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Beeline to Extinction: Saving Our Threatened Pollinators Is Key to Global Food Security

More than a third of U.S. managed honeybee colonies -- those set up for intensified pollination of commercial crops -- failed to survive this past winter.

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California’s almond crop is a prime example of our reliance on bees’ industriousness for our agriculture success. The state grows 80 percent of the world’s almonds, making it our largest agricultural export and bringing in a whopping $1.9 billion last year. The crop—with nearly 740,000 acres of almond trees planted—uses 1.3 million colonies of bees, approximately one half of all bees in the U.S., and is projected to grow to 1.5 million colonies. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is now predicting that Central Valley almond growers will produce about 1.53 billion pounds of almonds this year, up 8.5 percent last year. To meet the demand, bee colonies are trucked farther and more often than ever before and demand for bees has dramatically outstripped supply. Bee colonies, which a decade ago rented for $60, cost as much as $170 this February in California.

Few organic beekeepers have reported bee losses, suggesting that natural and organic bee keeping methods may be the solution. In addition, organic farmers who maintain wildlife habitat around their farms are helping to encourage bees to pollinate their crops.  “The main difference between our farm and our conventional neighbors is the amount of wildlife and insect habitat that we have around the edge of our farm,” said Greg Massa, who manages Massa Organics, a fourth generation 90-acre certified organic rice farm near Chico. Massa started growing organic almonds six years ago, and works with a small, organic beekeeper in Oregon who brings in 30 hives to his farm. Massa’s farm has a large wildlife corridor which has been revegetated with native plants and covered in mustard, wild radish, and vetch, a favorite of bees and also a good nitrogen source for his rice crop.

Time might be running out for the bees, but there are simple actions we can take to make a difference. First, support organic farmers who don’t use pesticides and whose growing methods work in harmony with the natural life of bees. In particular, buy organic almonds. Don’t use pesticides in your home garden, especially at mid-day when bees most likely forage for nectar. You can also plant good nectar sources such as red clover, foxglove, bee balm, and other native plants to encourage bees to pollinate your garden. Provide clean water; even a simple bowl of water is beneficial.  Buy local honey; it keeps small, diversified beekeepers in business, and beekeepers keep honeybees thriving. In addition, you can start keeping bees yourself. Backyard and urban beekeeping can actively help bring back our bees. Finally, you can work to preserve more open cropland and rangeland. Let’s use our political voices to support smart land use, the impact of which will not only result in cleaner water, soil, and air, but also just might help save the humble honeybee.

Naomi Starkman is a founder and editor of CivilEats.com, a food politics blog, which promotes critical thought about sustainable agriculture and food systems. She is a food policy media consultant to Consumers Union and others. N

 
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