A nationwide survey has found nearly 40 percent of honeybee...

A nationwide survey has found nearly 40 percent of honeybee colonies died last winter, the worst on record. Credit: Michael Dobie

It was morning and I was headed to the car to bring my grandson to school when I stopped by the purple salvia blooming next to the driveway. A bee was making its way up the stalk, methodically checking each flower as it went.

That’s usually an unremarkable sight; bees seem to like our yard. Except that I haven’t seen them too much this year.

Apparently, I’m not alone.

“The number of bumblebees is down significantly,” said Smithtown master beekeeper Moira Alexander, who put the loss of Long Island bee colonies this past winter at close to 50 percent.

Rich Blohm, a master beekeeper in Huntington, said he and his colleagues would lose no more than 10 percent of their bees each winter when he started in 1973. “Now we’re all losing 30 or 40 percent,” he said.

It’s not just Long Island. A nationwide survey found nearly 40 percent of honeybee colonies died last winter, the worst on record.

Beekeepers have been fighting back but this is trouble. About one-third of the global food supply is pollinated by bees, whether commercial bees or wild ones. Pollinators like bees increase crop production value in the United States by $29 billion each year. We go as the bees go.

And the bees have been having a tough time for a while. Mites, which feed on them, are a big problem; chemicals to kill the mites aren’t as effective as they once were. Popular pesticides like chlorpyrifos and the neonicotinoid family are nasty. Open land keeps disappearing, taking habitat with it. And then there’s us.

We want flawless lawns, so we spend lots of money on weedkillers and we pay gardeners to spray for grubs when there are no grubs. And we kill the dandelions and clover that bees love and need.

In our quest for picture-perfect landscaping, we buy flowers that are showy but have no nutritional value for bees — partly because that’s what’s sold at our garden and home improvement centers and partly because if we see a flowering plant for sale that has bees hovering around it we shudder and move on to something else.

“If you plant the right stuff, bees will come,” Alexander said.

There are lots of kinds of bees, more than 400 species in New York State alone. I don’t pretend to know all of them. But I’ve seen a lot of them in my yard.

They like the grape hyacinth and the tiger lilies in the spring. Then they move on to the zucchini and tomatoes and chives and basil. Berries — blueberries, blackberries, raspberries — are a favorite, for which we’re always grateful. Later, they dive into our long stand of rose of Sharon, and emerge bathed in white pollen. They seem delirious.

Bees teach you patience. When I’m wading through the raspberries, I’m on their turf. They’re on the job, and I respect the work they do. I pick the fruit carefully, they refrain from stinging. That deal doesn’t necessarily work with the wasps that fly among them, but that’s a different story.

I worry sometimes that bees are too much taken for granted, or greeted with too much indifference or even hostility. But then I remember that last month National Geographic asked its readers: If you could dedicate your life to saving one species, which would you choose?

And while elephants, tigers, whales and polar bears were in the top five, the runaway winner by more than a 2-to-1 margin was bees.

I’m heartened that the New York State Legislature passed a bill this year banning chlorpyrifos by 2021. Next up is a hard look at the neonicotinoids. Last month, the federal Environmental Protection Agency pulled 12 neonic products from the market after a long battle between beekeepers, environmentalists and pesticide makers. That’s all good.

But I’ll feel even better when I see more dandelions and clover.

So will the bees.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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