How regenerative agriculture can recover bee populations
Published on: June 23, 2021
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…
10 interesting facts about bees
- A bee produces a teaspoon of honey (about 5 grams) in her lifetime.
- The type of flower the bees take their nectar from determines the honey’s flavor.
- Bees mate high in the sky. Afterwards, the male bee loses his reproductive organs and dies.
- A Queen Bee can produce 2,000 eggs a day. Fertilized eggs become females and unfertilized eggs become males.
- Bees have five eyes (three small ones on top of their heads and two large ones in front) and see the world almost five times faster than humans.
- Bees have a very different color vision than humans: their eyes are more sensitive to blue and purple and they can see ultraviolet light.
- Over twenty thousand species of bees exist, but only a few are known to man. Apis mellifera, commonly referred to as the honeybee, is one of the most popular and economically beneficial insects in the world.
- Bees have existed for over one hundred million years, performing vital roles in diverse ecosystems. The ancestors of bees were stinging and carnivorous wasps.
- Honeybees have a dance move called the ‘waggle dance’. It is a clever way of communicating between themselves to tell their nestmates where food is located and how far it is from the hive.
- Female worker honeybees have barbed stings attached to a venom sac, from which a toxin is pumped after the bee sting. They will most often die as a consequence of stinging humans or other mammals since the barbs become wedged in the skin. When trying to get free, the bee rips away part of its abdomen and internal organs.
What products can we make from beekeeping?
There are five major products we can derive from beekeeping.
Bees naturally create wax, which is utilized in the production of a wide range of products such as candles, soaps, cosmetics, and medicines as well as food preservation. It is also used in fruit and vegetable coating. This wax is produced by glands under the bees’ abdomen and is utilized to construct the honeycomb. Since prehistoric times, beeswax has been used as the first plastic, as a lubricant and waterproofing agent, as a wood and leather polish, and in many other applications. Beeswax is also processed to make Petroleum Remediation Product (PRP), which is used to clean up oil spills. It is used to remove contaminants from water that are made of oil or petroleum. From an economic perspective, beeswax is the second most significant hive output after honey.
Royal jelly, a gelatinous material made by worker bees and supplied only to queen bees, is said to offer a number of benefits for human health. It is a fluid that is utilized to feed adult queens and bee larvae. A form of alternative medicine known as apitherapy occasionally employs royal jelly. It is frequently offered as a human dietary supplement. Water, proteins, carbohydrates, as well as other trace elements (mineral salts) and vitamins, are some of royal jelly’s constituents. It also contains vitamin B6, or pyridoxine, which is crucial for the metabolism of amino acids. A group of “major royal jelly proteins” (MRJP) are believed to be the active ingredient that stimulates and regulates larval development in bees. The use of royal jelly as a collagen booster has been backed by research, and it is a common ingredient in skin creams. By boosting collagen production in the skin, royal jelly also helps defend the skin against the damaging effects of ultraviolet radiation.
Propolis is a resinous material that bees gather from trees to repair hive gaps. Honey bees gather materials from plant parts, buds, and exudates in order to make propolis. Bees utilize propolis in building and repairing of their hives to seal holes and cracks, smooth out the interior walls, and act as a barrier against foreign invaders. This is as a result of its waxy nature and mechanical qualities. Propolis has antibacterial and antifungal qualities and is used in traditional medicine to treat a number of diseases. Propolis is used today in dermatological preparations for treating burns, acne, herpes simplex and genitalis, neurodermatitis, and cold syndrome (upper respiratory tract infections, the common cold, and flu-like infections).
Pollen is a source of protein and other nutrients that bees get from flowers. Humans also take it as a nutritional supplement. Some pollen from the stamen (which is the male reproductive organ of the flower) adheres to the bee’s body hairs while she gathers nectar from a plant’s flower. Some of this pollen is rubbed off onto the stigma, or tip of the pistil (which is the female reproductive organ of the flower), on her next flower visit. When this occurs, fertilization may take place and a fruit with seeds may grow.
