Bees and Agriculture: The Connection, the Crisis, and How to Help
Millions of people shop organic for their own health, but society is just waking up to how food choices directly affect the planet’s health. From soil-depleting monocultural farming practices to the greenhouse gas-emitting meat industry, there’s no denying food’s environmental impact. One issue everyone should be concerned about is the impact of conventional farming practices on bees.
Bees are an important part of today’s food system. On top of native bees pollinating small farms, gardens, and wild plants, honey bee hives are rented in enormous numbers to pollinate the crops that appear on grocery store shelves. Without bees, crop yields and biodiversity would plummet as food costs rise.
However, bees’ livelihood may also be the greatest threat to their health. While there’s no consensus on why honey bee colonies are dying in record numbers, some of the leading suspects are related to how crops are grown.
Concern over the effect of agricultural pesticides on bee populations led to a temporary ban in December 2013 on three common neonicotinoid insecticides in Europe. Scientists believe that exposure to neonicotinoids, or neonics, can impact foraging ability, reproduction, and pest resistance in various bee species. Neonicotinoids are the most widely used insecticides in the world; almost all of the corn grown in the United States is treated with neonicotinoids, along with cotton, soybeans, cereal grains, rice, nuts, and most fruit and vegetable crops.
But pesticides alone aren’t responsible for growing annual hive losses. Monocultural growing practices — that is, growing a single crop in the same area — are also contributing to declining bee populations. In diverse environments, bees move between food sources as plants come in and out of bloom. But in a monocultural environment, food is only available at one time of the year. With no other food sources in range, this environment can’t support bee populations.
To compensate for monoculture, the agricultural sector employs large numbers of honey bee hives to travel farm to farm pollinating crops. Millions of bees are used every year to pollinate almonds, cherries, avocados, squash, and pumpkins, among many other fruits and vegetables. However, this method puts a lot of stress on bees as they’re transported long distances and sustained on sugar and pollen between farm visits. It also promotes the spread of viruses, mites, and fungi that can devastate colony health.
Among honey bee pests, the varroa mite is undoubtedly the most destructive. This pest feeds on developing larva and latches onto adult bees, spreading viruses from bee to bee and hive to hive. Another pest, a fungal parasite called nosema, interferes with bees’ digestive systems and can rapidly lead to colony collapse. It’s suspected that these pests, among others, play a role in massive bee die-offs.
For much of the threat facing bees, the answer lies in a shift away from monocultural farming practices that rely on pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers for production, and into bio-diverse growing environments that naturally attract and support pollinator life. While the opportunity for the largest impact lies with the agricultural industry, non-farmers have a role to play as well.
Average citizens can help bees by forgoing pesticides in their homes and gardens, buying from local beekeepers, and shopping for pesticide-free food and clothing — while keeping in mind that “organic” doesn’t always mean pesticide-free.
Another great way to support bees is with a pollinator garden. A backyard bee habitat is doable even for beginning gardeners, as the best pollinator garden is a wild, unmanicured space. Gardeners can get started by visiting a local garden center for advice on native flowering plants that attract bees. Native plants offer low-maintenance gardening as they’re adapted to the natural rainfall and soil type of a given environment. Gardeners should incorporate plants that flower in different seasons so that bees can forage in spring, summer, and fall. Once planted, the garden should be left to grow, flower, and reseed itself, providing a self-sustaining pollinator habitat. Check out Redfin.com for more tips for beginner gardeners.
Bee die-off is a major issue threatening the world’s food security, but it’s not a lost cause. With effort from agricultural corporations, farmers, and average people alike, bees, and biodiversity, can be protected.
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