If you remember much from elementary school, you know bees are important. One of planet earth’s beloved beneficial pollinators, these busybodies transfer pollen between plants, increase yields of crops and create the tantalizingly sweet and earthy elixir known as honey – a global market valued around 7 billion US dollars.
Indeed, when you take a big-picture look at things, much of our society and culture is built around an on-going love story between bees and agriculture. This is because so much of human society is directly tied to agricultural systems that allowed for social expansion. Without beneficial pollinators like bees, who’s to say where homo sapiens might be today? Perhaps not so far from the caves of our neanderthal relatives.
But as is often the case, this love story is not so simple. Let’s peel back some layers, and embrace the sticky details. It’s imperative that we do – for the bees and for us to survive.
For over nine thousand years at least, bees have been an integral part of human food culture. Reaching back to the stone age, the use of honey is depicted in paintings and in medicinal texts. Bees pollinate thousands and thousands of species of plants. These plants include potato, onion, cabbage, peppers, chestnuts, watermelon, cucumber, carrots, sunflowers. The list goes on. It’s very likely that most meals you eat are made possible by these bumbling friends.
These agricultural collaborations are ongoing today. Every year, farmers spend millions of dollars to rent hives and pollinate their crops. Bees contributed 24 billion dollars to U.S. agriculture in 2016. In the U.S. alone, bees also produced 161.8 million pounds of raw honey. These little guys just don’t stop.
A bee collects pollen and nectar from a flowering plant. This happens in nature or in a curated, maintained farm field. Pollen from the stamen (the plant’s male reproductive organ) sticks to the little hairs on the bee’s body. The bee then transfers the pollen to the next plant it visits. Honey bees, in particular, provide up to 80% of pollination for cultivated crops.
In 2006, beekeepers reported disturbing news: colonies of bees were disappearing. Hives were completely abandoned for reasons people could not yet explain. Fourteen years later, the causes of this colony collapse disorder are still unclear. Farmers continue to lose upwards of 45% of their bees each winter – a heartbreaking statistic that is also quite terrifying when you reflect on the implications of a world without these pollinators. So much of the beauty we experience – and the food we eat – is thanks to bees. We have to find a way to protect them.
As is the case for ecosystems across the globe, the climate crisis will determine the fate of all of us – bees and people alike. Without swift and radical action in regard to sustainability on a global scale, the truth of it is that none of us stand much of a chance. If you care about survival, about flowers, fresh food on the table, healthy ecosystems, and beneficial insects, the most important action you can take is voting for leaders who will prioritize the planet’s health by holding corporations and Big Ag accountable for their pollutive and unethical practices. We need leaders who will introduce and pass effective legislation to reverse humanity’s current course. While it may already be too late, it is also criminal to do nothing in the present moment.
A sustainable future will require systemic change. There are individual actions you can take as well. Consider tearing up your lawn and planting a pollinator garden of native plants to your area. Then convince your neighbors to do the same. Consider buying your produce from organic farmers who prioritize pollinator habitats and protective measures for the insects and birds of your region.
If you’re especially concerned about bees, make sure you are not buying any plants or supporting any merchants who sell green goods that include neonicotinoids. Some farmers and growers commonly use this pesticide that is linked to declining bee populations. It is detrimental. Legislation restricts this in the European Union. The Trump Administration in the U.S. has rolled back restrictions. This is unacceptable to any person concerned for bee populations.
When it comes to the love story between bees and agriculture, we must believe in the power of a sustainable future. The story isn’t over yet. In a delightful twist, perhaps it is the spirit of the ever-busy honey bee that can provide the blueprint for what we as human beings must do to turn things around: keep going, keep working, spread beauty in the world, and do so together.
Featured image via Pixabay user Myriams-Fotos