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When we say the word “bee” we probably have in mind the larger members of the seven families and 20,000 species that are classified as “bees.” Honeybees and bumblebees are the usual species that people recognize as “bees,” but they represent a very small number of the “bees” that are around us and upon which our natural ecosystems depend.
There are four thousand native species of bees in North America and several of these are bumblebees, but the honeybee is actually an alien species brought to North America by European settlers. Now, fortunately, we don’t append the second adjective “invasive” to the honey bee because they seem to carry out their life functions without impinging significantly upon the ecological niches of the native bee species. Honeybees are especially important for pollinating the large number of plant species that European settlers brought with them to form the foundation of our agricultural ecosystems! Honeybees, though, are not able to pollinate many of the plants that are native to North America. The often small, solitary native bee species are needed for that.
Bee species of all kinds are under a great deal of stress. Honeybees are suffering from Colony Collapse Disorder (C.C.D.) all over the world due to the synergistic impact of varola mites, viruses, pesticides and poor nutrition. C.C.D. was first described in bee colonies in Pennsylvania ten years ago. Also, as I reported in July 22, 2017, 30% of bumblebee species worldwide are showing significant decreases in numbers. Climate change and parasitic infections are the two likely forces triggering these declines.
Honeybees (which many states classify as “livestock” to emphasize their domesticated lifestyle) are tended by beekeepers who have developed increasingly elaborate methods to feed their bees in the face of the widespread loss of wild plants needed by the honeybees for good nutrition. The beekeepers have also developed techniques to reduce mite infestations, and to mitigate virus and pesticide exposures. All of these efforts have pulled the honeybee back from the brink of possible extinction that was threatened ten years ago by the 90% mortality rate in the widespread C.C.D. epidemic. Winter mortality rates, though are still nearly double the pre-2006 rates (28% loss vs, 15% before 2006).
In an article this month in the New York Times the ecology and technology of honeybees was described in great detail. The article (“The Superbowl of Beekeeping”) centered upon the largest honeybee pollination event of the year, the pollination of the almond trees in the central valley of California.
Almond trees are the first crop that flowers each year in California. Typically, in mid-February the one million (plus!) acres of California almond trees which will generate 80% of the world’s almond crop make flowers which must be pollinated by bees during their short (a couple of weeks) time frame of fertility. In 2018 two million colonies of bees were brought into the valley to accomplish this herculean task.
These billions and billions of imported bees represent two-thirds of all of the honeybees in the United States! The logistics and transport of these bees by bee-keeping corporations is complex and expensive but absolutely necessary.
These “industrial bees” typically overwinter in Texas or Florida and are brought into California for the February almond bloom on flatbed trucks. After the almond pollination they need to be removed from the groves so that the scheduled applications of pesticides on the almond trees do not decimate them. They may then be transported back to Florida or Texas to pollinate watermelons, or to Washington State to pollinate cherry or apple trees, or to Maine to pollinate blueberries. One third of the pants in our food supply-chain require bee pollination in order to produce their food crops.
In the warm summer months, these bees are often taken to cooler environs of the upper mid-west (like North or South Dakota) where the bee keepers feed them protein supplements and split the hives to stimulate queen formation and reproduction. These mid-western areas used to be rich with both alfalfa fields and wild range lands that were packed with weeds and wildflowers that provided the bees with a diverse base of natural foods. But more extensive agriculture, drought and also suburban expansion have reduced these wild plant areas considerably much to the detriment of the honeybees.
Bee colonies and the plants they depend on have also been harmed by natural disasters. The hurricanes in Florida, the drought in Texas and the wildfires in California have both killed bee colonies and also destroyed extensive areas of wild plants. As bee colonies have become more stressed they have also increased in value and have been subject to million dollar thefts and hijackings.
The California almond industry is the main driver of the industrial bee economy. Almonds generate $7.6 billion dollars a year for the California economy. Over 100,000 jobs are supported by almond production, distribution, and processing . The dependency of the almond growers on the bees is absolute.
Research into the effectiveness and efficiency of honeybee pollination of almond trees has generated some interesting observations. For example, it was found that when wild, flowering plants were planted in and around almond trees the attraction of native pollinators actually stimulated the honeybees to do a more efficient job in pollinating the almond tree’s flowers. Most almond growers, though, rejected this idea maintaining in spite of the evidence to the contrary that a nearby source of non-almond flowers would distract the honeybees and divert their pollinating efforts to these other plants.
A variety of self-pollinating almond tree has also been developed. These trees, then, would not require bees in order for them to set their nuts. The almonds generated by these trees, though, did not taste as good as bee-pollinated almonds. As one researcher put it, “I don’t know if bee honey from the almond grove hives tastes like almonds or if almonds taste like bees!”
There have also been plans drawn up for (and even patents applied for!) small drone, bee-robots that would mechanically transfer pollen from flower to flower on an almond tree. In March 2018, Wal-Mart applied for a patent for one of these bee-drone systems.
The ancient Egyptians carried bees hives up and down the Nile in order to pollinate crops of flowers. Other civilizations around the Mediterranean kept domesticated bees not only for honey but also to pollinate their crops. Industrial agriculture is producing exponentially more food than the simpler systems of the past. Let’s hope that they find a way to keep the bees active and viable in these new production systems.