Beauty And The Bees

July, 2010
By Sarah Schmidt, World Ark Contributor

A yellow-faced bumble bee approaches a tomato flower. World Ark

A yellow-faced bumble bee approaches a tomato flower. World Ark

On the Omeg family’s Oregon cherry orchard, a 10-foot perimeter of goldenrod, catmint and blanket flower surrounds the 350 acres of trees. The flowers run between the rows, too, and in one section of the orchard, four 30-foot diameter circular patches sport a host of native prairie grasses that produce flowers of their own. It’s a lovely display, but Mike Omeg, the fifth-generation family member who now runs the orchard, didn’t work untold hours over the past three years just to make his farm prettier. The flowers host several species of bumblebee, orchard mason bees, and sweat bees, as well as monarch and swallowtail butterflies, all of which are, well, busy as bees, as they fly from blossom to blossom doing what they’re uniquely qualified for—pollinating food crops.

Four years after scientists first noticed that a mysterious insect plague known as colony collapse disorder was wiping out honeybees around the globe, the exact cause has yet to be determined. In the meantime, many small and midsize farms aren’t waiting to hear the solution to the whodunit. Instead they’re enlisting more bees to pollinate their crops by luring them in with food, water and custom-made habitat, thanks in part to incentives in the latest U.S. farm bill. Though just a handful of farms have begun to put such methods to the test, their success could be an important component to averting a pollination crisis—and increasing food security worldwide.

The dramatic drop in the world bee population isn’t just about honey. In fact, about one-third of all food crops worldwide depend on insect pollination. Everything from almonds to apples to cucumbers to soybeans—$15 billion worth in the United States alone, according to the latest Department of Agriculture estimates—are at risk. And while scientists are still working intently to pinpoint the causes of the mysterious syndrome, annual honeybee losses continue to hover around an alarming 30 percent. “We have just enough bees right now, but we’re near the tipping point,” said Marla Spivak, entomologist and professor of apiculture at the University of Minnesota. “We rely on pollination for so many crops—the impact could be severe.”

VANISHING HABITAT

Ever since people first began to cultivate food crops, bees and butterflies have been pollinating many of them. And until very recently, the job was done efficiently and free of charge by whatever pollinating insects were native to the area. “When our landscape was more diverse, pollinators had plenty of varied habitat,” explained Eric Mader, national pollination coordinator of the Xerces Society, a nonprofit devoted to invertebrate conservation. In the past, a wider variety of wildflowers, trees, and grasses bloomed at different times of year and provided a steady stream of pollen and nectar for wild bees. Farms also provided food and shelter, since most rotated food and cover crops like clover.

Mike Omeg's cherry trees burst into bloom at his orchard in Oregon. World Ark

Mike Omeg's cherry trees burst into bloom at his orchard in Oregon. World Ark

But the landscape of most industrialized countries—and, increasingly, developing ones—has changed drastically over the past 50 years.

Small family farms with several different crops have largely given way to large, single-crop fields, and pesticide use has increased dramatically. At the same time, undeveloped natural areas that might have harbored wild bees are shrinking or disappearing. Also, there’s the double whammy of pesticides. Insecticides aimed at wiping out harmful insects can often do the same to bees. Even small exposures can put severe stress on their immune systems, leaving them vulnerable to diseases. “And then you have the herbicides that are killing the weeds, but turns out that bees need weeds for food,” said May Berenbaum, entomologist at the University of Illinois.

The beekeeping business has also been changing. Before World War II, there were about half a million colonies of managed honeybees in the United States. They were raised not only for their honey, but also for wax, which was widely used for everything from candles to the waterproof coating on raincoats for the U.S. military. Though they were fed and housed by beekeepers, they also helped themselves to the nectar and pollen from surrounding plants. “Back then, a beekeeper might pay a farmer a small rental fee to keep them on his land, or maybe just let them loose in a natural area,” said Kim Flottum, editor of the trade journal Bee Culture and a beekeeper himself.

