I remember growing up, hearing about “The Birds and the Bees” in hushed, embarrassed tones. I confess: I actually thought at some point, my parents were going to offer some new and startling wisdom about birds and bees that was critical to my well-being. Well, that never happened. So, this Earth Day, in honor of the bees – who never really seem to get their due – I’m offering an appreciation and some food for thought for those of you who just might take bees for granted.
First and foremost, one-third of our nation’s food supply depends on pollination, where pollen from the male part of the plant is transferred to the female part of the plant, triggering fertilization and producing a precious fruit or vegetable. According to the U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, more than 130 fruits and vegetables in the American food supply depend on honeybees to make this magic happen. Everything from almonds, to avocados, to apples require cross pollination. Secretary Vilsack says, “Honey bee pollination supplies an estimated $15 billion worth of agricultural production.” If you consider yourself more of a carnivore, cows eat alfalfa hay, which – you guessed it – requires bees for pollination. So it really is a “food chain” chain reaction: If you drink milk and eat beef, somewhere along the line you have the bees to thank for the bounty.
It’s not easy being a bee, or a beekeeper, for that matter. The native honey bee population has taken a beating: pesticides, fungicides, and lack of forage all resulting in drastic declines. As a result, farmers have relied on commercial beekeepers, and their traveling hives, to pollinate their crops. This annual ritual starts in February with the California almond crop, the nation’s most profitable. Once that’s wrapped up, the hives are hauled cross-country and move up the East Coast, pollinating peaches in Georgia, cucumbers in North Carolina, and blueberries from New Jersey to Maine. Some of the commercial beekeepers head north to Washington State after California to pollinate the apple crop then head out to Michigan to tackle the cherry crop.
This year, beekeepers were dealt another devastating blow at the start of their pollination season; 80-thousand colonies were damaged in California after crops were sprayed with a pesticide/fungicide cocktail. Many adult bees were found dead or dying. This rocked the beekeeping world because what happens in California will impact pollination for many of the nation’s cash crops, and ultimately drive up produce prices across the country. To learn more about the highs and lows of beekeeping you can listen to this interview with Ted Jones from Jones’ Apiaries in Farmington, Connecticut.
The federal government is becoming increasingly more aware of the fragility of the honeybee, announcing a new $3-million initiative to help support the honeybee population in in the Upper Midwest. The program’s goal is to encourage farmers to grow alfalfa, clover, and other crops that bees can forage.
There’s also a massive 5-year study underway in the Northeast to determine the impact pesticide use has on crop yields. Researchers are currently studying the apple crop in New York state, cranberries in Massachusetts, blueberries in Maine, and squash and pumpkins in Connecticut. The ultimate goal is that the data from this research will help solve the mystery of Colony Collapse Disorder, the phenomenon where 10-million honeybees have vanished from their hives since 2006. To see more on the Connecticut study, you can watch this Treading Lightly segment I produced for CPTV’s All Things Connecticut.