Sunday, May 11, 2014

Honeybee Crisis and its Impact on Our Food Supply

By Kristen Andrada

When bees forage from flower to flower, they carry pollen with them on their fuzzy little bodies, enabling flowers to reproduce. Because honeybees are found worldwide, they help the reproduction of many fruits and flowers. Honeybees have become commercialized not only for the honey they produce but for their role in pollinating crops on agricultural sites. Our food derives from the plants that are pollinated from pollinators like honey bees.

Albert Einstein once said, “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”

Honeybee Survival

All living things are bound to contract some sort of illness, including honeybees. There are many common bee diseases to get if a hive is not thoroughly inspected and taken care of. Generally, hives are most susceptible to diseases when they are stressed: from drastic weather patterns to malnutrition to pesticides, invading pests within the hive, etc. Recently, an emerging disease that scientists are extensively looking into is Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). The symptoms of this disease are: (1) the rapid loss of worker bees; (2) a noticeable lack of dead bees both within or surrounding the hive; and (3) the delayed invasion of hive pests and kelptoparasitism from other hives.

The disease is commonly found in large commercial hives but can be found among hives of any beekeeper; whether they be a small operations beekeeper or a hobbyist; stationary or migratory (most commercial beekeeping truck hives from one farm to another); or even organic beekeepers. Research has shown over sixty-one quantified variables that may contribute to CCD but so far there has been no evidence of a single cause of CCD. The more unfavorable conditions and stress the bees experience, the more vulnerable they are to CCD and other diseases as well.

Our Farms and Bees

Much of the U.S. farms that provide Americans their food are vast, single crop fields that are tilled, seeded, watered, and harvested by large machines - this is what we call agro-industry. We have adopted this type of agricultural system because it requires less labor and yields more product and this massive production in some ways meet the demand of American consumption. However, by creating genetically modified crops to make them bigger and applying pesticides to resist unwanted species, many industrialized nations including the United States have created these short-cuts to input less energy and produce large quantities of low-grade food products that are unhealthier than organic and polyculture derived foods.

At the same time, plenty of these farms depend on honeybees to pollinate their single crop fruits and vegetables. A separate business called migratory beekeeping is what dominates most beekeeping practices in the United States. Starting at the beginning of the season, commercial beekeepers from throughout the country truck their millions of hives to the almond farms in California.

“The Mind Boggling Math of Migratory Beekeeping” illustrates the typical routes American migratory beekeepers take after visiting California’s almonds. In spring beekeepers visit the cherry, plum, and avocado orchards in California and the apple and cherry orchards in Washington. Come summer time and beekeepers head east and spread out to visit the alfalfa, sunflower, and clover fields in the Dakotas, Texas squash farms, Florida’s clementine and tangerine orchards, Wisconsin’s cranberry fields, Michigan and Maine’s blueberry fields, and the East Coast’s apple and cherry orchards, cranberry fields, pumpkin farms, and vegetable plots. Finally when it gets cold in fall, beekeepers head their colonies back to warmer states like California, Texas and Florida. This constant movement has proved to be unhealthy for bees as well as the fact that their food sources are not as diverse to maintain nourishment.

“The Value of Honey Bees as Pollinators of U.S. Crops in 2000” accesses CCD’s impact on the human population: “Although CCD probably will not cause the honeybees to go extinct, it could push many beekeepers out of business. If beekeepers’ skills and know-how become a rarity as a result, then even if CCD is eventually overcome, nearly 100 percent of our crops could be left without pollinators - and a large-scale production of certain crops could become impossible.” We will still have corn, wheat, potatoes and rice - because these crops don’t need pollinators - but a large portion of our fruits and vegetables may become luxury. The decline of the honeybee will affect our lives since a third of our diet come from fruits and vegetables that depend heavily in the honeybee pollination.

Taking Action

While more people are becoming aware of the honeybee, more still needs to be done in order to make changes in our food system. Through the beekeeping, people can learn to appreciate life and nature and this empowers them to take action. People who want to make a difference through advocacy, education, community service, politics, corporate greening, protest, etc. – it is better to take action than to do none. 

“A Field Guide to Honey Bees and Their Maladies:”
“The Mind Boggling Math of Migratory Beekeeping:”
“The Value of Honey Bees As Pollinators of U.S. Crops in 2000:”

Kristen Andrada is President of the Ramapo College Beekeeping Club. She is a Sustainable Living Facilities Student majoring in Environmental Studies and Anthropology.

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