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How regenerative agriculture can recover bee populations

It’s strawberry season and with every sweet, juicy strawberry you bite into, you should be thankful and reminded that bees and pollinators made it possible. It’s simply incredible that something so small can have such a huge impact on human food security. A honeybee is only ½ an inch long, ¼ of an inch wide, and weighs in at a whopping three grams. Yet without bees and other pollinators, much of the world’s food that supports human life and livelihoods would be seriously affected. Bees help to pollinate much of the world’s food crops, especially those delicious and nutrient dense fruits and vegetables. Without pollination, no plants. Without plants, well, you get the picture… 

Pollinators play an important role in determining strawberry sweetness, juiciness and even shape. Image Source: YHBae/Pixabay

To Bees, or Not to _____

So perhaps we should be very concerned about the health of the world’s pollinators and in particular bee populations, and frankly they’re not doing so well. Bee populations are in decline and so are crop yields. It’s hit farmers in their pocketbooks and shoppers in their food sources. Much attention has been given to the causes of bee population decline: pollution from fertilizer, herbicide and pesticide use, disease, climate change, land degradation and habitat loss. But we also need to consider what solutions are out there for regenerating those populations and how they are linked to farmer economic security and supplies to consumers. 

Heath – the bumblebee. Source: Myriams/Pixabay

Regenerative farming and agroforestry practices create and protect habitats and ecological biodiversity necessary for bees of all kinds. This method takes a systems-based approach to consider the long-term health of the greater ecosystem both on and surrounding farms. The idea is to align the impact of human interventions, like farming, to not only consider yield and food security, but also the health of natural systems making that yield possible (like bees). Practices that protect and build back, or regenerate ecosystems can ensure future food production and support food chain sustainability. This intersection of conservation and agriculture is of particular importance to native insects like bees and other pollinators.

Honeybees AND wild bees both play a crucial role in our food systems

The most common and popular pollinator, the European Honeybee (Apis Millefera), has been aiding mankind with a variety of uses and products since the time of the ancient Egyptians and likely well before that. The domestication of the honeybee has led to a steady flow of sweet honey as well as a number of scientific advances from common salves treating things like topical burns, to successfully using bee venom to treat breast cancer, or the most recent case of scientists in the Netherlands training bees to detect COVID-19 from infected water. And to think, all this from just one kind of bee!  

Honey bees often share information about the location of flowering plants. Image Source: Hansbenn/Pixabay

Wild bees get less attention, but still play a vital role in pollination. You may have heard that honeybees are responsible for one in three bites of food you eat. This is not quite true, as it’s actually pollinators in general including wild bees, wasps, birds, bats, and butterflies among other small mammals that are responsible for the roughly $235-$577bn of farmed produce and 35% of all agricultural lands. Bees do make up for a good chunk of that bite, but scientists still haven’t figured out just how much is due to one kind of bee or another. 

One thing is for certain though, bee population decline means less pollination and less plant reproduction globally. This is particularly alarming for human food systems as well as larger ecosystems; both of which depend on bees for pollination. The FAO’s report, The State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture looks at the role of pollinators and biodiversity in our current food and agriculture systems and it is not looking good. The magnitude of this problem is shocking when you stop and consider that pollination is responsible for over 80% of all flowering plants worldwide.

Wild Bees and Pollination. Source: Institute of Organic Agriculture

Biodiversity becomes particularly important for wild bees, who often have adapted in size, shape, and flight range to pollinate specific plant species, at specific times and under certain climatic conditions. And they are especially important in early and cold conditions where honeybees are not yet active. Some plants even require specific pollination techniques like “buzz pollination” where a sound frequency achieved by buzzing will loosen pollen from a flower’s anthers. The bumble bee is a pro at this method and as can be seen in the above image, also has one of the longest pollination periods. This makes the bumblebee an important alternative commercial pollinator to honeybees. 

Bee Population declines are linked to farmer economic security

Farmers, particularly those of commonly pollinated crops like apples and strawberries, are heavily reliant on bees for plant reproduction and therefore yields. The resulting dependency means that farmers use bees as an agricultural tool, kind of like livestock. They will even truck bees into their fields from far distances, just for short periods of time to pollinate their apple orchard or strawberry fields, at the exact right time, just as all the little white flowers buds begin to open and come into bloom. Many of these farmers have been hard hit as bee population declines have made commercial bees more expensive and in short supply. To give some figures, the California almond market currently brings in about $21 billion annually and needs around 1.9 million honeybees – that’s close to 75% of all commercial bees in the United States!

Mason Bees are becoming more commonly managed for their efficient pollination services. Source: hannedelorededeker/Pixabay

Human activities have contributed to bee habitat loss and land degradation. 

Prime culprits: pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, and fertilizers. But alternative pest control methods show promise

“It is ironic that agriculture, which relies so heavily on pollinators, is actually one of the biggest contributors to their decline.”

Dr. Alexa Varah

The method of controlling agricultural pests falls under integrated pest management (IPM) and has become a normal and commercialized part of modern agriculture. Due to the importance of pollinators, some argue that it should be called integrated pest and pollinator management (IPPM), especially since pollinators like bees are directly impacted by the pest management part i.e. pesticides and insecticides. 

Chemical pesticides and insecticides used in industrial agriculture often affect different bee species, like bumble bees, honeybees, and solitary bees differently and should be closely monitored or – better yet -phased out. Especially now that we know certain chemicals like glyphosate are toxic to bees. As agriculture transitions from industrial, in-put heavy approaches to a systems-based, regenerative approach, more studies and advances will be needed to find safer alternatives for both bee and human health. 

