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.

One day early last spring, Ed Olson’s life got much harder. A few weeks earlier, Olson, a commercial beekeeper, had delivered 200 of his 500 hives of honeybees to an almond orchard in Arbuckle, California. There, the honeybees would do their part buzzing up and down rows of fragrant, flowering trees, helping to make California’s Central Valley the almond capital of the universe. Like more than 100 of our food crops, almond trees will set fruit only if their flowers are cross-pollinated between two different varieties. Like tiny farmworkers, honeybees carry the pollen from one tree to another as they forage. Corn, wheat, rice and other grains rely on wind to spread their pollen. But honeybees pollinate much of the other stuff that adds color to our plate and vitamins and antioxidants to our diet. They give us blueberries, apples, berries, cherries, melons, grapefruit, avocados, squash, broccoli, carrots, onions, and more. If it lowers cholesterol, improves eyesight or turbocharges the immune system, it was probably fertilized by a bee. A surprising amount of our well-being rests on those tiny striped backs—and on the beekeepers who haul 2 million hives from crop to crop every year, renting them out for pollination.

When Olson had checked the Arbuckle hives the previous fall, they had been some of his strongest. The more bees in a hive, the more pollinating power it has and the more a farmer will pay to lease it. But now, as Olson, with the lanky frame and graying mustache of an Old West gunslinger, approached the first group of 24 colonies, he sensed something was off right away. There weren’t many bees flying. It was a shimmering spring day in northern California and sunshine was glazing the soft pink rows of budding almond trees: perfect flying weather for a honeybee. Olson cracked open the top of the first hive, looked inside, and immediately his stomach sank with disappointment: no bees. It was a “dink”—the beekeeping term for a colony that has died or dwindled. Just like that, he was out $200, the pollination fee for a strong hive.

Every commercial beekeeper finds a few dinks each spring, and Olson hoped this first hive had been an anomaly. Then he opened the second hive and felt a little ill. Another dink. Then he opened the third and fourth and cursed to himself. By the time he had opened all 24 colonies, he was in shock. There was plenty of honey in the hives, but the strong colonies that had filled those boxes two months earlier had dwindled to almost nothing. In 25 years of professional beekeeping, he’d never seen anything like it.

By anyone’s standards, Ed Olson is an excellent beekeeper (but he asked that his real name not be used). He feeds his bees specially formulated, high-protein patties to keep their strength up and carefully monitors his hives for the presence of diseases or parasites. He does everything right. Yet it seemed he had just been hit with the mysterious syndrome called Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD. In the winter of 2006-2007, CCD killed 32 percent of America’s honeybees. The next winter, another 36 percent—more than a million hives—died.

“At first I was in denial,” Olson recalled. “Then I just felt weak and had to lean against my truck. A year’s hard work for naught!” Olson wound up losing all 50 hives that had overwintered in one particular bee yard. That’s bad enough, but it pales next to some operations. Adee Honey Farms of South Dakota, the largest beekeeping business in the country, lost 28,000 of its 70,000 hives. That’s about a billion bees gone missing. “It’s off the charts,” said Bret Adee. “It’s not a sustainable thing, what’s happening now.”

At first it looked as though the United States was the sole sufferer of CCD, but the rest of the world quickly reported losses also. “The situation for bees in Europe is no better than for bees in North America,” says Bernard Vaissière, a pollination specialist with the French National Institute for Agricultural Research. A report issued last August by the European Food Safety Authority estimates that the UK lost about 30 percent of its honeybees in 2007, while Italy lost 40 to 50 percent. Whatever is taking down bees has gone global.

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