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Saving the bees: What’s being done?

Sometimes the most subtle efforts can have the biggest impact.

Story by Barry Kaufman + Photography by Mike Ritterbeck

At this point, you understand the critical role bees play in maintaining our ecosystem. And if you’ve been paying attention, you know that our bee populations are under constant threat from external predators, parasites and environmental dangers. So the million-dollar question is, what’s being done to protect them?

The answer is not one thing. There is no simple fix here, no magic wand we can wave and protect the entire range of species that pollinate our plants. Instead, there are a million small gestures, each doing a small part to stem the larger problem. It may be one drop of honey, but that’s how the bucket gets filled.

And the good news is, after ringing the bell about Colony Collapse Disorder around 15 years ago, the beekeeping community is seeing some measure of progress.

“Every year the USDA surveys the number of hives, and it’s been steady at 2.7 or 2.8 million since 2007,” said David Arnal, president of the Beaufort-Jasper Beekeepers Association. “CCD has not really reared its head for several years now. It’s become more of an issue dealing with pesticides, herbicides and the varroa mite.”

While the pandemic put a pause on it, Arnal had previously been working with several area golf courses on a pollinator project that aimed to curb the use of these chemicals and install more hives to help pollinate plant life along golf courses. “If anyone is interested, it’s something we’d like to do again as a club. We’d love to figure out ways to put bees out there in the community.”

And while we tend to think of honeybees when we think of pollinators, it’s important to note that they are not alone in playing this vital role in the ecosystem. Wasps and hornets, for all the slander they receive for their vicious stings and occasional aggression, are also avid pollinators. As such, they deserve the same protective measures as honeybees.

And while it may be just a small measure, the Coastal Discovery Museum has found a way to give these pollinators a safe home to raise their young and build the next generation of pollinators. Walk the grounds at Historic Honey Horn, and you may stumble across a box just a few feet off the ground and built with a sloping shingle roof. Inside, stacked like cordwood, you’ll notice sections of bamboo. And if you were to look inside that bamboo, you’d see one of nature’s many miracles.

“Grass carrier wasps will go into the canopy and paralyze katydids with their venom, then bring them back to the pipe. They’ll store maybe four or five inside, then use grass to seal the last bit of the chamber inside the bamboo,” said Carlos Chacon, manager of natural history at Coastal Discovery Museum. “But before they seal it, they lay an egg in it and they do it over and over again.”

When that egg hatches, it will feast on the trapped katydids, building up strength to build its chrysalis. Weeks later it will burst out of the end of the pipe as a full-grown adult wasp, ready to do its part to keep our environment thriving. And it’s not just the grass carriers. Chacon says he’s seen mason wasps, bees and even the gorgeous metallic blue cuckoo wasp in the pipes.

The idea for the insect house came to him during a visit to Germany, when he noticed one in his friend’s yard and then another at the local zoo. Clearly, the Germans were onto something.

“I was interested to try it in the Lowcountry to see if it works here,” he said. “As soon as I came back I was approached by a master naturalist group who had just received a grant and wanted to find a cheap project they could invest in.”

A few boards, some bamboo and a little trial and error later, they had a thriving insect house that not only protects the environment, it provides a fascinating educational opportunity.

“It’s a show, seeing these wasps carry in the katydids and caterpillars. It’s very interesting. So, yeah, it was a very successful project,” said Chacon. “I have opened a few of them when we’re doing programs to show what’s happening inside.”

To see this amazing insect house in action, head to the Coastal Discovery Museum. Or build your own, and do your part to save these fascinating creatures. LL