Article by Mira Word, written for Good Food Finder.
It was a hot Arizona summer day when I got stung by my first bee.
I was sitting up on a fence post watching the horses work up a sweat cantering around in the pasture. As I jumped down, I felt a sharp jab under my arm. It burned and itched for a couple hours then I got over it. But as a culture we have decided to outcast and fear a creature that provides a huge service to humanity. What most people picture when they think of a bee, is getting stung.
What we tend to ignore, is the fact that bees are the primary pollinators for all produce. Without them, you can practically kiss goodbye juicy apples, pears, peaches, oranges, and blueberries just to name a few. Our diet would be all starches and pretty darn boring without these helpful creatures. What is more concerning than our general fear of honeybees, is their dramatic rate of disappearance. Over the last two decades, the number of beehives, estimated by the Agriculture Department to be 2.4 million, has dropped by a quarter and the number of beekeepers by half. To cope with the losses, beekeepers have been scouring bees to fulfill their contracts with growers from as far as Australia. There is definitely something strange going on here.
Scientists have coined the term “Colony Collapse Disorder” which basically means the abrupt and rapid loss of adult bee populations. There is no clear indication of what exactly is happening to the bees. However, it is clear the bees are undergoing an extreme amount of environmental stress. From intense use of pesticides, malnutrition, and migratory beekeeping, the typical honeybee is subject to a magnified amount of toxins and stress than their ancestors. The combination of all these effects makes for a weaker bee colony and one that is susceptible to more diseases like mites which have the capacity to do some major damage. In addition, the insecticides used to try to kill mites are harming the ability of queen bees to produce as many worker bees and the queens are living half as long as they did just a few years ago.
What is so fascinating about the issue of Colony Collapse Disorder is the red flag that is frantically being waved in front of our nose. When bees are dying it is an indicator of environmental imbalance. If this is happening to bees that come in contact with the pollen of our food, then what is happening to us, the ones that eat this food?
With the domination of industrialized agriculture bees have less bio-diverse crops to choose from and so do we. Many of the problems we face can be traced back to our obsession with monocultures. They eliminate the biodiversity bees and plenty of other species depend on. For example, take the 740,000 acres (enough to cover the state of Rhode Island) of almond orchards in California. When we eliminate a ecosystem full of plants growing and blooming at different intervals we are depriving alternative food sources to pollinators like the honeybee. To keep the bees' energy up and while they are transported and pollinating, beekeepers now feed them "protein supplements" and a liquid mix of corn syrup. Tens of billions of bees are transported around the country every year in order to pollinate rising numbers of mono-cultured acres because beekeepers now earn many times more renting their bees out to pollinate crops than in producing honey themselves. There is something wrong with this picture, we are feeding bees high fructose corn syrup as a replacement for the natural biodiversity of a typical ecosystem. In a system so reliant on outside inputs there is no hope of sustaining it.
Instead of trying to sustain a broken system however, what we need are eaters who support smaller scale biodynamic farmers. From a positive perspective there are incredible farms and beekeepers fighting to keep rich and diverse farms alive. Honeybee sanctuaries are springing up everywhere, even in inner city habitats! Search The Good Food Finder for local honey in your area. From there you can check out great farms like Skull Valley Lavender Farm, nestled in the middle of the Prescott National Forest who makes lavender infused honey http://goodfoodfinder.com/?s=honey.
For more on the fascinating life and troubles of the honeybee check out the documentary Queen of the Sun. It is very informative and outlines positive solutions to help us get back in balance with the natural talents of the honeybee and our environment as a whole.