But in the 1950s, the United States started to import cane sugar. Petroleum products began to replace beeswax. Changes in trade policies caused the price of imported Chinese honey to drop to competitive levels. As a result, demand for U.S. honey fell dramatically and now supports only about half as many managed colonies. At the same time, the number of acres devoted to pollination-dependant crops doubled in the United States. “So now we have about half the bees and twice the work,” Mader said. And of course this is on top of the decline in wild bees.

As a result, farmers must now pay beekeepers to deliver colonies to their fields for pollination services during the crucial window when their crops are in bloom. Such services are in high demand—instead of a beekeeper paying a farmer, U.S. growers are now paying up to $130 per colony for honeybee rental for some crops, a fourfold increase in the past few years, Flottum said. In Western Europe and most of the developing world, native pollinator declines have also led farmers to rely on honeybee rentals.

STRANGE, SCARY PHENOMENON

It wasn’t until 2006 that two things brought the plight of bees to light—the emergence of colony collapse disorder (CCD) and a report from the National Research Council on the decline of North American wild and domestic pollinators. The council’s report was one of the first sources to document major losses of domesticated bees and reveal evidence of dramatic declines of wild ones. It warned of impending agricultural consequences. That same year, beekeepers across the U.S. began to see a strange, scary phenomenon in their hives. Entire colonies of adult bees would vanish without a trace, leaving the queen and young brood behind. “There have always been lots of things that kill bees—mites or disease, for example. But then you usually see dead bees. With true CCD, they’d just disappear,” Flottum said. That year, and most years since, the Apiary Inspectors of America’s annual census has been documenting losses of around 30 percent each year, where 15 percent used to be the norm.

On a central California farm, bees pollinate apple blossoms. World  Ark

On a central California farm, bees pollinate apple blossoms. World Ark

Beekeepers in the United Kingdom and Europe have been losing about 30 percent of their colonies annually for the last several years, and while less data is available in the developing world, anecdotal evidence points to problems. In Argentina and Chile, the beekeeping business is on the verge of collapse due to colony losses. In China, the problem is so severe that practically all of the bees in the country’s apple- and pear-growing regions have been wiped out. As a result, Chinese workers must pollinate by hand, climbing ladders and dipping Q-tip-like tools made of bamboo shoots and chicken feathers into every blossom, according to a report from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. In Brazil, too, where large, mono-crop farms are becoming increasingly common, passion fruit crops are now pollinated by hand.

MORE THAN ONE CAUSE

In North America, entomologists are still zeroing in on the exact causes behind colony collapse disorder, but almost everyone agrees that a perfect storm of factors is responsible. “Not only do you have habitat degradation, but you have globalization, which allows imported bees to bring diseases in more readily, and then of course [you have] pesticides,” said Berenbaum, whose research pinpointed one of the specific viruses involved. But no matter what’s behind colony collapse disorder, the important lesson to be learned may be that our current environment is simply leaving bees too vulnerable. “It’s like this,” explained Flottum. “If you’re healthy and you walk into an elevator and someone sneezes, you probably won’t get sick. But if you haven’t been eating well, you’ve been stressed, overworked, in crowded conditions for weeks or months, breathing in chemicals, and you walk into that same elevator and someone sneezes, well, you probably will.” Most experts agree that the key to avoiding the next pollination crisis will be to make the world a better place for bees in general.

That’s where strategies such as Oregon orchardist Mike Omeg’s pollinator habitat idea come in. “We can’t put the genie back in the bottle, but we can integrate some of the best practices from the past into what we’ve learned about the future,” said Claire Kremen, a conservation biologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Kremen is one of a small cadre of pollination experts who have researched ways to bolster native bees.

Recently, the Xerces Society, using studies from Kremen and other pollination specialists, developed a program to teach farmers how to incorporate patches of bee and butterfly habitat into cropland and the surrounding areas. Xerces enlisted a range of different fruit and vegetable growers—cherry farmers like Omeg in Oregon, apple producers in Kentucky, sunflower and tomato growers in California, organic vegetable farmers in Wisconsin—to participate. Some states and universities have launched similar local programs. All together, 10,000 acres of U.S. farmland are on board via Xerces, and the results of the project’s findings could point the way for many more.

