year since 2006, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Hauser encourages individuals to avoid pesticides and grow flowers that attract bees. Even a planter on an apartment balcony can help. But, she said, people need to be careful that the flowers don't contain a certain pesticide lethal to bees.

"Let a few dandelions grow," she said. Other plants that honeybees like are clover, wildflowers and plants that bloom from spring to fall.

Hauser's organization successfully partnered with Shorewood City Council in authoring a bee-safe resolution, which the council unanimously approved in July 2014. Humming for Bees requested and received permission to plant "bee-food" clover on city property in July 2014.

"Feed them clean food," Hauser said, meaning flowers and plants that do not contain systemic pesticides, which permeate the whole system of the plant: the root, the stem and the flowers. This type of pesticide was introduced in the 1990s.

The use of neonicotinoids, a pesticide known to be neurotoxic to bees, is one of the suspected causes of bee decline. Another cause could be monoculture, the mass growing of one type of crop. Urban lawns made up of grass are considered a monoculture.

Neonicotinoids (neonics for short) aren't just used in commercial agriculture. They are commonly found in treatments for roses and a variety of other plants attractive to bees and other pollinators. These pesticide products are sold in garden centers and other retailers.

One way to ensure that your flowers don't have systemic pesticides is to ask the retailer.

Some greenhouses and stores may sell plants containing neonics, yet the plants are still labeled as bee-friendly because the neonics don't kill the bee immediately. The neurotoxin still confuses or paralyzes the bee, making it unable to find its way back to the hive.

"When you go to a florist you need to ask, 'Do these plants have systemic pesticide in them like neonics?' Hauser said. "And if they do, then you say, 'I'm not going to buy these.'"

She stressed that even if a greenhouse says they do not grow plants containing neonics, you still need to inquire about which plants they grow because many greenhouses get plants from other growers.

Hauser recommends studying about what bees are native to your area to figure out what flowers they like. There are more than 400 species of bees in Minnesota and and 20,000 species globally.

At the state convention, the League of Women Voters adopted a motion to research and write a briefing paper addressing the impact of systemic pesticides, in particular neonics, on honeybees. After studying the issue, the LWV may encourage local chapters to work with city councils across the state to adopt bee-friendly policies.

Just like Cain asked the Lord, "Am I my brother's keeper?" We should all be wondering if each one of us is a beekeeper.

Tips to help bees

Grow bee-friendly plants like wild geraniums, pussy willows, wild lupine, purple coneflower, sunflowers.

Let a few dandelions grow.

Ask if plants contain systemic neonicotinoids before purchasing them.

Reduce or eliminate pesticide use, especially on flowers attractive to bees.

For more information on how to create bee-friendly gardens and yards visit www.hummingforbees.org.

Naomi Yaeger

Naomi Yaeger is a freelance writer and the former editor of the Budgeteer. See her blog at www.DuluthDailyPhoto.com.

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