Alternatives to chemical pesticides are out there. Sometimes called bio-controls, these methods use natural pest predators like predatory mites or ladybugs to keep other harmful pests in check. This is a promising area that can bring innovative, nature based solutions that also promote input self-sufficiency for farmers. Moving away from chemical use in our food system is critical to protecting bee populations and biodiversity while also protecting yields and farmer incomes.

Colletes inaequalis female ground nesting bee emerges from her home. Image Source: López-Uribe/Cornell Department of Entomology

Regenerative farming and agroforestry rebuild soils and bee habitats 

Healthy soils are crucial for wild bees because much like bumblebees, 70% of the 20,000 wild bees, borough, nest, and build their homes in the ground. This means that commercial farming practices like tilling, ploughing, spraying pesticides, and using chemical fertilizers negatively impact bees and their habitats. Things like ploughing destroys nesting sites, and runoff from rain and irrigation builds up chemicals in the soil that drain right into the homes of bumblebees and their wild bee cousins. 

Source: reNature

Regenerative practices are designed to do just the opposite of industrial farming by building back soil organic matter (SOM) and structure, creating homes for all kinds of biological life. This is accomplished by focusing on increasing biodiversity and creating natural habitats with things like cover crops, mulching, and planting hedgerows. Alley crops for example are planted between main crops to provide additional forage, shelter and habitat for both honey and wild bees. These methods protect soil from the elements and maintain cooler temperatures underground for bees and other soil critters to thrive.

Monoculture (growing just one kind of crop) on the other hand limits the diversity of forage for bees and often the time that flowers, or food will be available. Many bee species have different flight ranges and seasonal activity patterns and may not always be able to find food close enough to home when there is only one kind of plant or crop flowering for miles around. Longer term regenerative solutions to restore balance often include planting perennials like trees, bushes, and grasses. Carefully selecting perennials to have different flowering seasons can help sustain bees and other pollinators throughout the year and only need to be planted once. These additional plants can also improve farmer economic resilience by providing different revenue streams.

Mitigating risk: Could wild bees be better pollinators? A recent study indicates they can!

“ Wild bees generally are very effective pollinators: Only a few hundred females of the mason bee Osmia cornuta are needed to pollinate a hectare of apple or almond trees, whereas tens of thousands of honeybee workers would be needed.”

Wild Bees and Pollination

As honeybee populations continue to decline, perhaps investing in conservation and regeneration of other pollinators like wild bees could be a useful strategy for farmers. A recent 2018 study by researchers at Reading University showed that pollination improved with higher wild bee numbers and greater species richness in agroforestry sites compared to monoculture sites. The researchers looked at wild pollinators in 6 paired UK agroforestry and monoculture sites and found higher pollinator abundance and seed set in agroforestry sites. These sites also found 2.4 times more bumblebees compared to the monoculture sites! The study points out that species richness was about 10 times higher in agroforestry sites and indicates that increasing bee species diversity could be an effective approach to stabilizing pollination services. Perhaps rather than investing heavily in honeybees which compete with native bees, building back natural habitats for native bees and other pollinators is the safer strategy.

Larger bumblebees put effort into learning where the best flowers are. Image Source: Myriams/Pixaby

Show me the money! How can we not just safeguard bee populations but rebuild them in ways that are also profitable for farmers?

The Reading University study shows great promise for the benefits of diversifying ecological biodiversity, but yield and profit were not a part of the design of that study. Fortunately, more research in this area is underway and some exciting and promising results for the profitability of regenerative farming practices are coming to light. One such study from the Ecdysis Foundation reviewed 20 UK farms and compared conventional corn fields to regenerative corn fields and found that regenerative practices were 78% more profitable. The study attributes this to lower input costs and higher market premium prices. 

It is important to make the distinction that this is profit and not yield we are talking about. Too much attention has been given to yields in agriculture, but perhaps profit is a more telling indicator for farmer economic security and thereby food security. Farms are businesses after all and a holistic approach to its operations needs to take into account things like input and labor costs, sales price, storage and even transport costs. An often overlooked aspect, is that a farm is in fact an asset and regenerating an asset instead of degenerating it, is well just common business sense. The focus on only increasing yields, at the cost of soil health, bee populations, and ecosystem function is part of what got us in the pickle we are currently in.

A Definition of Regenerative Agriculture: Alley cropping in agroforestry systems, such as in this hazel-potato system makes it easy for farmers to mechanically harvest (Source: ORC/AGFORWARD Project)

One last study that has been fun to follow and just concluded its findings this spring is the Soil Health Institute’s “Soil Health Business Case” and takes a close look at the economic effects of adopting farming techniques designed to protect and improve soil health: Economics of Soil Health Systems. For the study this meant transitioning farmers away from high costs of inputs that harm soils towards more affordable management methods that protect and rebuild soils. The study looked at 100 US farms and found that net income increased for 85% of farmers in their study and net farm income increased by an “average of $52/acre for corn and $45/acre for soybean”. 

Fortunately for the bees, other pollinators, and those of us who enjoy sweet, juicy strawberries, confirming the profitability of regenerative farming practices means we can do this. If most of the causes of bee and pollinator population decline are man-made, then can we stop doing those activities and change our ways to solve this problem? 

Absolutely. The solutions are simple. (and even profitable) 

Let’s break it down: 

  1. Do No Harm – stop chemical pesticide and chemical fertilizer use and practices that result in land degradation or pollution (short-term)
  1. Do Better – regenerate natural habitats, adopt practices that enable nature to restore/revive itself, protect and rebuild the soil, plant trees and other perennials, encourage biodiversity (long-term)

Awareness is great, but action is better.

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