So we all know that America’s bee population is declining at an alarming rate. According to the USDA Agriculture Research Service, the total number of managed honey bee colonies has gone from 5 million in the 1940s to half of that today. “At the same time, the call for hives to provide pollination services has continued to increase. This means honey bee colonies are being transported over longer distances than ever before,” (ARS).
There are many possible reasons for this decline, but it seems that a clear answer has yet to be found. Some of the possibilities scientists are looking at are pathogens, such as Nosema, described morbidly as “pathogen gut fungi,” and Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (ARS). Other possible causes are management and environmental stressors, including lack of diversity of plant nectar, being shipped all over the place, and not enough access to clean water in the wild. One, some, or all of these factors have most likely caused this decline, otherwise known as Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD for short, (ARS).
As caretakers of the earth, we want to prevent this from continuing. The organic approach to agriculture, in my opinion, would help slow this tragic loss. We depend on bees for pollination and without them we would be in a bad state, let me tell you. According to the ARS, “About one mouthful in three in our diet directly or indirectly benefits from honey bee pollination.” They contribute billions to our country’s agricultural production annually!
That being said, I recently became aware of the fact that not all organic methods of farming are bee-friendly. Organic farmers are allowed to use a list of approved substances for fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides. The Xerxes Society for Invertebrate Conservation listed some of these substances and rated them as “Non-Toxic,” “Low Toxicity,” and “Highly Toxic,” in reference to the bee’s well-being. I will list them here for you:toxicity table
I, personally, was surprised that some of the approved practices for organic farming could be part of the cause of CCD! I’m beginning to become aware of the fact that there are two groups of organic growers. There’s the group the truly cares for the environment and then there’s the group that is just trying to capitalize on the new up-and-coming organic food trend. Then again, I know there are others out there like me who had no idea that even organic methods can be bad for bees, as well as countless other insects, however I really see my future farming adhering to Sir Albert Howard’s strict definition of what organic means. “The system (or growing production) ‘having a complex but necessary interrelationship of parts, similar to that in living things’,” (Heckman). The earth is made of a myriad of complex systems, each relying on the other to do what it does best. When one part of the large-scale system is damaged or suffering, it effects all the others in one way or another, so farming in a way that’s closest to being natural is always best, and be sure to read up on any substances you’re thinking of using!
Another practice that can help keep the bee population safe is conservative biological control, which basically means creating a bee and beneficial insect-friendly habitat in your yard, garden, or around the farm. Bees love lots of brightly-colored and sweet-smelling flowers! Crop diversity in general is good, not only for insects, but for our plant species as well! The concept of introducing beneficial insects is definitely better than using a chemical pesticide, but the Xerxes Society says this can be detrimental to bees due to the fact that some of these non-native insects think bees are tasty, too. Also, low/conservation tillage and avoiding the use of plastic mulch helps as well, as 70% of America’s bee species nest underground.
One other thing you can do to help the honey bee population is to start a hive or two or your own! The University of Tennessee offers the BeeMaster Program, a program that teaches beginners all the things you need to know to be successful. This spring it will be held on the UT Ag campus, as well as several other locations. I’ll post that link and the link for the Tennessee Beekeepers’ Association below if you are interested!
USDA Organic Info
USDA Agriculture Research Service “Honey Bees and Colony Collapse Disorder.” http://www.ars.usda.gov/news/docs.htm?docid=15572
Mader, Eric. “Organic Farming Practices: Reducing Harm to Pollinators from Farming.” Invertebrate Conservation Fact Sheet. Xerxes Society for Invertebrate Conservation.” http://www.xerxes.org
Heckman, J. “A History of Organic Farming: Transitions from Sir Albert Howard’s War in the Soil to USDA National Organic Program.” Aug. 20, 2005.