Pie without pumpkins, mornings without coffee, and well, honey without honey. With almost three-quarters of the world’s food crops depending on pollination to produce—life without bees wouldn’t only be less sweet—life wouldn’t be.
Pollination has an important role to play in the food we eat. It improves shelf life and food quality and results in more flavourful, attractive produce. We have all seen our fair share of misshapen fruits and vegetables: carrots with three legs, doubled-headed strawberries and other “ugly”, but nutritious, staples. “Ugly food” is likely the result of inadequate pollination that stops the seed from developing properly.
But bees do more than just make our food good enough to eat. Farmers depend on them for the success of their business. As crop pollinators, bees increase yields by a median of 24 per cent and increase crop value by $15 billion each year in the US alone. Bees are essential to our food system with 87 of the world’s leading crops requiring pollination, making their contribution to agriculture a necessity for global food security.
Remember the last time you were stung by a bee? If it seems like a lifetime ago, you are not alone. Bees have been on a steep decline since 2006 when beekeepers reported that an abnormal number of hives were left abandoned in what soon became known as colony collapse disorder.
Colony collapse disorder (CCD) is an unusual phenomenon that occurs when most of the worker bees disappear from the colony, leaving behind a queen, plenty of food and a few nurse bees to care for the remaining immature bees and the queen. When it was first recognized, beekeepers recorded unusually high losses of 30 to 90 percent of their hives and they continue to lose up to 45 percent of their hives every winter. The phenomenon has long baffled scientists and while there have been many theories, leading researchers are now focused on a few factors.
Pesticides are one of the main culprits, especially those used in commercial agriculture. Studies have shown that pesticides can be found in trace amounts on pollen grains which bees then bring back to their hives for food, which can be deadly when consumed over time. Pesticides can also alter their foraging behavior, weaken their immune systems, impact larval development and even interfere with their communication, which is reliant on chemical and physical signals.
Monoculture farming is a controversial, yet common, farming practice where the same type of crop is repeatedly grown on the same land year-after-year. This provides bees with just one type of pollen for a prolonged period of time, resulting in malnourishment, and requires higher pesticide use, higher fertilizer use and decreased soil health.
Change or loss of habitat is another prime factor in decreasing bee populations. Without their natural environment or food to forage, the hive is left without adequate resources to maintain a population.
Bees are more susceptible to viral andbacterial diseases when their immune systems are weakened. Some common diseases include Varroatosis, Small hive beetle, Tropilaelapsosis and American foulbrood.
Parasites, like the Varroa destructor, are an invasive pest and a major threat to bees. As the name entails, the Varroa destructor is incredibly dangerous and often infects the bees before they reach adulthood.
So, with our global food system at stake, how can we protect and support pollinators?
Farmers understand the untapped value of pollinators and are turning to climate-friendly regenerative agriculture practices to bring back bees. And many have been using regenerative practices for years in order to boost profits by making their soil healthier and more productive with each growing season.
Regenerative agriculture is a set of farming practices that treats farms as an entire ecosystem and places a strong focus on improving soil health. The movement encourages no-tillage, reduced pesticide use, cover crops, crop rotation, composting, higher quality floral sources and more.
Farmers who are embracing these practices are seeing more than just a return of bees. In fact, farmers in Saskatchewan have reported that the transition to regenerative practices has brought a higher bee population, greater profits and increased efficiency. Here are four regenerative ways farmers are bringing back bees:
Attracting pollinators can be as simple as planting flowering plants such as red clover, phacelia and sunflowers near fields. Canadian farmers have attributed the recovery of bee populations to bee-friendly-blooms.
Many farmers are turning to integrated pest management to control pests in an effective, economical and environmentally sound way. They do this by placing more importance on preventing pests and understanding how to identify and monitor both pests and beneficial organisms, to decide on the best combination of strategies for control. This concept evolved in response to problems caused by an over-reliance on chemical pesticides and focuses on reducing pesticide use and where needed, applying products at the lowest effective label rate.
Variety is the spice of life and a necessity when it comes to balancing a bee’s diet. In addition to the benefit for bees, regenerative farmers plant a mixture of different crops that bloom at different times and grow at different rates to improve soil health by replenishing the nutrients and bacteria necessary for the fertile soil.
Plant cover crops, flowering cover crops
Cover crops improve soil structure, protect water and can even help attract crop pollinators, if you choose flowering cover crops. There are many cover crops available to growers so be sure to research and use the right one for your crop rotation.
Tillage is not only a ‘no no’ for soil health, it also removes habitable land for ground nesting bees. Farmers will benefit from better soil health and an increase in bee populations by leaving areas of grass or bare soil un-tilled.
Without bees, our plates would be empty, our grocery stores bare and our global food system would cease to exist—but it’s not too late to support and protect pollinators. Now is the time to re-think how we relate to nature and pollinators and what actions we can take to support these tiny hard workers and the millions of livelihoods they, in turn, support.
We have the opportunity to bring back bees by making our homes more bee-friendly, being a conscientious consumer and championing regenerative practices in agriculture that will save bees and increase food security.
Happy World Bee Day!