Wild and Domesticated: the invisible powerhouses of our food system

23 Feb

During this time of year it’s hard to imagine trees flowering and bees buzzing—but right about now, in the Central Valley of California, over 800,000 acres of almond trees are blooming.

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Almond flowers only bloom for about two weeks in late February. This is a critical period of time because in order for the trees to produce any almonds, the flowers need to be cross-pollinated, which means that bees need to visit each of the thousands of flowers, on each of the thousands of trees, all in the course of two weeks. This is why the almond bloom is the largest annual managed pollination event in the world. Large-scale commercial beekeepers transport over 1.5 million hives of honey bees from all over the country and across the globe to the Central Valley of California. 1

Why do bees need to be imported? Industrial agriculture in the United States initially expanded with the introduction of Nitrogen fertilizer supplements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.2 Rationalized production methods and monoculture systems increased acreage. For pollination this meant that industrial agriculture methods were destroying natural pollinator habitat and the wild pollinators already present in the landscape were not enough to support the booming industry.

The almond industry exemplifies how pollination has adapted to meet the needs of commercial agriculture. Mechanized agricultural processes required a mechanized pollination process, and the European honey bee, Apis mellifera, was an ideal pollinator for the job. Honey bees, as the most widely utilized insect pollinators, are the invisible powerhouses that enable commercial agriculture to thrive. Honey bees are versatile, generalist pollinators that live in large perennial colonies and forage over long distances, so they are well suited to provide pollination services over large areas. Honey bees communicate efficiently within their hives about food sources, and also produce honey which is a marketable product of its own. Over time, industrial agriculture not only employed honey bees as supplemental pollinators, but they also required them.

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And it’s more than just almonds. We rely on insects, and primarily honey bees, to pollinate everything from nuts to fruits and vegetables. Livestock and dairy products are also indirectly derived from insect-pollinated legumes or grasses. Insect pollination is also responsible for many fat and oil producing seeds. Both wild and domesticated, insect pollination is responsible for one out of every three bites of food.3

There are grave consequences to transforming insect pollination into an industry. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has become the catchall phrase for describing the phenomenon of continued colony disappearance and hive decline since the early 2000’s. It has been difficult to isolate one specific reason for CCD, since it has roots throughout the entire system of modern industrial agriculture. It has been attributed it to hive exposure to toxic pesticides, viruses, mites, and poor nutrition. The short of it is that bees are dying, and we’re going to have to get involved in order to save them, and ourselves.

The apple and pear orchards of Southwest China exhibit a dramatic example of where the United States might be headed if pollinator health continues to decline. Farmers in Southwest China are hand pollinating their fruit orchards by hand.4 They have no other choice than to resort to these tactics because widespread pesticide use has eradicated all of the wild pollinators in the area. If current agricultural trends in the United States continue, and we do not acknowledge our precarious dependence on these small living creatures and take immediate action, Americans are also destined for hand pollination.

But this crisis also presents an opportunity for positive change. Individuals now have the chance to become more informed about food production, and reintegrate themselves in the  production process. Beekeeping is reemerging as a craft throughout the U.S. The movement towards urban beekeeping complements the movement towards urban farming and gardening. The initiative to localize food production and redistribute the load from industrial farms has heightened public awareness surrounding these issues.

That is to say that there are still small farms that maintain a less mechanized and more integrated structure within their surroundings, and in turn they benefit from wild pollinators. I interviewed Ben Clark of Clarkdale Fruit Farms in Deerfield, MA, who told me that he has never had to use a commercial honey bee hive and he doesn’t plan on it. His fruit orchards are home to many native insects that do a more efficient job pollinating his fruit trees than any honey bee would do.

So, during these cold months, as you snack on some trail mix, or some roasted almonds, or even before you bite into that apple, you can take an extra minute to think about the journey that food took to get to you, and remember that it relied on millions of tiny insects humming and buzzing and spreading pollen.

-Ellena Baum, ’14

CEEDS Field Station Intern

Photographs: Kathy Keatley Garvey

1.Ferris Jabr, “The Mind-Boggling Math of Migratory Beekeeping,” Scientific American, September 11, 2013, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=migratory-beekeeping-mind-boggling-math.

2. Edward D. Melillo, “The First Green Revolution: Debt Peonage and the Making of the Nitrogen Fertilizer Trade, 1840–1930,” The American Historical Review, (2012) 117 (4): 1028-1060.doi: 10.1093/ahr/117.4.1028

3. Samuel Emmett McGregor. Insect Pollination Of Cultivated Crop Plants. Agricultural Research Service, US Department of Agriculture, 1976.

4. Dave Goulson, “Decline of Bees Forces China’s Apple Farmers to Pollinate by Hand,” China Dialogue, February 10, 2012. https://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/5193

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