Thanks to Bees

Further loss of these beneficial insects would really sting.

The next time you bake an apple pie or munch a handful of almonds, be sure to thank a honeybee.

Why? Bees don’t just produce delicious honey. Their most important job is pollinating crops like apples, onions, cranberries and other foods. Scientists say these insects, along with birds, butterflies and mammals, pollinate two-thirds of our food crops and up to 90% of wild plants. Bees alone help provide every third bite of food we eat.

For such small creatures, honeybees also pack an economic punch. By helping increase yields, it’s estimated they contribute $15 billion a year to U.S. agriculture.

Bad News About Bees

Sadly, our bees are in trouble. “The overall situation with honeybees is fairly poor,” says Eric Mäder, who serves as assistant pollinator program director for the non-profit Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, in Portland, Oregon.

Mäder says that most of our non-native honeybees came into the U.S. from Europe and, in recent years, they’ve been dying from diseases and parasites introduced from around the world, including a syndrome known as Colony Collapse Disorder. Loss of habit and the stresses of moving hives around for pollination are also taking a toll.

Even native American bees, which also play a vital role in commercial agriculture, are suffering. “We don’t have a lot of wild, feral bees left anymore, except the Africanized honeybees, which escaped from a breeding project and are now wild in the South,” Mäder says of the variety that are referred to as “killer bees,” often mistakenly. “Wild bees are a little more resistant to disease and parasites. But we’re losing species at an alarming rate.”

Mäder hopes we’ll also focus on conserving these bees, which benefit us humans by doing such things as buffering our food supply during the current honeybee shortage. “There were about 4,000 species of native wild bees in North America before the honeybee was introduced. They’re better adapted to our conditions. Our native wild bees, like sweat bees, bumbles and the metallic blue mason bees common in early spring, contribute $3 billion a year to the U.S. economy.”

Still, honeybees get the spotlight these days.

“Honeybees have the benefit of a great beekeeping community and scientific research, but natives aren’t necessarily getting the same attention. We’ve probably already lost a quarter of our native bumblebee species in the last 10 to 15 years.”

Helping Bees Can Help Farmers

The good news, says Mäder, is that farmers have the potential to provide the “biggest and best solutions to bee declines in this country. They have a huge opportunity to address the situation in ways nobody else can.”

How? Farmers can grow pollen and nectar sources on the land outside their crop fields. “Apples, sunflowers and alfalfa may all come into bloom at once, creating a big feast for bees, but bees need food throughout the season,” Mäder says.

The USDA National Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS, is helping, by offering incentives to famers who plant wildflowers and flowering hedgerows that prolong the bloom period.

“Farmers don’t have to take land out of production to do this,” Mäder explains. “The NRCS can help them establish wildflowers in buffer systems, ditches or embankments. It’s commonly called ‘conservation cover’ for highly erodible land that you’re not farming anyway, so it’s been left fallow.”

“There are two NRCS programs, ‘EQIP’, or Environmental Quality Incentives Program, and ‘WHIP’, or Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program. Both began with the 2008 Farm Bill, and both are super-easy, low-threshold programs that just about any farmer can get into.”

While the NRCS won’t give you seeds or shrubs, it does offer technical advice on what to plant in your area and how to care for those plants. If you have a problem with soil erosion, for example, the program might identify ways to reduce your erosion by adding pollinator habitat. Farmers who create these new habitats may find themselves hosting other desirable wildlife, too, like songbirds or quail.

“Habitat need is crucial,” Mäder says. “It’s the number one factor behind pollinator decline.”

For more information on EQIP and WHIP, visit the National Resources Conservation Service.

Financial assistance is also available, although it varies by income and region. Check with your local USDA service center, or visit the USDA Service Center Agencies online to see if you qualify.

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