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Why the World Needs Bees

By on October 20, 2013

Why the world needs bees. As became apparent with the arrival of European style farming in New Zealand, pollination is vital for food production, both for the plant crops we eat and the productivity of the pastures upon which meat and dairy producing livestock is grazed. But it is not just a problem of the past. Across the world, there are farming communities who are aware of the practical value of pollinators – because of their absence. One example is the almond growing region of the Central Valley of California.

This is one of the most intensively farmed regions in the United States; in an area of more than a quarter-million hectares, some four-fifths of the world’s almond crop is produced. The conditions are ideal. It is mild, there are cool wet winters, the soils are right and there is plenty of sunshine when the almonds are growing. So good is it that the land is cranked to the maximum to boost both yields and profits.

Robin Dean is an adviser on strategies to increase bee populations, and with his wife runs a successful enterprise called the Red Beehive Company, which helps clients ensure effective pollination. He explained to me that the exclusive farming of almonds in the Central Valley had brought the land close to crisis: “The soil is being hammered, water is under stress, there are issues with soil salinization from irrigation, and then all the issues with crop protection chemicals. Almonds are harvested mechanically with a tree shaker that causes the nuts to drop to the floor. The nuts are then pushed into rows, are left to dry and then they are vacuumed up. With this system you don’t want anything growing on the ground under the trees. The entire area is completely barren except for almond trees and it is like that for miles.” One consequence of this, says Dean, is that “there are no natural pollinators remaining in the landscape.” And this poses something of a challenge.

In early spring vast rolling expanses of white and pale pink blossoms emerge, and on warm days it is vital that the flowers are pollinated so as to put in motion the growth of the almonds. What happens in this short window determines the size of the final crop, and the difference between successful and patchy pollination can be measured in many millions of dollars. This is why the growers pay a fortune for beehives to be brought in for the six weeks or so in which pollination must occur. And they need a lot of them. Over a million hives are required to pollinate the almond trees in California’s Central Valley. They are trucked in from all over the USA to join this annual pollen fest. To get ready for the great event beekeepers move their colonies into staging areas close to the almond orchards, and then as the blossom breaks, the bees are moved  amongst the trees in an operation mindful of a military maneuver. There are generally between about 40,000 and 80,000 bees in each healthy hive, and each one pollinates around 300 flowers per day.

As might be expected, the rapid increase in the area planted with almonds has led to an increase in demand for pollination services, and that in turn has led to an increase in the price of hiring bees to pollinate your trees. Today, almond growers pay about $200 per colony to rent bees during the pollination period. Thirty years before, they paid around $10-12. Some of the businesses that meet this demand are running very substantial organizations. “One operator runs about 80,000 colonies for hire to pollinate crops. They are not getting a lot of honey out of this but making money from the pollination,” says Dean.

When the almond flowers have withered and with the seeds set and ready to grow, many of the bee colonies depart for the north, to Montana, North Dakota and to Oregon and Washington. Spring comes a little later there and the bees arrive in time to help pollinate the cherry, apple and pear orchards.

In other parts of the world, more extreme measures have been required to ensure that trees bear fruit. A case in point can be seen in Maoxian County in Sichuan, China. Fruit farmers there have had to resort to more direct action in filling the gap left by the loss of natural pollinators.

This part of China lost most of its pollinators back in the 1980s, and now people have to do the job themselves, by hand. In spring, as the trees burst into flower, thousands of farmers climb in the branches of their apple and pear trees. Using brushes made of chicken feathers and cigarette filters, which they touch against the flowers, they hand pollinate the blossoms, transferring the sticky grains of pollen from one flower to another.

The main problem in this part of the world was the excessive use of pesticides. As Robin Dean explained, “In China it is chemicals that have obliterated the natural pollinators. In the foothills of the Himalayas it is cool and honey bees are not an option for fruit pollination. Bumblebees would be a natural pollinator but their populations have been wiped out. They might bounce back but in the interim about 40,000 people have to do the pollination by hand.” So, while pesticides were deployed to keep yields high in the expanding orchards, the opposite effect was in fact achieved.

