Bees, food security and you

First published April 2007, updated August 2010

Imagine if 1 in 3 pigs started dying mysteriously or 1 in 3 cows? That would be likely to hit the headlines of every news service and additional millions, perhaps billions of dollars would be immediately poured into research to find the cause and cure.

Let’s say that major food crops were under a real and imminent threat – likely that would evoke the same response.

But it hasn’t.

According to a survey conducted by the Apiary Inspectors of America (AIA) and the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), losses of managed honey bee colonies in the USA totaled 33.8 percent from all causes from October 2009 to April 2010. 28 percent of beekeeping operations that reported some of their colonies perished without dead bees present, which is a sign of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), lost 44 percent of their colonies.

The bees are dying at unsustainable rates and have been for a few years now, but this crisis still gets little coverage given the major threat it poses.

So why is it a crisis and what’s the link between bees and food?

Bees do so much more than supply honey and beeswax.

Bee pollination of crops, something that most farmers heavily rely on, is responsible for as much as 30% of the U.S. food supply. Where bees are not available, they are called in, with apiarists (bee keepers) travelling around the country to provide the services of their hives.

According to the USDA, the number of managed honey bee colonies has dropped from 5 million in the1940s to only 2.5 million today. However, the demand for pollination service has continued to climb and honey bee colonies are being transported farther and more often.

Unless the cause and cure for Colony Collapse Disorder is found soon, the supply of many fruits and vegetables could be affected. The flow on effects are mind-boggling. It’s not just fruits and vegetables, but also stock feed and grains. Here’s a *partial* list of crops that require, or at least benefit from, bee pollination:

Forage and Legume Crops:

  • alfalfa
  • buckwheat
  • clover

Fruit Crops:

  • apple
  • apricot
  • avocado
  • berry
  • cherry
  • citrus
  • kiwi
  • mango
  • passion fruit
  • peach
  • pear
  • persimmon
  • plum
  • prune

Nut Crops:

  • almond
  • cashew
  • chestnut
  • coconut
  • macadamia.

Oilseed Crops:

  • cotton
  • flax
  • rape
  • safflower
  • soybeans
  • sunflower

Vegetable seed crops:

  • asparagus
  • broccoli
  • brussel sprouts
  • carrots
  • cauliflower
  • celery
  • Chinese cabbage
  • collard
  • cucumber
  • dill
  • eggplant
  • garlic
  • kale
  • kohlrabi
  • leek
  • lima beans
  • mustard
  • onion
  • parsley
  • pepper
  • pumpkin
  • radish
  • rutabaga
  • squash
  • turnip

Vegetable Crops:

  • beans
  • canteloupe
  • cucumbers
  • muckmelon
  • pumpkin
  • squash
  • watermelon
  • eggplant
  • lima beans
  • peppers

(The above list taken from MAAREC, the Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium)

That’s pretty frightening stuff. Other insects play a role in pollinating some of those crops, but even in those cases, to take 30% of the pollinators out of the population will have dramatic effects. Sure, I guess the USA could just import all those foods in if need be, but imagine the impact on food prices- and then there’s the issue of food miles and the toll it exacts on the environment.

While the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder hasn’t been pinpointed as yet, it’s thought to be a result of parasites taking advantage of warmer, more humid conditions in some areas, a virus and possibly the effects of pesticides; a mix of poisons that have hit critical mass.

Those outside the USA shouldn’t feel too comfortable that it’s not happening in their back yard either – it could do.

What can you do?

It’s time to make some more noise about this. Talk to others about the issue; write to government representatives explaining why it’s such a concern; point them to further information.

We can also all do our bit by making our yards attractive to non-commercially kept bees; by planting flowers; or better still, a vegetable garden and most importantly – using less pesticides in our own gardens.

Planting your own veggie garden may also provides additional food security if the worst should come to pass – even without bees, there are ways to manually pollinate; but it is time intensive.

If you can’t grow your own food due to lack of space or skills, consider joining a natural food cooperative – you can pick up the knowledge you need through those networks and also get organic fruits and vegetables at reduced rates in exchange for a little work, or check out community gardens in your area where you can rent plots at quite reasonable rates.

Perhaps consider keeping your own bees if your living arrangements allow it? There are many hobbyist associations around the world that can help you learn what you need to know – search on the term:

beekeeping association country
apiarist association country

.. where country is your country or sate

Isn’t it amazing how such a small creature plays such an important role in our food production? Learning all this gave me a new respect for the “humble” bee.