American Essence

Preserving Our Pollinators

Why protecting bees is critical to the health of our ecosystem and food supply
BY Kelly Frey TIMEJanuary 19, 2022 PRINT

They fly at speeds of up to 20 miles per hour, flapping their two sets of wings up to 15,000 times per minute. Covering a radius of 3 to 4 miles, and visiting up to 5,000 flowers per day, these tiny creatures are responsible for pollinating up to one third of the world’s fruits and vegetables. Many have a lifespan of about six weeks, but in that time, they might travel the equivalent of around the world and then some. They manufacture all their own building materials, and they live together in colonies of up to 50,000 or more, dividing up chores without argument. They all ultimately pay service to the queen, who mates only once in her lifetime but can lay approximately 2,000 eggs a day.

If you haven’t guessed it yet, these amazing creatures are scientifically identified as Apis mellifera, more commonly known as honey bees, and their existence is vital to our world.

To be altogether accurate, honey bees are not the only pollinators contributing to the wonders of nature and reproduction of plants. Many other insects also fill that role, as do some birds and mammals. The yellow-and-black bumblebee is known for pollinating fruit trees and small crops, as are the wasp, the hornet, and even some mosquito species. Surprisingly, the beetle contributes significantly to the task of pollination, while the lesser-known but certainly most beautiful pollinator is the butterfly.

Moving outside the exoskeleton world, pollinators exist in birds like the hummingbird, or for parts of the country more dry and arid, the white-winged dove, which specializes in pollinating cactus species. In mammals, the nocturnal bat contributes to the cause, as do some marsupials, and even a few rodent species. In tropical climates, the lizard plays a role.

That being said, the largest group of pollinators is insects, and more specifically, those within the bee family—and it is a rather large family. Although human-managed honey bees are most popular, there are wild bees and many varieties of area-specific mason and orchard bees. Each species is different and unique, and yet all have faced challenges with the emergence of urbanization and pesticide use. All, however, are equally important, and most crop owners will testify that a diversified pollination effort always yields the best harvest.

Not All Bees Are Created Equal

Even though honey bees get the most “buzz” when it comes to romanticizing the idea of preserving our environment and balancing the ecosystem, the favored pollinator isn’t always the most efficient. In many cases, species more native to a particular area can pollinate a small space faster and with fewer bees. Pollinating a family garden or small one-acre orchard, for instance, might actually be a job better-suited for regional area bees like the blue mason bee, according to Jeff Maddox, a professional beekeeper in the Midwest area. Similarly, pollination within a greenhouse is handled best by the bumblebee. These insects pollinate small areas quickly and then return back to their homes.

But the sheer size of a honey bee hive, which can outnumber native bees and other insects a hundred-fold or more, makes the honey bee the pollinator of choice for big jobs, regardless of hive efficiency. They hold the overall advantage of long-range pollination, spreading out like a massive army over large-scale commercial orchards or expansive farm crops. The fact that they can be maintained and cultivated in bee boxes allows for easy reproduction under the care of a good beekeeper, and it certainly makes transporting them ideal as well.

“They are the most effective pollinators simply because there are more of them,” Maddox said. “We can move one or more hives of 30,000 honey bees to a crop field or fruit orchard, and they can get the job done better than other pollinators.”

Perhaps more important than getting the job done is simply the importance of the job itself. Many of the fruits and vegetables we regularly shop for at our local farmer’s market or grocery store are dependent upon the honey bee. Blueberries, blackberries, cherries, apples, peaches, pears, and watermelon are highly dependent on bees carrying pollen from one flower to the next. Vegetables such as squash, avocados, pumpkins, peppers, and cucumbers also rely heavily on honey bee pollination, as do many of our nuts, such as the Brazil nut, macadamia nut, and almond.

The pollination of these crops is so crucial that states with warm climates year-round rely on apiarists from cooler climate states to bring in their hives during the deep winter months. The trade-off is twofold: the warmer weather strengthens the out-of-state hives, and the extra bee-power helps pollinate the almond crops of San Joaquin Valley, California.

But wait, there’s more.

“In addition to pollinating food crops, don’t forget that our livestock and wildlife forage for food that is also pollinated by bees,” Maddox stated. That encapsulates the integral role played by pollinators across our entire ecosystem—and testifies to the miracle of nature that is packaged into one tiny insect.

