How to be a Good BEE: Make Honey or Pollinate Crops?
Written by Dr Klaus L.E. Kaiser
The honeybees have a problem: they are confused. More specifically, they wonder whether their primary task is to produce honey or to pollinate plants.
The answer depends on whom you ask!
The Honeybees as Honey Makers
For many centuries now honey was the product expected from the apiarists’ honeybee hives. The apiarists and the bees did their best and the world has had a good amount of honey all the time. In the Middle Ages the “Lebkuchen” (a German term for gingerbread) was invented. It gave the apiarists of Franconia and elsewhere a convenient way to flog their honey in the form of a “value-added” product. Ever since, the Christmas seasons in Europe are incomplete without gingerbread cookies or gingerbread houses, like the one above.
Even the bees liked that arrangement. During the winter season they were well taken care of by their apiarist owner and in the next spring and summer they rewarded him with a new bounty of honey. However, that century-old arrangement has been abrogated and circumvented in recent years. Now, many bee colonies are given another task that does not jive with the former.
That new task for the bees is to pollinate every flower in sight. Of course, the old task of making honey did not become superfluous, just the opposite. The bees are now expected to fulfill both roles as prescribed.
Unfortunately, that does not work; let me explain in more detail.
The Honeybees as Pollinators
In recent decades agriculture has steadily evolved towards large monoculture systems. For example, Iowa is the largest corn-growing state in the U.S. with 14 million acres dedicated to that crop. While corn does not need bees for pollination such a “monoculture” landscape has effects on migratory species of birds and other organisms like Monarch butterflies.
Honeybees do not harvest corn pollen unless desperate as they are foraging normally on other plants within their reach. Still, in the Province of Ontario, the Ontario Beekeepers Association (OBA) is extremely vociferous about corn growers in the area and the supposed (i.e. their claimed) effects of NP-treated corn, soybean, and canola seeds on their bees. Quite recently, it was evident that the Agriculture Minister became totally silent with regard to direction for the government’s proposed regulation of coated seed to be used by the farming industry coming from the province’s Premier’s office. Obviously, there are conflicting views within the Cabinet.
In terms of honeybees as pollinators, there are two outstanding examples of the bee’s task to pollinate (honey production be damned), namely almonds and blueberries.
The U.S. produces well over half of the world’s production of almonds – and almost all of it in California. In contrast to corn, almonds do need to be pollinated by insects like the honeybees.
Wikipedia has an interesting and illuminating statement about that: “The pollination of California’s almonds is the largest annual managed pollination event in the world, with close to one million hives (nearly half of all beehives in the USA) being trucked in February to the almond groves. Much of the pollination is managed by pollination brokers, who contract with migratory beekeepers from at least 49 states for the event.” In fact, more than half of all bee colonies in the U.S. are required to pollinate all the almond flowers when they are blooming in California.
The pictures of California’s blooming almond groves are certainly amazing; miles upon miles of almond tree plantations with trees covered with pinkish flowers;
Of course, the almond tree bloom lasts only for a few weeks and neither before nor after that period is there much work for the honeybees in that area. But, from the almond growers’ perspective, that’s no problem. Simply import the bee hives when needed and ship them back thereafter. However, I surmise exactly that’s the bees’ problem. A similar plight exists for the honeybees that are being shipped from central Canada to the eastern provinces each spring, especially to pollinate blueberries, a source of zero nutrition for the bees.
Imagine the Bee’s Plight
Imagine the bee’s plight being locked up with a million neighbors in a tiny structure for week and being transported on a rickety old truck for thousands of miles along countryside roads before seeing daylight again. At that very moment then, you are supposed to know where each tree is and to do your work of pollinating each flower before being shipped back under similar conditions. Would you like to volunteer for that job at less than minimum pay? For an example of the shipping methods, see the picture below.
Nonetheless, the bees try their best to pollinate the crops. However, their honey production and hive health is less than optimal; quite understandably so. The bees need activism on their behalf – but not of the kind currently in vogue.
Neonics and Bee Activism
From the Sierra Club to the Union of Concerned Scientists and many other activist groups like those, the bees appear to get ready help from environmental activists everywhere. They all denounce the neonics pesticides (NPs) as the bee’s “evil extraordinaire.” As mentioned, politicians looking to garner some votes also are jumping into the fray. In short the NPs have been put on a time-limited moratorium and/or other restrictions both in Europe and possibly some North American jurisdictions.
However, there is a little problem with such bans in some countries. For example, Ireland where there are next to no NPs used, the honeybees are in worse condition than in many other places where they are widely being used. For example, in Australia which uses NPs in large amounts throughout its agricultural areas, the bee hives are in good health.
The same holds true for the main honey-producing provinces of Canada, like Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. Those areas all use NP-treated canola or corn seeds and yet have healthy hives and are the major honey producers in the country. The main difference is that the beekeepers in those places do not ship their hives back and forth across the continent for pollination purposes. In fact, renting out the hives for pollination purposes has become a major source of income for many beekeepers dealing with hive losses as an acceptable form of collateral damage.
The recent study by Harvard’s Dr. Chensheng Lu, widely touted by the current bee activists as proof for the neonics influence, is all but junk science that should never have seen the light of a scientific journal.
The unfortunate truth is that the bees, along with the many farmers using NP-treated seeds will have to suffer a few more years before really independent and proper science will come about. I have no doubt that such will exonerate the neonics.
Dr. Klaus L.E. Kaiser is author of CONVENIENT MYTHS, the green revolution – perceptions, politics, and facts convenientmyths.com
Dr. Kaiser can be reached at:email@example.com