Pollination Nation? Bee decline makes crops suffer

By Breanna Hayes

bees
Photo: Rebecca Leaman via Flickr

Fear surrounds our collective image of bees. Media reinforces the notion that these insects are more ‘killer’ bee than honeybee. If you’ve ever seen the 90s movie “My Girl,” you were no doubt devastated when McCauley Culkin dies of anaphylaxis from a bee sting. Maybe you also thought the next time you got stung by a bee, you would die too.

Perhaps you saw the final season 3 episode of “Black Mirror” (on Netflix – highly recommend). “Black Mirror” too preys upon our fears, depicting a swarm of robo-bees controlled by a killer hive mind-linked to social media networks.

A startling reality is robotic bees are not so farfetched. Scientists are researching how to create mechanized pollinators in the wake of pollinator decline. And Walmart has had a patent pending for pollination drones since March of this year. If you’ve never heard the term “pollinator,” it generally refers to the multitude of bugs, insects, birds, bats and rodents that aid in the transfer of pollen to fertilize plants. Only fertilized plants will reproduce and bear fruit or seeds, making pollinators the essential messengers of love. Pollinator populations across the board have dwindled due to climate change and environmental stressors such as habitat loss, pesticides (particularly neonicotinoids), monocultures, parasites, and diseases.

The practice of renting hives of honeybees to pollinate cropland has become a tremendous source of agricultural revenue. Migratory beekeepers travel across the country with their bee hives piled on truck beds to assist in pollination, often because there are not enough local pollinators to produce a significant crop yield for farmers. The agricultural practice of migratory pollination is a win-win for beekeeper and crop grower: beekeepers get a nectar source for bees to feed on (which the bees will turn into honey for the beekeeper to sell) and the farmer benefits from higher crop yields since more plants are fertilized by these tiny cupids.

The biggest cash crops in California today are the vast swaths of almond orchards. To give you an idea about the cost of pollination, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported almost 1.5 million bee hives were used to pollinate almonds, amounting to just under $253 million for almonds alone. This may explain the motivation for Walmart getting its foot in the door of the pollination industry. Many commercial beekeepers (beekeepers with an operation of five or more hives) have moved to pollination as the primary contributor to their livelihoods, instead of relying solely on honey sales.

Pollinator decline is a worldwide phenomenon affecting agricultural practices on a global scale. Farmers in China since the 1980s have resorted to hiring people to hand-pollinate apples and pears because of nearly eradicated honeybee populations. A short video shows the pain-staking process of manually cross-pollinating each blossom of a fruit tree in the Sichuan province of China.

Bees are important to protect, not just for their own sake but also to protect our own food supply — one of every three bites of all food eaten worldwide depends on pollinators like bees, the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies reported in 2013. The plight of the honeybee has been widely shared, but we must focus our efforts on the decline of all native pollinators. So, befriend a pollinator (it’s okay if you’re more partial to butterflies) or beekeeper, buy local honey, plant some flowers, apply pesticides only after sunset, and/or donate resources if you have the time and money to do so. Together, perhaps we can prevent at least this episode of “Black Mirror” from coming true.

Honeybee Facts

     Only female bees have stingers

          A bee sting is generally lethal to the bee itself

          Statistically speaking, you’re more likely to die from choking on your food than from being stung by a bee

          Bees swarm to stimulate colony growth, not to chase humans

          Bees dance to communicate to other bees where and how far that delicious nectar is

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