America’s Bee Crisis: Part 4 – BEE Part of the Solution

This is Part 4 of an ongoing series about the state of bees in America. Prior posts are:
Part 1 – How Did We Get Here?
Part 2 – Our Big, BEE-utiful World
Part 3 – Native Bees Get It Done!

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better.
It’s not.
~Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

Intensive monoculture farming is bad in a lot of ways: it’s hard on the soil, it taxes our nation’s water supply, it relies heavily on toxic pesticides, and it leaves no habitat for wildlife. It even destroys the very thing we need to produce our food: pollinators. The European honeybee has unfortunately been made complicit in this, because their portability allows agribusinesses to wipe out all native insects while still having the benefit of pollination. But many farmers are starting to recognize the limitations of using the honeybee alone: as Colony Collapse Disorder reduces the number of available honeybee hives, the cost of leasing the remaining ones is increasing, if they’re available for lease at all. Incorporating native bees into modern agriculture is a real win-win. Supporting farmers who are making this change is critical.

America’s Bee Crisis: Part 4 – BEE Part of the Solution

A Call To Farms
I have a wonderful children’s book, Apples to Oregon. It tells a fictionalized account of the true story of Henderson Luelling who, with his wife and eight children, brought a wagon full of 700 plants and young fruit trees across the Oregon Trail from Salem, Iowa to Milwaukee, Oregon in 1847. He and his brothers established the first nursery and fruit orchard in the state of Oregon. It was an exciting and harrowing journey keeping all those seedlings alive! What is not included in the story is their tale of moving beehives across the country. Of course, they didn’t need to! Wild bees were abundant throughout North America then. And they can be again.

This apple is misshapen and lacks seeds because it wasn't fully pollinated.

This apple is misshapen and lacks seeds because it wasn’t fully pollinated.

The nice thing about trying to save a tiny insect like the bee, is that you don’t necessarily have to set aside large tracts of land for them. They can often do quite well living on the margins. And that’s what we’re talking about here: farmers don’t need to make huge sacrifices for native bees. They need only make small but significant changes – give the bees the poor soil, fencerows, ditches, understory, and any areas that are difficult to plow or irrigate; avoid getting overspray on these areas; and allow in them to grow a variety flowering plants. In return the farmers get 100% absolutely free pollination services! On farms where native bees are abundant, scientists have counted more than 100 species of bees pollinating the crops together. That kind of bee diversity results in really thorough pollination that produces bigger, better, more perfect fruit. Pretty good deal, right? As consumers, our job is to encourage these kinds of farming methods by spending our dollars wisely.

Buy Organic
This is an important fist step. Insecticides kill insects. All insects. Period. They do not discriminate. If a poison can kill an aphid it will kill a bee. (It might kill you, too, but that’s another blog post.) Right now in the U.S. there are some pretty nasty insecticides approved for use in conventional farming that are known to be extremely harmful to bees. We don’t yet have legislation in place to curtail their use, so the best thing you can do is vote with your dollars. Organic farmers also tend to use healthier farming practices, like low or no till farming, crop rotation, and the use of cover crops to enrich the soil. It’s good to keep in mind, however, that organic farmers do use some pesticides that are harmful to insects as well, especially on very large farms. Monoculture is monoculture after all, whether it carries a Certified Organic label or not.

Bumblebee pollinating blueberry.

Bumblebee pollinating blueberry.

Shop at Farmer’s Markets
This step will have a much bigger impact than buying organic. Farmer’s markets are the domain of small-scale, diversified farms. Industrial monoculture farms have no place here. You see, farmer’s markets are open from spring through fall, and the farmers pay a fee to bring their crops to sell each week. This means that they must plant a variety of crops. They just have to have something ready to sell each and every week or they are losing money. Crop monocultures don’t work for this business model. Keep in mind that organic certification can be expensive and some farmers opt not to pay for it even though they use organic methods. Ask questions! Farmers are generally happy to discuss their farming practices. You can even talk to them about native bees. 🙂

Farmer's Market by WBUR Boston.

Farmer’s Market by WBUR Boston.

Eat More Foods in Season
Consider California: approximately one quarter of its 100 million acres is used for farming. Almost half of all the fruits, vegetables, and nuts eaten in the entire United States are grown in California. Some crops are sourced almost entirely from California, such as almonds, lettuce, and strawberries. Farming is big business in California. Actually, it’s a massive business. For one state to provide half of the fresh produce eaten by 350 million Americans requires industrial monoculture farming. So the next time you’re tempted to buy a pint of fresh strawberries in December, pause to consider the impact of that fruit. Maybe it would work just as well to use frozen strawberries that were harvested locally at the peak of ripeness. As a bonus, the frozen local ones will have more flavor and nutrition.

Workers on massive strawberry farm in California, by Glenn Nelson.

Workers on monoculture strawberry farm in California, by Glenn Nelson.

Get Involved
There are a number of non-profit organizations devoted to the welfare of bees and other pollinators, and lots of ways to be involved. The Xerces Society teaches farmers the best ways to provide habitat for beneficial insects. Pollinator Partnership provides free educational materials about bees and funds research on pollinators. Beyond donating your time or money, you can also work as a “Citizen Scientist” by participating in projects that collect data about bees around the U.S. The Great Sunflower Project is one of these, and requires nothing more than planting a sunflower and spending a few minutes each day observing and documenting the bees that visit it.

Bumblebee on sunflower by Ben.

Bumblebee on sunflower by Ben.

Bee an Advocate!
This, I believe, is one of the most important steps you can take. Many – perhaps most – people are only aware of honeybees and bumblebees. They simply do not know that other bees exist. The plight of honeybees and Colony Collapse Disorder are big news stories right now. Use this as an opportunity to educate others! Knowledge can be a powerful instigator of change, but only when it is shared. This series is intended to empower all of you to speak on behalf of our native pollinators. Native bees do so much for us; let’s show them some love in return.

Many of you will also want to make some changes to your home garden to help out our native bees. More on that in Part 5. 🙂

P.S. This is a series of blog posts that will include a giveaway of 2 complete mason bee kits; be sure to follow me here and on Facebook so you won’t miss an installment!


The Nitty Gritty
Since acquiring my mason bees in 2008 I have developed a passionate interest in bees in general, and solitary bees in particular. This series is a culmination of my last 6 years spent reading books, scientific studies, and news articles, as well as observing bees in the wild. For further reading on this topic, I suggest:

For information about farming with native bees: Farming for Native Bees: Guidelines for Providing Native Bee Habitat on Farms and Attracting Native Pollinators, both by The Xerces Society.
For information about the use of pesticides in organic farming: Organic Pesticides: Not an Oxymoron, by Maureen Langlois
For information about California agriculture: California Department of Food and Agriculture.

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