Considering the complexity of the global food system, it is easy to forget how much this system depends on the contributions of one group: bees. Close to 75 percent of the crops that humans grow for food must be pollinated in order for the plant to produce fruit—and bees are one of the most common pollinators in the world.
To spotlight this essential role, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) celebrated World Bee Day this week. Coinciding with the birthday of the pioneering Slovenian beekeeper, Anton Janša, World Bee Day is both a celebration as well as a call to action to address the serious threats facing bee populations from climate change and industrial agriculture.
When most people think about bees and food, they think of honey. But bees play an indispensable role in the production of many food crops—from tomatoes and strawberries to almonds and coffee beans. Plants depend on bees for pollination. Especially during the stage of growth when the plant’s pollen transfers genetic material and triggers the plant to produce fruit. Without bees, it is still possible for a lucky guest wind to pollinate plants, but the presence and activity of bees greatly increase pollination, leading to greater crop yields. For food security, this means that healthy bee populations can increase crop yields in farming systems without increasing farmland. The pollination performed by bees also contributes to the quality of the crop—a misshapen apple or stunted strawberry is the sign of incomplete pollination—and to biodiversity when a bee transfer cross-pollinates between different plants.
Increasing threats are mounting against bee populations. According to Val Dolcini, the former Administrator for the Farm Service Agency at the United States Department of Agriculture and the current President and CEO of the Pollinator Partnership, these threats can be summarized in four main areas: “One would certainly be pesticide misuse. Then there are parasites and pathogens. And there is the pressures of climate change, leading to the mismatch of flower blooms and the emergence of native bees. But I think the biggest threat is the loss of pasture or habitat. We’ve created a lot of monocultures in the United States, in the Midwest in particular, and what was formerly a diverse habitat hosting multiple species is now farmed to just one or two crops. That loss of habitat has had an impact on pollinators of all types.”
With increasing awareness of the problems that threaten bee populations in the United States, a number of organizations are working on the issue, including FAO, the Pollinators Partnership, and the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. The greatest opportunity for helping bee populations thrive is to build habitats that support them. It is very possible that farms if managed according to the principles of sustainable agriculture and agroecology, could become the ideal habitat for bees—providing a diverse array of flowers to feed the bees as well as an optimal location for mating and nesting—and the benefits would be mutual for food production.
For individuals, supporting bee populations can be as simple as planting a mixture of native grass species in the backyard or cultivating a small flower garden that will attract bees. It is also essential that more people learn about the threats that bee populations face and what this means for the global food system.
This week, in honour of World Bee Day, FAO will host a special event in Washington, D.C., titled “World Bee Day: A Call for Global Action.” The event will feature a panel discussion, including Val Dolcini, moderated by Food Tank Board Member Nabeeha Kazi on the vital role of bees for food and agriculture.
(Danielle Nierenberg is President of Food Tank and an expert on sustainable agriculture and food issues. She has written extensively on gender and population, the spread of factory farming in the developing world and innovations in sustainable agriculture)