The importance of bees for a successful farm
Bees play a big role in agriculture. They pollinate crops, increase yields, and give rise to a lucrative honey industry. Bees are so important, in fact, that millions are spent renting hives to pollinate farmers’ crops.
Over one third of the food we eat relies on pollination by bees, either directly or indirectly. Many fruits, nuts, and vegetables require pollination by bees and other insects in order to yield fruit, and without pollinators these crops could all but disappear from grocery store shelves.
All of this pollination adds up to a big price tag: Honey bees contribute $24 billion annually to U.S. agriculture, and 161.8 million pounds of raw honey was produced in 2016. But honey bees, and the industry, biodiversity, and nutritional variety they provide, is at risk.
What’s Affecting Bee Populations?
Honey bees have been in crisis since 2006, when beekeepers first reported the sudden disappearances of entire colonies. Beehives were found abandoned with no sign of life except a solitary queen, and scientists were mystified.
Today, this phenomenon is known as colony collapse disorder, but the causes behind it still aren’t understood. Beekeepers continue to lose up to 45 percent of their hives every winter while trying to manage threats from several directions.
The primary suspects behind colony collapse disorder are pesticides, especially those used in industrial agriculture, and destructive pests that invade hives and spread disease.
Neonicotinoids are a group of pesticides common in the agriculture industry. Neonicotinoids are used in the production of corn, one of our country’s most important crops, as well as wheat, soy, and cotton. They also alter bee behavior, limiting their ability to harvest nectar, and weaken bees’ immune systems, leaving them more vulnerable to pests and parasites.
The Varroa mite, is a parasite that attacks honey bees, weakening individual bees and infesting hives. Within one to two years, varroa mites can wipe out a colony of honey bees.
While Varroa mites get the most attention, they’re hardly the only pest putting bee populations in danger. Tracheal mites reduce honey production and eventually cause bees to die off. The small hive beetle is native to sub-Saharan Africa and has caused major colony loss throughout the bee population.
Habitat loss is another big threat to bee populations. As the amount of preserved natural environment decreases, so do bee habitats and food sources. When bees don’t have enough to forage, they can’t repopulate their hives.
Reasons Why Bees Are So Important To Farmers
- Most food crops benefit from pollination by bees
Insect pollination is a key ecosystem service for agriculture, influencing the productivity of 75% of crop species1 and in numerous studies, bees have been found to be the most effective and efficient pollinators.
A mix of wild pollinators and managed pollinators (such as honey bee hives and commercially reared boxes of bumble bees) are used by farmers to pollinate all manner of food crops from tomatoes to fruits like blueberries, apples, beans and almonds and seeds.
- Some crops cannot produce fruits without bees
Some plants absolutely rely on bees, and without them, the plants will produce very few, or even no fruits at all. There are a number of examples where this is the case, including watermelon plants which absolutely require pollination from both honey bees and wild bees in order for the plant to produce healthy fruits. Each flower produced by the watermelon plant only lasts a day, and ideally requires multiple visits by bees.
Lack of pollination by bees can result in significantly fewer fruits and misshapen fruits that are less sweet.
- Pollination by bees improves abundance (yield) of fruits, pulses, seeds, berries and nuts. This has been proven in numerous studies including apples, blueberries, strawberries to name a few.
- Pollination by bees results in higher profit for farmers
In other words, bees help farmers earn a living! Given that pollination by bees results in better quality produce, this means the farmer can get a higher price for his crops, so from the perspective of the farmer, bees are a valuable partner.
The farmer will plant the crop and devote the time and effort necessary to get the best quality produce, but its the input of the bees that will make the difference to how profitable his business is.
It means that every hectare of land will produce a higher amount of profit if bees are visiting the crops grown on it.
Numerous studies confirm that bee pollination enables farmers to gain a higher price for their produce, including in apples, strawberries, blueberries and watermelons.
- Pollination by bees can help increase shelf-life of fruits and reduce food waste!
Some food crops have a short shelf-life, leading to food wastage. For example, more than 90% of strawberry fruits can become non-marketable after only 4 days in storage.
Yet studies of pollination in strawberries by Klatt et al (2014) found that thanks to bees, strawberries last longer, resulting in less wastage. The longer shelf life meant that fewer fruits had to be thrown away, saving farmers lots of money.
- Bees provide pollination services even in cooler weather
A notable example is that honey bees are vital for almond pollination. This is because honey bees are able to venture out in cooler weather when other insects are still hibernating, and the almond tree is in blossom.
- Pollination by bees results in tastier fruits
By measuring the natural fruit sugar content of fruits pollinated by bees, and identical fruits not pollinated by bees, its possible to scientifically prove that pollination by bees results in sweeter fruits.