The idea is simple: rehabilitate a small portion of farmland so that it closely resembles the wild natural areas that once hosted bees and other beneficial insects. Yet the implementation can be tricky. Omeg, for example, who has a master’s degree in entomology, had tried years ago to create a similar habitat plan of his own to little avail.

HELP FOR FARMERS

Motivated by both colony collapse disorder and the 2006 National Research Council findings, the Xerces Society culled existing research on pollinators and produced detailed guidelines for farmers in several different states, which the group has promoted since 2007. The plan picked up momentum last year after a portion of funding from the 2008 U.S. Farm Bill helped reimburse farmers for startup costs. Mader and other scientists from the group also visit farms to make specific recommendations based on climate, geography and existing growth.

“Eric [Mader] came out on a cold day last winter and walked around the farm with me. Then we sat around the kitchen table and came up with a plan,” said Deirdre Birmingham, who farms 60 acres of organic cider apples in Wisconsin. With Mader’s help, she decided to plant spruce trees and barberry shrubs as a windbreak, both of which provide habitat for bees. “This was something I was going to have to do anyway, so now I’m just getting more bang for my buck, and it doesn’t cut into my acreage at all,” Birmingham said. She also planted a small prairie of Indian grass and little bluestem, as well as wildflowers like purple coneflower, evening primrose, goldenrod, and brown-eyed Susans. The prairie attracts mason bees and other wild bees and provides nectar and pollen for the four hives of honeybees Birmingham and her husband raise.

A bumble bee visits a hyssop flower. World Ark

A bumble bee visits a hyssop flower. World Ark

Another major benefit is that such habitat also attracts beneficial insects that are natural predators to pests. “I haven’t had to treat for cabbage worms in five years,” said Harriet Behar, an organic vegetable farmer also in Wisconsin. Behar’s 300-acre farm includes a 10-acre meadow that she is working to rehabilitate with help from the Xerces Society and a state agency devoted to sustainable farming. She’s noticed better yields in the areas near the meadow and has seen plenty of new wild bees and beneficial insects buzzing around on her farm.

She also uses other tactics, like rotating her food crops with clover, to make her farm bee-friendly. “When you have a diverse ecosystem like this, you might get problem insects for a short time, but then you have an army of beneficials ready to attack and eat them,” explained Behar, who attributed her lack of cabbage worms to the parasitic wasps living in the meadow. And though organic farms may have the most interest in chemical-free pest control, conventional farms also stand to benefit, too. “A lot of the farmers interested in doing this are organic or otherwise embracing sustainable agriculture, but we’re also just attracting those paying a lot to rent honeybees,” Mader said.

Of course the success of the program will come down to the bottom line—and that’s yet to be determined. Kremen’s research shows that farms with 30 percent of land devoted to natural habitat won’t need to rent bees. But anecdotally, farmers report noticeable benefits with a lot less land set aside. Xerces will gather data from participating farms over the next several growing seasons and present cost-benefit guidelines soon after. Some farmers are eager to invest immediately. “Honestly, I haven’t priced it out yet, but once it’s established, there aren’t a lot of ongoing costs,” Birmingham said of her two-year-old prairie.

Proponents stress that this approach is likely only a part of what’s needed to restore the world’s pollinators to safe levels—but it may be that it’s the part that’s been missing so far. “Ultimately, what we need to do is think about how to change farming itself, and we’ll need a range of strategies to do it,” Kremen said. Other approaches have also found some success: Improved nutrition and more aggressive parasite and disease management have also done some good. In Europe, aggressive pesticide management has been the primary strategy, with Germany and France banning certain pesticides and Spain and the United Kingdom expected to follow.

A positive side effect of colony collapse disorder is the increase in international discussion on the best ways to improve the environment to counter the global pollination crisis, Flottum said. “Research support had really dwindled over the years,” he said. But headlines about the disorder motivated scientists to investigate causes and solutions. And farmers are beginning to see, from a bee’s perspective, the beauty in a diverse and colorful landscape. “All of this attention can only be good for everyone.”

Sarah Schmidt is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, OnEarth and Plenty.

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