Wednesday, May 27, 2015

What’s the relationship between bees and food?

Image provided by Foxhound Bee Company

Wild blackberry blooms, one small part of a bees diet

Not all flowers need honey bees. The majority of plants can be pollinated by other insects (like the other 20,000 types of bees), butterflies, and birds. The carpenter bees that bore into your deck and the sweat bees clinging to the inside of your elbow are just two types of bees that contribute to the pollination of our food system. Thousands of insects perform the same job as honey bees, but there is no equal to honey bees–they’re the workhorses of the pollination world.

Most types of bees live by themselves or in groups smaller than 10, while a single honey bee colony will contain nearly 70,000 honey bees in mid-summer. A honey bee colony can send out tens of thousands of pollinators every day, creating a huge impact on an area’s food system.

The problem is honey bees can’t survive on a farm that contains only one crop, also known as a monoculture farm. While the one crop may be nutritious, it isn’t the diverse diet a honey bee needs to survive. It’s like going to a grocery store all year, but only buying apples. As nutritious as apples are, you need a variety of nutrients to survive, and they can’t be found in apples alone.

Honey bees can’t survive on a monoculture farm year around, so colonies are moved from farm to farm, transported on semi-trucks elsewhere (and, sadly, sometimes they crash) when the flowers nearby stop blooming. To honey bees, the monoculture farm is the “Land of Milk and Honey” for 2 weeks, then turns into a food desert for the remaining 50 weeks of the year. A death sentence to any colony, unless moved to a more desirable place for bees to forage.

Each year, the Bee Informed Partnership conducts a national survey to help us better understand what management techniques are helping and hurting our bees. To give you an idea of the percentage of bees being trucked around the country, this is the ratio from 2014:

3% of beekeepers (about 200) in the US are migratory beekeepers

Migratory beekeepers own 76% of the managed colonies in the United States

Our 6,717 backyard beekeepers only manage 24% of the our countries bees

Holy cow, that is a significant percentage of our honey bees being stressed by moving around the country constantly. On the other hand, if we didn’t have migratory beekeepers trucking their bees around, we would not have a food supply. The mono-crop farm system our country uses could not survive without commercial beekeepers bringing in bees. It’s an unfortunate cycle, but our food supply and the success of our commercial beekeepers are directly related.

What does this mean, exactly? If our country’s monoculture farms or our commercial beekeepers fail, we can’t enjoy almonds, apples, asparagus, avocados, broccoli, blueberries, or onions. All of those crops are 90-100% dependent on our honey bees.

Salad bar with honeybees

Salad bar with honeybees

A salad bar without honey bees

Salad bar without honey bees

 Adam Hickman works in the Cooking Light Test Kitchen and as a beekeeper in Birmingham, founding Foxhound Bee Company in 2014.

from Simmer and Boil via barbecue cooking sheet

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