Based on the cycles of the past we are about due for yet another bee epidemic. Every few years it seems that a problem raises its ugly head among our bees and threatens their viability. If it is not Varroa mites, or tracheal mites, it’s small hive beetles or any number of bacterial pathogens or fungal diseases. From one source or another, our honey bees are under constant attack and are disease-stressed. Consequently, we have seen the disappearance of most of our wild bee colonies and our domestic bees are also disappearing at an alarming rate.
It is hard to minimize the significance of this as the risk to our food supply is very real. The honey bee is arguably the weakest link in the U.S. food supply chain and on this tenuous link is born the heaviest burden. Fully 40% of what we eat, to some degree, pivots on the work of bees. Along with honey, most of our fruit, fruit juices and wines, as well as our nuts, berries and vegetables depend on bees. While not the primary pollinator of alfalfa, honey bees do contribute to its pollination. To a lesser degree the livestock that eat alfalfa–our milk, beef, sheep, goats and even chickens–all depend on the honey bee. Imagine dinner time without honey bees–our diet would be so uninspiring that it would take the joy out of a pleasant meal at the end of the day.
Of the many honey bee problems we currently see, the most pressing concern is focused on Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD. As the name implies, the social order of the bee colony fails. When the beekeeper opens the hive he finds that the bees simply aren’t there, not lying dead in the hive, but gone; all except perhaps a lone queen. It is as if a Moses bee came to the hive and lead away all the slaves, out into some unknown deseret place.
Those scientists who study bees are scrambling to find the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder but have failed so far. Some have suggested environmental factors such as pesticides and others a variety of pathogens or parasites. Some have even suggested that the crowded conditions, poor nutrition and the stress of forced migrations to multiple locations each year might be the cause.
They may be onto something here. It took thousands of years to domesticate the honey bee to stay home and produce honey on a diversified farm. Now we need pollinators more than honey producers as our native pollinators have largely been decimated. Many think the solution should be simple; we just change the honey bee’s job description from "sweet farm friend" to "migrant farm pollinator." We load them on trucks and relocate them five or six times a year to different climates, crops and ecosystems and, in the process, expose them to a host of different diseases and pests. Should we really be surprised that they are sick of it? Perhaps the real problem is not the bees, but the way we think about bees.
The position of the USDA, Agricultural Research Service on CCD is revealing. In an academic research community where great emphasis and monetary rewards are placed on grand claims to knowledge, their position on CCD is a frank admission that, "we really don’t know the cause, but are working on it, but there appears to be multiple interrelated factors." Such a forthright admission must be taken as authentic. It suggests that the problem is systemic and most likely related to the way we practice agriculture.
Historically the scientific world has excelled where the problem can be reduced to one identifiable cause followed by the production of a reasonable cure for that cause. With CCD it appears there are multiple causes and as a result, it will likely involve a consortium of actions that improve on the problem rather than cure it. This kind of systemic and integrative thinking is more frequently found on the farm, rather than in the research halls of academia. It is just not what they do well. As farmers we may ultimately have to shoulder the responsibility of finding solutions to CCD ourselves rather than rely on the professional researchers whose minds have been trained in deduction rather than understanding the integrative patterns of nature.
Do we have options available besides the honey bee? Yes, of course. The honey bee is, after all, a European import, just like many of us. Pollination obviously took place on the American continent before the honey bee. The problem is, a great many of our native pollinators are no longer available due to the changing landscape and some of our agricultural practices. However, in the last 25 years we have made inroads to re-establishing and domesticating some of our native pollinators such as the Alfalfa Leaf Cutter Bee and the Blue Orchard Bee.
It was my family’s privilege to participate as cooperative research partners in the first commercial application of the Blue Orchard Bee as pollinator of sweet cherries. There is no question in my mind that our native pollinators have great commercial potential. We were the largest commercial sweet cherry producer in Northern Utah and used the Blue Orchard Bee exclusively. When compared to the past 20-year history of our orchard, the Blue Orchard Bee increased our marketable production by 250%. Yes, two-and-a-half times our historical best. They work in the cooler, wetter weather common in early spring when fruit trees are in bloom. They are easy to manage, and don’t sting. The way they lay their eggs in removable straws makes it easy to coordinate their emergence with emergence of the peak orchard bloom.
That said, the biggest problem I see in their use, is not the Blue Orchard Bee, but the people who use them. They think and treat them as honey bees, and honey bees they are not. To begin with, they don’t make honey, but they do pollinate with a vengeance. In some ways, it is like trying to manage a domestic elk herd without fences or herdsmen. It’s all about creating a great diversified natural habitat they don’t want to leave. They don’t like spray chemicals, not even organic ones. They don’t even like chlorinated water. It’s not that the chemicals have to kill them, just annoy them enough and they will seek their forage and nesting sites elsewhere.
The payback is in the pollen–the scattering of it, that is. They are much better, especially at pollinating, than honey bees. They carry the pollen loosely in the hair on their bodies; they are, frankly, a little clumsy in the way they approach a flower, bumping and scattering pollen all the time. They tend to lose interest and after five or six flower sets, will move off 20-to-30 yards and begin again; mixing pollen strains all the time. We have to remember that the early domesticators of honey bees were after their honey and not their ability to pollinate. As a result, the honey bee was developed to be an excellent collector of pollen, but due to his efficiency as a collector of pollen, he is only average as a distributor of pollen. The opposite is true of the Blue Orchard Bee.
In looking back, I would never have imagined that the Blue Orchard Bee could have had as much impact as it did on our farm. They were an incredible catalyst, which allowed farm systems to emerge to a more comprehensive level. The farm became vastly more holistic, diversified and cooperative; the farm family more educated. The novelty of the bees drew new people to the orchard, people who became both friends and customers. We found it easier to find and keep good harvest employees who also became friends. Production increased, but so did profit, while at the same time, our costs went down and new markets opened up.
From my perspective, the greatest handicap that farmers and farm scientists around the world labor under is that they fail to experience, and thereby fail to fully comprehend the great potential that exists in dynamic and mutually regenerative natural systems. We, here in the U.S., tend to get locked up in organic and sustainable agriculture and lose the transcendent vision of what farming can and should be. Jules N. Pretty, an agricultural innovator from the United Kingdom, observed that most regenerative agricultural systems will have a 300-500% increase in production per acre–this in an age when a 5% increase in production is looked upon with glee.
As food producers we would do well to try and think beyond monocultures and consider the dynamic potential that exists in diversified, cooperative natural systems, not just for alternative agriculture, but for the health of mainstream agriculture too.
“While a number of potential causes have been championed by a variety of researchers and interest groups, none of them have stood up to detailed scrutiny. Every time a claim is made of finding a 'smoking gun,' further investigation has not been able to make the leap from a correlation to cause-and-effect. Other times, not even a scientific correlation has been demonstrated in the study claiming to have found 'the cause' of CCD … Researchers have concluded that no one factor is the cause of CCD. Most likely, CCD is caused by multiple factors. It is not possible to know at this time if all CCD incidents are due to the same set of factors or if the factors follow the same sequence in every case.”
(2) Jules N. Pretty, Regenerating Agriculture, 1996, National Acadamies Press.