Bees. They’re those pesky summer insects you ran away from as a kid.
They’re those pesky summer insects that I often times still run away from.
And yet…. we need them. It’s a natural catch-22.
If you want fruits, vegetables, and wheat in your diet then you also want honey bees to exist. In fact, if you want to exist in general, you probably want honey bees to exist. One-third of the of the food we eat— close to 70 out of the 100 most used crops in the United States—are all pollinated by bees. To approach this impact from an economic standpoint, that’s around 16 billion dollars worth of crops annually.
These tiny little furry insects alone uphold over half of the agriculture we consume; now the whole industry, and billions of dollars, are at risk due to an unknown assailant on bee populations. A problem called Colony Collapse Disorder (commonly known as CCD) is plaguing our agricultural economy, creating a 30% decrease in bee populations annually. Thousands upon thousands of bees disappear or die of illness in a matter of days.
Just as the population of predatory animals signifies a healthy and sustainable environment (i.e. indicator species), the presence of healthy bees signify a sustainable form of agriculture. CCD then, along with a multitude of other problems facing our agriculture industry, is perhaps pointing out that our current production methods of crops and food…. are not sustainable.
I recently took a brief adventure to meet with some local bee keepers ranging from large commercial companies to local holistic farmers. I remember sitting in my white suit on a hill, watching as the bees wrestled around me, bustling from flower to flower, their furry bodies covered in bright yellow dust. Despite my distaste for insects, it was a fascinating thing to observe.
The commercial farms, normally holding hundreds of colonies, often take to the road during pollination season, massing the colonies on trucks and driving them all across America to pollinate different sets of mass crops. The holistic farmers, on the other hand, pollinate locally, using the bees on their own crops before transporting a small number of colonies to neighboring farms.
Unsurprisingly, the holistic bee keepers reported far less outbreaks of CCD than the commercial keepers.
While scientists are still trying to determine a direct cause of CCD, there are many links to what could cause it. The first problem the commercial bee keepers face is mass transportation, which puts a substantial amount of stress on the bees and compromises their immune systems. On top of that, the use of systemic pesticides on mass crop production (used to KILL insects) also weigh on the bee’s immune system. The commercial bees also often get fed high fructose corn syrup rather than their own honey.
What’s even crazier is that some scientists and companies are trying to genetically modify colonies (we’ve seen this before in growth hormones, etc.). Sometimes bee keepers will introduce a genetically modified queen into a colony in order to adapt the bee colony for a certain specialization (i.e. honey production); the queen must stay in small cage for a period of time so the colony doesn’t kill her as they adjust to her presence.
This isn’t to say that commercial bee keepers are evil; we need mass bee keeping to sustain mass agriculture. In fact, the business of many commercial bee keepers suffers from CCD. Though they work hard to keep their colonies clean, it can be hard when you are forced to pollinate crops coated in something meant to kill what’s pollinating it.
Despite their small size, honey bees make one of the largest ecological impacts on our earth. In terms of the connection of life and eco-systems, it’s always the little ones that keep things connected. And it’s always the little ones that we over look. In a strange way our lives are connected with theirs.
So how do we change this? What methods can we approach when there are so many mouths to feed and so much food necessary to satisfy a nation based around consumerism? While the solution may start on farms, it also leads into cities—creating patches of land and gardens near our homes and buildings that encourage and nourish wildlife (yay, flowers!). Also, supporting local bee keepers and farmers–while this can at times be more expensive, the more we support it, the less expensive it will become. Contrary to popular belief, it is entirely possible to vote morally with your wallet.
Also, local honey tastes absolutely amazing. So there’s that.