by Sue Futrell & Gideon Burdick
Everyone wants to save the bees! And for good reason; they are one of the most beneficial of beneficial insects, and they are in danger. In the United States beekeepers lost 40 percent of their honeybee colonies last year, and in the Netherlands the population of wild bees has dropped 90 percent over the past 120 years. This decline in population is cause for concern, especially as a disproportionate amount of nutrient rich foods are pollinator dependent. Crops like fruits, vegetables, and nuts all depend on pollinators, whereas others, including wheat, corn, and rice are self-pollinated, or natural methods other than bees.
The lack of pollinators is already hampering production and causing a cyclical response that continues to stress bee populations. As the need for food continues to rise, the per-acre yields of pollinator-dependent crops are not keeping up with overall agricultural productivity. This causes more land to be put into production, and less uncultivated space – spaces filled with wild flowers and weeds – which pollinators need to thrive, to be available. In addition, fields planted with just one crop, regardless of its pollinator dependence also stress populations. Those that are dependent, including the California almond crop, have a make or break need for massive amounts of honeybees, but only for a few weeks a year.
One of the culprits in declining bee health is a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids (or neonics), which are used on many crops on the US. You may have seen the many petitions and campaigns calling for them to be banned. But the problem is not that simple to solve. Used in targeted, careful ways, neonics have been an important tool for growers of fruit and vegetable crops, as an alternative to older, even more toxic classes like organophosphates. When used in a rotation they can keep pests from developing resistance to pesticides, something more likely when the same treatments are used over and over. We can’t have food without bees, but we also need to protect crops from damaging pests. Managing that delicate balance is a constant challenge for farmers.
A 10/19/2015 article in the New York Times, “A Dangerous Cycle in Food Production” is one of the best overviews we’ve seen of this complex issue. The replacement of wild habitat with monocultures, the global movement of goods that exposes insects to new viruses and fungi – all of this, combined with the exposure to pesticides, including neonicotinoids, are causing a crisis not only for bees but for our food system as a whole. The author points to “the bigger environmental impact of the vast, highly intensive farms that are common in North America and Western Europe.” And suggests a way forward that we see every day on the farms we work with at Red Tomato– “a system that favors smaller-scale producers using fewer chemicals, encouraging natural predators to manage pests and growing a variety of crops…”
Since the Eco Apple certification programs inception we’ve been working with farmers, scientists, and scientific advisers such as the Xerces Institute, to develop an ecology based program that tackles specific farming challenges on an orchard by orchard level. Our program continues to develop, but growing apples in New England is a challenge. Red Tomato’s continued partnership with the IPM Institute of North America to develop a protocol that puts pesticide use last – only after biological controls including mating disruption, natural predators, and trapping– is our commitment to a system of agriculture that is good not only for the consumer and farmer, but also right for our planet.
We are following the research on bees and neonics closely, as are all of the growers we work with, whose crops all depend on bees for pollination. One of the most common uses of neonics is as a seed treatment, broadcast on millions of acres of corn and soybeans. A webinar from the NE IPM Center this October reported new research on soybeans that may show this approach is actually reducing yields because of harm to beneficial predator insects that otherwise help protect the crop. The research into neonics usage is vast, and we’re proud excited to also be partnering with Cornell University on wild pollinators. While there are no formal findings yet, research thus far indicates that orchards managed under an eco protocol like ours have good healthy habitat for pollinators.
Take a look at this article for more background. And before you sign that petition to Save the Bees, read carefully to see if the solutions proposed take into account the complexity of the issue. And take time to thank your local farmer for working hard to make their farms a healthy place for bees!