The Importance of Bees to Our Food Supply

By Rowan Jacobsen, "...or Not to Bee," March/April 2009

If honeybees disappear, they’ll take some of our healthiest foods with them.

Turning the Tide

Despite the dire situation, there are some encouraging signs that we are starting to head in the right direction. Many beekeepers believe pesticides known as neonicotinoids are responsible for CCD. In the United States, neonicotinoids are widely used for everything from crops and golf courses to flea and termite control. Last August, the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the EPA for refusing to disclose the studies done before approving a leading neonicotinoid in 2003. In September, Italy became the fourth European country to ban neonicotinoids. So far, the evidence against the neonicotinoids is mixed, but the fact that four countries would take such a radical step, simply to protect their honeybees, may mean that a paradigm shift is under way. Beekeepers themselves are becoming more leery of conventional agriculture and are favoring pollination contracts with organic farmers—a move that may encourage more farms to go organic.

But the number-one source of pesticides in beehives is the beekeepers themselves, who add pesticides to their hives in an effort to control parasitic mites. That, too, is starting to change, as natural methods of mite treatment, as well as mite-resistant strains of bees, become available. For years, organic beekeeping was rare be­cause of the chemical mite treatments; now it’s starting to look like it will one day be the rule, at least among hobbyists.

And oh the hobbyists! Beekeeping has been declining in popularity in the United States since World War II, but in the past year, thanks to the attention brought by CCD, the ranks of new beekeepers have swelled to the point that beekeeping schools have had to turn applicants away and beekeeping suppliers have run short of both gear and bees. “There is a tremendous increase in the sale of beekeeping equipment,” says Steve Forrest, owner of Brushy Mountain Bee Farm in North Carolina, one of the country’s leading suppliers. “It’s just staggering.” But that’s a good problem to have. It means that bees have regained a place in our collective psyche that they haven’t occupied for generations. They are no longer icky insects to be feared for their stingers (most stinging is done by yellow jackets) and are, once again, our ancient partners in the practice of growing good food.

You could take Bee Movie as a sign that we’re starting to appreciate bees, but that movie didn’t even get the gender right. Sorry, Jerry, but 99 percent of the bees in a hive—and all of the workers—are female. One sign that we are on the right track came when Häagen-Dazs announced that because 40 percent of its ice cream flavors wouldn’t exist without bees it was donating $250,000 to honeybee research and launching a new flavor, Vanilla Honey Bee, to support the cause. The Almond Board of California, too, has been extremely supportive. When the other fruit, nut and vegetable companies are ready to pony up, we’ll know we’re on the road to ensuring the fertility of our farms and fields.

In the end, Ed Olson managed to save his almond farmer from ruin. He desperately called his beekeeper friends and finally found one who had a few dozen hives that weren’t spoken for. Olson trucked these hives into the almond orchard. A stretch of warm, sunny weather arrived just in time, the bees flew all day every day, and the grower managed to set a record crop. The story was the same throughout the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys: the weather saved the almonds. There probably hadn’t been enough bees to cover the need, but perfect conditions gave the available bees extra flying hours and they managed to pollinate all the trees.

As the pollination starts this spring, beekeepers and almond growers alike are holding their collective breath. They know that all it will take is a good storm or two to upset the balance and break the sweet deal.

Rowan Jacobsen is the author of A Geography of Oysters (Bloomsbury USA, 2007), a 2008 James Beard Award winner, and Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis (Bloomsbury USA, 2008).

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