Contributor: Claire Kelloway
It’s a fact, businesses need bees. Today, more than two-thirds of all agricultural plants require pollination. Honeybees and other insects provide an estimated $17-$26 billion each year in pollination services, not including all the other economic contributions bees make to the economy like honey, beeswax, and pollen.
Yet while the amount of American crop acreage requiring pollination has nearly doubled, the U.S. now manages fewer honey bee colonies than any other time in the last 50 years – and the few colonies that remain are in crisis. On average, for the past decade, colonies lose 30% of their hives each winter. Pollinator experts say we are at a tipping point, and should these large yearly losses continue, bees and all they provide will be in serious jeopardy.
Many culprits are to blame for these massive bee die-offs. From mites and disease, to pesticides and flowerless landscapes, pollinator populations are stressed from all sides, and climate change only compounds these issues.
Recently, I spoke with Sarah Red-Laird, a member of the Northwest Farmer’s Union, the regional chapter of a national alliance advocating for the economic and social well-being of family farmers, ranchers, fishermen and their communities. She is also a beekeeper and founder of BeeGirl.org and shared with me the ways climate change impacts the already fragile honeybee. Within her hives, Sarah sees climate disruption first-hand. Uncharacteristic winter heat waves disorient her bees, making them “think spring is arriving early, and … [leave] the hive in search of additional food.” The bees then waste their energy and eat their honey insulation, when they should be stocking up and staying warm to survive winter.
Hot and dry summers also create a shortage of flowers and bee forage, and extreme heat stresses the brood chamber where baby bees develop. This past season, Sarah closely monitored how much honey she took from her bees and compensated for the lack of nectar and pollen by making homemade sugar syrup, honey, and herb mixtures.
Sarah says “the burden is on the back of the beekeepers to have the number of bees we need to provide pollination services and give us a honey crop … at this point I’m very worried about my fellow beekeepers and the longevity of our industry.”
In response to those who say we can invent mechanical pollination or develop self-pollinating plants (as many fruit and nut growers are already trying in California), she says “it makes me sad thinking that we are currently living in a world that wants to engineer our way around nature, and away from pollinators. Pollinators do such an amazing job for us, virtually free.”
Sarah is inspired by tactics that promote healthy pollinators, like cover cropping with plants that attract beneficial insects. She knows a potato farmer in Colorado who “has been able to save so much money on pesticides from attracting beneficial pollinators and insects … he has increased the quality of his product, saved hundreds of dollars per acre, and also created a job for a local beekeeper to come and make honey from these beneficial pollinator strips, which are basically just flower strips.”
Sarah also notes “even the [crops] that don’t necessarily need pollination still get better yield if there are pollinators present, so having pollinators … is something that needs to be in the forefront of the conversation as professional agriculturalists move forward.”
It is clear, protecting pollinators and combating climate change produces compound benefits for the economy and the Earth. Plus, our new economy needs to reorient around practices that better protect biodiversity and break reliance on fossil fuels. For the bee’s sake and our own.
“Anybody that works in agriculture, anybody that eats food, is directly dependent upon honeybees and other pollinators,” says Sarah. “We need to remind people how extraordinary these little creature are and how weak the world would be without them.”