Although this type of pollination is often overlooked, conservationists and professional beekeepers like Maddox have largely been educating the general public about the critical role these tiny creatures play. The effort began after studies in 2006 revealed huge declines in bee populations due to the varroa mite, a parasite that carries viruses and feeds on honey bees. After another sharp decline was detected in 2018—a staggering 40 percent of the population—education and preservation efforts ramped up even more.

Greater awareness has helped bee populations recover. However, the pollinators continue to struggle. Like a workforce downsized from a company that continues to demand output, the worker bees continue the immense job of pollinating and producing.

The Buzz on Beekeeping

Joining forces with them are beekeepers, or apiarists, many of whom are hobbyists yet can help bees and their plight. A growing empathy for bees, along with the latest craze of harvesting wild honey as a hobby, is perhaps why the word is out that caring for a swarm of stinging insects in your backyard might actually be a sweet deal.

Although backyard bees are definitely one of the latest buzz activities, handling bees requires much more than gathering some into a box, placing it in the far corner of your lot, and hoping it survives. Honey bees require attention just like any other animal or herd, and they will do better if tended to properly.

When not in the field himself, Maddox spends a great majority of his time helping local apiarists, and training new beekeepers how to do just that: care for the bees and build healthy hives. Maddox passes on his expertise by teaching how to provide enough food storage for the winter, and teaching the art of splitting hives during the spring when bees reproduce. A veteran beekeeper himself and long-time president of his beekeeping organization, Maddox has been working to preserve bees for over 20 years.

In the Midwest, where Maddox is based, winters can be challenging and rainfall sporadic. But he explained that every part of the country has its own challenges for beekeepers and their hives. Climate, elevation, soil, and rainfall affect how best to maintain hive numbers.

“Beekeeping is just like gardening because bees depend on the same ingredients that plants do,” Maddox stated, “and just like a garden, they need to be tended to and cared for.”

What might the world look like without bees or beekeepers?

Maddox explained that managed honey bees help fully pollinate a crop or orchard, as well as ensure that fruits like apples that require multiple pollinations are adequately covered, so “without bees, we would have a lower quantity of food, and lesser quality of food.”

Statistics show this to be true. According to the American Beekeeping Federation, honey bees contribute nearly $20 billion to U.S. crop production through increasing yields and ensuring superior quality. This translates into the massive stocks of produce that show up in our grocery stores, end up in our carts, and are consumed in our restaurants and kitchens.

Be a Bee Advocate

Sharing in the work of preserving our pollinators doesn’t require that everyone maintain a bee box in the yard. Maddox states that there are several practical things people can do that help not just bees, but other important insects, animals, and key contributors to our ecosystem.

“Plant more plants,” he stated simply. “Foraging plants,” he clarified.

With human activity such as landscaping, bees’ natural habitats are getting destroyed. Maddox recommended that homeowners plant flowering plants native to the area, and keep unfertilized lawns that contain dandelion, clover, and other sedges, rather than the traditional manicured lawn.

“We need to change the image of what a pretty lawn looks like,” Maddox said in defense of the tiny pollinators. “Changing from the perfectly manicured, fertilized green lawn to an eco-friendly diversified landscape of natural grasses and flowers would go a long way for our environment.”

Maddox also suggests planting an herb garden, even for those with minimal or no lawn space. Herbs can grow in a small space and can be housed on a back deck or patio, opening up the project to just about everyone.

“Herbs are easy,” he stated. “Rosemary, oregano, basil, or any number of other herbs—they’re all good for the bees, and good for utilizing when it comes time to fixing a meal as well.”

While Maddox was speaking about bees to a group of elementary aged students, he exhibited how a few simple mindset changes can go a long way.

He told them that they can help “save the bees” by planting a few herbs in the window box and placing their colorfully-painted rocks in a watering pan. The herbs attract the bees, helping them forage and thus pollinate, while the colorful rocks provide a place for them to perch momentarily while sipping water.

“They can watch a microcosm of nature at work right outside their window!” Maddox said. “Catching small glimpses of it through the work of a tiny stinging insect reminds us of creation’s interconnectedness.”

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