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Where have all the flowers gone?

“I fell into a burning ring of fire.” –Johnny Cash

As I type this sentence at 9:20pm, it is 93.2°. This is the cool part of the day. Before the end of the week, the projected heat index will reach 119°. The grass is brown and brittle; the air is thick and heavy; and not a creature is stirring, not even a beekeeper. For the record, this is still Planet Earth, not Mercury—the same Planet Earth that is currently covered in smoke, fire, hurricanes, and lingering strains of pestilence. The planet, she ain’t happy. And when Mama Earth ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

I do not intend for this post to depress, but merely to point out some of the potentially overlooked challenges lurking behind the scenes of our angry planet. For beekeepers, these challenges were painfully apparent this spring and summer, as the usual bountiful, floral feast at the bees’ disposal never came to be. A late-season frost that wiped out many of the early blooms landed (quite inconveniently) moments after my blueberry bushes were in full blossom, and it lasted a couple of cold, cold, killing nights. Whether that was a direct or a contributing cause of further badness, I’m not sure; but for the rest of the spring, the flowers and trees seemed to be in a tailspin. Our main honey producing plants either never bloomed or bloomed in such meager numbers as to lose relevance. One old timer said that this was the worst year of honey production he’d seen in 53 years of beekeeping. Many of the beekeepers I’ve spoken to (myself included, though I try not to talk to myself in polite company) barely produced 1/3 of the honey they harvested last year. Bees are tireless workers, but there’s only so much they can do when the cupboards are bare.

I suppose things could be worse. The orange crop in Florida is down over 90% this year—the worst harvest in a century,[1] and Georgia is already out of peaches.[2] The state of agriculture in many pockets of the world is becoming precarious. An apiary inspector in Greece recently reported that, “What used to be normal years [for honey production] in the past, are now exceptionally good years, and what used to be exceptionally bad years, are now normal years.”[3] The 2023 Bee Informed Partnership survey of managed colony losses in the United States cited 48.2% losses between April 2022 and April 2023, when beekeepers deemed “acceptable” losses to be 21.3%.[4] It’s obviously too soon to know the colony loss data for late 2023, but the current heat and lack of rain might wreak havoc on the fall blooms upon which the bees rely for their winter food. If the goldenrod doesn’t bloom in a few weeks, beekeepers are going to be scrambling to keep their workers alive until cooler, happier planetary conditions prevail. It could be a rough winter for some hungry bees.

So, yeah. It’s hot outside. Really hot. But that may be the least of our worries. Stay cool and hydrated, continue to eat fresh and local, and savor every delicious bite of your local farmers’ bounty. For a while, anyway, their precious, hard-earned harvest may not be as abundant as we would hope.

* Graphic courtesy of Patrick Bigbie at WDAM-TV.

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