Widespread pollinator disappearance worries Camas-Washougal gardeners

Beekeeper says problem impacting entire Portland-Vancouver metro area

Marian Neumann, of Camas, finds one lone bee in her backyard garden. Normally, there would be hundreds of other bees there, but Neumann and many others have noticed severely reduced numbers of pollinators this year.

A bee, one of very few in Marian Neumann's Camas garden, lands on a flower. Neumann said her backyard is usually thick with bees around this time of year, but that she noticed a severe drop in the number of pollinators in early June. Others in Southwest Washington have noticed similarly low numbers of bees. Some report no bees where there normally are hundreds. (Photos by Kelly Moyer/Post-Record)

Camas resident Marian Neumann is walking through her lush backyard garden, examining flowers and bushes for bees.

“This area should be thick with (bees) right now,” Neumann says, waving toward a few brilliant purple blooms in her garden. “But I see few honey bees and now the bumbles are gone. Since our own garden depends on bumblebees, I am very concerned.”

Neumann, an avid gardener who keeps her own mason bee house in the back of her Bass Street home, first noticed the bees’ absence in mid-June.

“Up until June 10, when I returned home from five days in Idaho, we had hundreds of bumblebees pollinating berries, fruit trees and flowers in our garden,” Neumann told the Post-Record in late June.

Normally, the bees would cycle through her yard throughout the spring and summer months. First, the mason bees help pollinate. Then the bumblebees and honey bees and other pollinator bees stop by to visit the flowers, berries and trees. By mid-June, Neumann’s garden is normally buzzing with pollinators, helping everything grow and thrive.

“But they seem to have disappeared,” Neumann said.

The problem isn’t confined to Neumann’s yard, either, said Susan Knilans, a Camas beekeeper and president of the nonprofit Preservation Beekeeping Council. “This is not an acute poisoning of Marian’s bees,” Knilans said. “This is a collapse of the pollinators in the larger area. Earlier in the year, I was hoping it was just my yard. But it’s happening in Camas, Washougal, Vancouver … all the urban Portland area beekeepers have noticed a shocking decrease in swarms this year. There are reports on the gardening sites saying the bumblebees and others are all gone. Something is going on.”

Knilans, whose nickname is “the Camas bee lady,” said no one yet knows the reason for the bees’ disappearance.

“I normally have about five species of bees in my yard,” she said. “Then, one day, they just weren’t there. We don’t know what’s happening. Was it the hard freeze we had in February? We do know that we’re losing a lot of bees to pesticides … but we just don’t know. My fear is that we’ve hit the tipping point. That this is it. I’m hoping I’m wrong.”

Beekeepers around the world have been reporting similar declines in honeybee populations over the past decade. And a recent Bee Informed Partnership survey of nearly 4,700 beekeepers who manage more than 300,000 hives shows bee colony deaths are on the rise, affecting nearly 40 percent of honeybee colonies in the United States during the winter of 2018.

“We haven’t seen this before (in the Camas-Washougal area),” Knilans said. “This year I’m even missing the mud dauber wasps. They should be here in full force, but I’ve only seen one.”

Without pollinators, humans’ food sources would be in serious danger. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, of the roughly 100 crops that provide more than 90 percent of the world’s food supply, more than 70 are pollinated by bees.

“It is concerning,” Neumann said. “No bees means no food … and not just in my own garden.”

Both Neumann and Knilans wonder if the bees have been adversely affected by pesticides or herbicides sprayed by public city crews, private companies or individual homeowners.

Neumann even reached out to Camas City Councilwoman Bonnie Carter and the city’s administrator, Pete Capell.

“Did the city or some other entity do a spraying of a wide area the first week of June?” she asked the city officials. “Were the bees killed by a chemical? I am worried that they are gone for good and just want an answer if at all possible.”

Carter said she checked with the city’s public works department and found out that the city had not sprayed in Neumann’s area, but that the county had sprayed some guardrails and road shoulders the first week of June. That work, however, shouldn’t have affected the bees in Neumann’s yard.

“It should not have included the areas you mentioned,” Carter stated in an email to Neumann regarding the county’s spraying.

Capell said he also was concerned about the bees in Camas and realized that a bee that came into contact with chemicals could kill the entire hive.

“I’m sorry you lost the bees in your yard,” Capell told Neumann in an email. “We have a beehive at the (Camas Public Library) and they are great for the environment.”

When it comes to the city’s pesticide and herbicide spraying, however, Capell said he didn’t believe that would have caused the bees’ disappearance.

“We do very little in-fill (chemical) application,” Capell later told the Post-Record. “All of our applicators are licensed and so we’re doing things correctly.”

In fact, Capell said, the city of Camas is in the process of becoming a “Bee City,” which calls for practices that avoid harming bees and other pollinators.

“It doesn’t mean you’re forbidden from using chemicals,” Capell said of the Bee City guidelines. “You just need to use best management practices.”

Knilans and Neumann both hope Camas-Washougal residents will be more mindful when it comes to using pesticides and herbicides at their homes.

“All people can really do this year is deeply ponder this loss,” Knilans said. “We need to do some serious grieving and really look at what’s going on. Grieve the fact that you don’t hear crickets anymore, or droning insects, and then make a move to change.”

Knilans said she worries homeowners are using chemicals to kill everything from grubs in their yard to small plants growing out of the sidewalk without knowing how those chemicals truly impact the environment or combine together to harm living beings like the pollinators.

“People need to adopt a completely different way of living. If they can’t welcome the nature that is there in their yard, maybe they need to live in an apartment,” Knilans said. “We can’t afford to be complacent. Every backyard matters.”

Knilans will hold a vigil — one of many planned around the globe — at her Camas home at noon on Sunday, Aug. 4, “for the hundreds of millions of bees we’ve lost.” If people would like to join the vigil or get more information about how to protect the bees and pollinators in Camas-Washougal, they should email Knilans at susankn ilans@gmail.com.

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