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Bee-thankful this Thanksgiving

This holiday season, chefs, restaurant owners, farmers, beekeepers and environmental advocates are speaking out to protect bees and help stop them from dying off at alarming rates. Without bees, Thanksgiving dinners in Georgia would look and taste different.

Bees pollinate 70 percent of the crops that provide most of the world’s food including many of our Thanksgiving favorites: cranberries, green beans, carrots, pie fillings from pumpkin to apple and brussel sprouts. Bees also pollinate coffee, chocolate, and the alfalfa eaten by dairy cows. So milk, butter, cheese, whipped cream and ice cream could all be missing from future tables.

Unfortunately, bees are dying at unprecedented rates — millions of bees are dying off across the country each year. Beekeepers used to set some hives in a field, harvest the honey a couple times a year and the bees took care of themselves. Now, they require intensive management and constant attention to the latest in honeybee research and management techniques just to keep them alive. Experts report we are losing on average almost a third of all honeybee colonies each year, an unsustainable rate.

Scientists point to several causes of the bee die off, including global warming, habitat loss, parasites and a class of bee-killing pesticides known as neonicotinoids, or neonics.

Neonics disorient bees, making it harder for them to pollinate plants and get back to their hives. Despite the fact that the science here is clear, neonic use has dramatically increased over the past decade. Rather than being applied to the external parts of the plant, neonics are often applied to the seed coat, then the pesticide is pulled into the plant material where it becomes part of the flower, the nectar, and the pollen that the bees gather and bring back to the hive to feed to their brood. While the effects aren’t always immediately lethal, they are a large stressor that can not only kill bees outright but also make them more susceptible to other pests, diseases and especially newly discovered viruses that have always been present in bees but are only now becoming virulent enough to kill hives.

What can be done? First, Maconites can plant nectar and pollen producing flowers — especially those that bloom in mid-summer when most local flowers have dried up. If you’re concerned with Zika and West Nile Virus, use natural mosquito remedies instead of the pesticides that kill a lot of beneficial insects including honeybees. Support honeybee research. Like politics, all beekeeping is local. We have a great local honeybee research lab at UGA in Athens. Learn more about honeybees — even become a backyard suburban beekeeper (there are many more in the Macon area than you may think), and lastly take steps to reduce the number of toxic substances that bees have to deal with and join us in calling on the EPA to stop the use of bee killing pesticides.

We need to take action now to protect the bees and ensure we can enjoy our favorite foods with family and friends for many Thanksgivings to come.

Jennette Gayer, executive director, Environment Georgia and Steve Nofs, Owner Shamrock Apiaries LLC, President of the Macon Beekepers Association.