These and other examples where wild pollinators have for one reason or another been absent provide us with powerful reminders as to how fundamentally we rely for our wellbeing on animals mediating the act of plant sex. This has generally been regarded as a free service, and until recently it has largely been that: indeed something we can reliably take for granted. However, there has lately been cause to question this view, as fundamental changes to ecosystems have led to growing concern over the continued reliability of pollination.

The extent of our dependence on pollination services is underlined by the remarkable fact that some two-thirds of the different species of food crop plants are pollinated by animals. These different crops produce about one third of the total calories we eat, not to mention most of the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that we need to remain healthy.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is one of the global specialist agencies that undertakes research to support world food security. It estimates that in 146 countries about 100 species of crop plant provide 90 percent of the food supply. Of these, 71 are pollinated mostly by wild bees, with others pollinated by different insects, including flies, moths and beetles. Pretty much all the blueberries, grapefruits, avocados, cherries, apples, pears, plums, squashes, cucumbers, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, macadamia nuts and dozens of others depend on the foraging activities of bees. No bees, then no fruit – or at least a lot less.

Linda Collette is a crop biodiversity specialist at FAO. She points out how the world’s pollinators are still largely underappreciated: “Because insects are so inconspicuous, or perhaps because the system worked fine without much intervention in the past, the level of general public awareness, or even specialized awareness among farmers and agronomists, remains quite low. The fact is that ecosystem services provided by pollinators are essential for food production and contribute to the sustainable livelihoods of many farmers worldwide.”

So what is the economic value in financial terms of the work done by pollinating animals? There are a few estimates out there. Alexandra-Maria Klein, an agroecologist based at Germany’s University of Göttingen, says that the crops relying on animals for pollination account for about $1 trillion of the world’s $3 trillion annual sales of agricultural produce. The reason why only about a third of total agricultural sales are down to animal pollinated plants, when most species of major crop plants are pollinated by animals, is because of the huge importance of a few species of wind pollinated grasses in our food system – such as wheat, maize, barley and rice.

Another way to approach the question is to calculate the cost of replacing the services provided by pollinators. In answer to this, an international process hosted by the United Nations Environment Program called The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) concluded in 2010 that the value is about $190 billion. While these kinds of global figures help put into context the overall contribution of pollinators to the human economy and food security, very often of more practical interest are studies into the value of pollinators in more specific circumstances. One case study produced for the TEEB process looked at the value of bees’ pollinating activities in Switzerland, a country dotted with neat orchards and market gardens. It concluded that colonies kept by Swiss beekeepers ensured annual agricultural production worth about $213 million.

Although honey and beeswax are the most obvious outputs from beekeeping, the Swiss research estimated these as only a quarter of the economic value of pollination. It also highlighted a major gap, in there being no policy then in place to make sure pollination continues. While governments would not consider neglecting or spending on power networks and transport infrastructure, the “green infrastructure” was taken for granted.

Another piece of research, undertaken by a partnership between global crop product giant Syngenta and the World Resources Institute, looked at the value of pollination provided by bees to blueberry farmers in Michigan, USA. It assessed the work of bees to be worth about $124 million annually. Blueberries are often characterized as a super food; they are high in vitamin C, rich in fiber and contain substances which protect the heart and have anticancer effects. These health benefits would not be possible to deliver without the help of bees.

These and other studies which have looked into the economic importance of pollination have recently come to be of far more than academic interest. This is because there is now highly convincing evidence to show that pollinators are in worldwide decline.

Posted with permission from Environmentalist Tony Juniper's "What Has Nature Ever Done For Us? How Money Really Does Grow on Trees" – with the foreword by Prince Charles (Synergetic Press, Aug.2013). Other stories of interest: "What's All the Buzz About?"  and
"Canadian Environmental Groups Demand Action On Bee Killing Pesticides"
 

About Charleen Wyman

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