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Some busy looking for bees

I was out for my almost-daily walk the other day and saw something I haven't seen in a long while: a honey bee.

Many of you may wonder why in the world I would deem that little tidbit important enough to lead a newspaper column with it. Well, because much of our food supply depends on the bees staying busy, and lately they haven't been.

Think about it: When was the last time you saw a field of flowers abuzz with honey bees? You probably haven't, especially around more developed areas. More likely you've seen one or two here and there or none at all.

I live out in the country now after a lifetime in the suburbs, and I am regaining my appreciation for certain things like songbirds singing and cows mooing, rarities around all the concrete we use to pave over our counties and cities. But even out in the country, spotting a single honey bee the other day was enough to make me think, "Wow, a honey bee. When was the last time I saw one of those?"

I couldn't remember. And for good reason - they're missing in action.

In fact, they've mostly packed up and left. Or died off. Or quit mating. The truth is, the only thing we really know is that they've disappeared in staggering numbers.

The bee population, both of wild bees and those kept in commercial apiaries, has been declining slowly for decades. But in the past couple of years, the losses have skyrocketed. Called Colony Collapse Disorder, the bee disappearance has been blamed on everything from disease to mites to global warming. The true cause remains a mystery.

What is known is the bees just aren't there anymore. More and more commercial beekeepers are opening up hives to find them decimated or empty with little to no evidence as to where the bees went. Even the bees' bodies have disappeared, leaving researchers baffled.

According to Burt's Bees - yes, the people who make that expensive lip balm - as much as 70 percent of the population has disappeared. That's a scary number when you consider the import role the little guys play in pollinating our crops. About 30 percent of fruit, nut and vegetable crops depend on honey bees to help pollinate them.

With food prices already going through the roof, I don't have to tell you how important it is that supply is maintained. Scarce food is expensive food.

Farmers, apiaries and companies like Burt's have a lot riding on the health of the bees. To try to turn it around, Burt's is funding the Honeybee Health Improvement Project, which is just what it sounds like - a research project aimed at improving the health of the honeybee population and its habitat.

Locally, Loganville resident Dale Sikes is participating in The Great Sunflower Project, which is recruiting gardeners nationwide to plant sunflowers and then keep track of the number of honey bees visiting them. The goal is to produce a map that shows how much pollination is actually taking place. (Look for a feature on Sikes and the sunflower project in a later edition of the Post.)

With our food supply in the balance, all the efforts to stop the loss of the bees are noble. The ramifications of their disappearance would be much worse than the occasional sting.

E-mail Nate McCullough at nate.mccullough@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Fridays.