Sunday, February 26, 2012

Thinking about Bees

I recently watched a movie that's had me thinking about bees all day.
The movie is Queen of the Sun and I recommend anybody interested in eating healthy or the health of the natural world watch it.
I've heard it said both in the movie and elsewhere that 40% of the food we eat depends directly on the honey bee for pollination. That sounds impresive but it's a little hard to picture until you consider the foods on your plate. Take for instance my breakfast today: 3 eggs scrambled, 2 pieces of Wheat Montana toast with plum jam, and 2 California mandarins. Now consider what would be missing without the honey bee. The mandarins are gone, as are the plums for the jam. So, now we're down to toast and eggs, but wait a minute. The eggs came from our hens which are fed a mix of layer crumble and cracked corn. The first two ingredients of the crumble are corn and soybeans both of which require pollination. Better cancel the eggs. So what am I left with? Dry toast. Since grains do not require pollination from insects, they are one of the only foods that would be available without honey bees. Pretty sad looking breakfast, not to mention diet.
But wait. What makes the Honey Bee so special? I've read there are 4000+ varieties of native bees on this continent. Here's the deal. Agriculture today is done on a huge scale. In order to feed the millions, farmers must get the most from the land in the most efficient manner possible. So to accomplish this, they plant one crop at a time, in fields that may be hundreds or thousands of acres. That way when it's time to harvest, it's all ready at the same time, streamlining the process to save time and money. Now consider this: in order to develop fruit, each and every bloom on that crop plant must be visited by a pollinator. But can't the local bugs take care of it? Not when you have hundreds or thousands of acres of one crop that all mature at the same time. There is no way for the native pollinators to survive when that one plant is not in bloom. So we bring in the honey bees to get the job done. The greatest example of this in the entire world is occurring right now in central California. Every year in mid-February an estimated 750,000 acres of almonds bloom for three weeks. An estimated 1.5 million honey bee colonies from this country (roughly 3/4 of the bees in the US) and bees from other places are trucked in to pollinate the almond crop. This is bee keeping on a mass scale. These migratory beekeepers log over 100,000 miles a year pollinating crops, following the blooming season. From California to Washington, from Florida to Maine and all places in between migratory beekeepers make modern agriculture possible.
So is there a problem with all this mass pollination? The problem is this: bees are social critters that interact with each other for survival. When bees from across the country and places beyond, all come together in one place like the Central Valley of California to pollinate the almond crop, they bring with them every little virus and parasite that occurs in their local environment. The problem gets worse when there are not enough bees in the US, so beekeepers import bee hives from other countries. Now you've got bees from Australia mingling with bees from North Dakota. Can you say Colony Collapse Disorder? (CCD). US honey bees today are hounded by a rash of diseases and parasites that were unheard of just 10 - 15 years ago because of this shift towards mass pollination. It is this mix of threats that make up what is known as CCD.
I read once that beekeeping is simply the act of keeping bees. And that may have been true years ago, but today that's not enough. Today beekeeping is much more about keeping bees healthy and and alive. But the amazing part is, it is actually the bees that are keeping us alive.
Thanks for reading. KJ

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