A honey bee can use its stinger to sting an intruder. A small fraction of persons who are allergic to the venom experience severe pain and even risk of death from honey bee stings. Honey bees typically sting to defend their colony or themselves. However, this toxic chemical, which bees produce, is utilized as a natural remedy for a variety of illnesses. It is believed to have anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving effects. Apitherapy is an alternative therapy that uses honeybee products, most significantly bee venom, to treat a variety of human ailments. The venom can be injected manually into the body or applied directly through bee stings. Many active chemicals found in bee venom, including peptides and enzymes, have the potential to be useful in the treatment of inflammation and illnesses of the central nervous system, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
And of course, Honey
Honey is the most well-known and widely used bee product. Bees produce honey from flower nectar. Honey can be used as a natural sweetener and has several health advantages. It is the only food that is known to never go bad. Researchers have discovered honey as old as 5,500 years in ancient tombs. Honey has a long history of being utilized as medicine in traditional healing practices. It can be used to treat burns and wounds because it has antibacterial characteristics. In recipes, honey can be used in place of sugar as a natural sweetener. Around 80% of honey’s composition is sugar, with trace amounts of vitamins and minerals.
Global demand and market trends of honey
Honey and goods with honey as a sweetener continue to be in high demand worldwide. About 0.00014% of global trade is made up of honey trade. The top five exporters of honey in 2021 were New Zealand ($515M), China ($238M), Argentina ($216M), Brazil ($164M), and Germany ($156M), with a total transaction of $2.89B. In 2021, the United States ($651M), Germany ($365M), Japan ($190M), the United Kingdom ($151M), and France ($125M) were the biggest honey importers. Imports of honey into the United States increased by 73% in the previous ten years, hitting a record 433 million pounds in 2020. Seventy percent of the honey that was available for consumption in the United States in 2020 came from imports. In 2021, the EU Member States bought natural honey (also known as “honey”) worth €405.9 million from non-EU nations. In contrast, just 25,500 tonnes were exported outside the EU in the same year by EU Member States. The value of these exports was €146.6 million.
Ecological benefits of bees
Bees are great pollinators because they spend the majority of their lives gathering pollen, which is a source of protein that they feed to their developing larvae. Pollen is also referred to as “bee bread.” Fatty acids, minerals, and vitamins are also provided to the bees via pollen. The development of young bees and the growth of hives both depend on the protein in pollen. In order to generate healthy seeds, many plants need to cross-pollinate, which is the spread of pollen. Numerous flowers attract and reward bees with nectar, a mixture of water and sugars produced by plants. Bees contribute to every area of the ecology as pollinators. They encourage the development of trees, flowers, and other plants that provide food and shelter for both large and tiny animals.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, bee pollination contributes nearly $15 billion in extra crop value. Bees are crucial to the production and consumption of meat and dairy because they pollinate crops that cattle eat, such as clover and alfalfa. Additionally, pollinators are necessary for the growth of a variety of plants, not just those planted in farms. The pollination of numerous wild plant species is also reliant on insects. Berries, seeds, and some fruits and nuts that are pollinated by bees and other insects may be a source of food for birds and mammals.
To Bees, or Not to _____
The global decline in bee populations is a threat to human well-being and livelihoods. This is because a wide variety of plants critical to food security and industrial use depend on pollinators such as bees. Urbanization, along with other human endeavors that damage or eliminate natural environments, has a detrimental effect on bees and other pollinators. These habitat losses have an effect on the community structure of both social and solitary bee species. Also, according to research, conventional crop fields that are cut off from natural habitats reduce the diversity, abundance, and pollination services provided by native bees. Pesticides and other chemicals used in agriculture have also been linked to a reduction in bee populations. They can be toxic to bees and harm their immune systems. Changes in climate also have a significant impact on bee distribution, abundance, phenology (the timing of life cycle events), and pollination. It also raises the likelihood of bee diseases and pests.
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.
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, in 2018 the California almond market currently brought in about $21 billion annually and needed around 1.9 million honeybees – that’s close to 75% of all commercial bees in the United States!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Do No Harm – stop chemical pesticide and chemical fertilizer use and practices that result in land degradation or pollution (short-term)
- 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)