Say “No!” to Agricultural Deserts

August 15, 2013

Beekeepers often develop personal attachments to their hives and can lose themselves in the Zen of beekeeping. While some beekeepers have naturally calm personalities, others—like myself—have acquired a sense of serenity when dealing with the buzz of 80,000 thousands insects out of necessity. Honey bees respond positively to a peaceful atmosphere—if I am relaxed and not stressed, so are they. So, it’s often easy to forget that it is the very nature of the honey bee that makes it so valuable. Throughout history humans have benefited from their ability to manage these social insects. As a social insect, the honey bee meets the three strict criteria of the definition, which is extremely rare in the animal kingdom:

·      Not every honey bee reproduces equally (i.e., queen and worker bees)

·      Honey bees participate in shared brood-care

·      Multiple generations of honey bees live cooperatively together

Beginning in the mid 20th century, the ability to transport mass quantities of bees to and from various destinations have allowed for the pollination of vast expanses of commercial crops such as almonds, apples and blueberries. Today, more than 80 crops depend upon bee pollination or in other words, about one-third of what you and I eat involves a bee pollination event. Without the increases in crop yield brought about through commercial honey bee pollination, food prices would increase, US agriculture would become less competitive globally, and the safety and diversity of our food supply would decrease. Furthermore, due to their populous nature and wide foraging range honey bees, along with other pollinators, ensure that nearly 70% of all flowering plants reproduce. The fruits and seeds resulting from insect pollination constitute the majority of the diet of one-fourth of all birds and mammals on earth.

Unfortunately, there are a multitude of complex challenges to maintaining healthy working bee populations. These include many of the modern farming practices embraced by large-scale commercial operations including:

·      Border-to-border farming

·      Exposure to pesticides

·      Herbicide damage to forage

·      Changes in crop rotations and harvest practices

These practices often result in what is called an “agricultural desert”—acres and acres of cultivated land lacking in biodiversity or any stretches of natural habitat that support a variety of native species, including pollinators.

When thousands of hives are set up to work a particular crop, these high-density workspaces can predispose the honey bees to more diseases and other pests. In addition, habitat degradation and the loss of forage space due to urban sprawl and rural area development, reclamation and consolidation have had negative effects not only on the health and sustainability of commercial honey bees, but also their wild cousins.

It is vitally important to reverse the impact of these “agricultural deserts” through better pesticide practices, conservation, and habitat programs in order to ensure that there will be healthy pollinators available for performing critical crop pollination. By allowing for the existence of unmanaged borders (areas where native species and weeds can grow) around their fields, farmers can consistently produce more crops on an annual basis than if they were to plant their crops from one edge of their field to the other edge. Moreover, recent studies have suggested that if a farmer plants only 70% of their land and leaves the remaining 30% of their fields fallow, they would make more money than if they had planted all of it. Their increased crop yield would largely be the result of honey bee pollination. If we can connect more closely with the ecosystem and provide a nurturing environment for honey bees—it actually makes economic sense for farmers to plant less, because in the end they would end up with more (and I’m not just talking about crop yield and profits). Sometimes it really does pay to do the right thing.


Blog image:  Almond fields in California