RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—If you wanted to measure how far humankind has removed agriculture from its natural state, you need only check the odometers of the trucks that transport a migrant labor force of honeybees from field to field for the fundamental and oh-so critical act of pollination. That’s right, commercial beekeepers drive hives (full of flying insects!) to farms across the country, providing reproductive services to growers of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and field crops that depend on honeybees to produce an estimated $15 billion in groceries each year.
Strange as this arrangement sounds, no one besides beekeepers and farmers paid much attention to it until 2007. Then the media—I’m talking The New York Times, not Progressive Farmer or the Journal of Apiculture Research—began to report the disturbing news about Colony Collapse Disorder. For reasons no one could (or can) pin down, an alarming number of honeybee hives were being found vacant—as in, no bees alive or dead inside them. Scientists theorized about a destructive new mite, deadly viruses, loss of habitat, and widespread pesticide use. Unsubstantiated claims implicating cellphone towers circulated. All the reports warned of dire consequences for farmers and gardeners if the epidemic continued.
But while researchers probed for the cause and agronomists (who focus on the business, rather than the science or craft, of food production) calculated the costs, the native pollinator population showed up for work. You see, honeybees are what you might call illegal aliens, brought to North America by European settlers. But 4,000 other species of bees are native to North America. Research from the University of California at Berkeley has found that native bees are pollinating in the honeybees’ absence. What’s more, there are specialists, such as squash bees, who do their jobs more efficiently than European honeybees. Wild native bees are also more likely to venture out in cool or cloudy weather, when honeybees prefer to remain hivebound. Joining them are other native species, including moths, beetles, ants, hummingbirds, and even bats, who work as pollinators, too.
WHAT IT MEANS: All of this makes it more clear than ever that our food supply and the health of our planet rely on a balanced ecosystem and that we are best served by working in concert with nature rather than trying to trick or manipulate it. What does that mean to those of us who are not farmers or beekeepers?
Here’s what you can do to help keep our food supply well pollinated: