Most of us think of honey as tasty, but how many of us know how much beekeeping contributes to the world economy, or how it fits into the bigger picture of sustainable agriculture?
Although honeybees are a natural part of the ecology of most regions, they are also used as an agricultural tool, helping to increase yields in the world’s most important crops. In fact, bees are responsible for the pollination of a third of the human food supply.
Beekeeping is a great way to contribute to sustainable agriculture. Bees are responsible for up to 80 percent of all pollination in the food we eat. These pollinated crops include fruits, vegetables, and seeds.
Sustainably grown crops require less water and fertilizer and are more resistant to diseases and pests. Fewer chemical pesticides and herbicides are used on sustainably grown crops, which in turn means healthier food for the consumer.
The identified critical role of bees in sustainable development
Bees, they are so busy and yet they are so far from us. While we admire them from afar they are doing a lot for us, they are pollinating plants and flowers. Bees are crucial to the global pollination of crops.
Without bees, there would be a huge reduction in food and that would mean hunger for millions of people. Bees are the invisible force that helps make our world more sustainable.
What do we know about bees and their critical role in sustainable development? The answer is: a lot, and there is no better time to take stock of what we know than the United Nations Environment Programme’s ‘World Bee Day’, celebrated this year on 20 May.
For example, we know that bees and other pollinators contribute to the world’s food supply by helping to pollinate approximately 75% of all crops.
Bees, in particular, contribute to world food supply by contributing to the pollination of approximately 90% of fruits, nuts and vegetables.
Safeguarding bees for a sustainable agriculture
You may have heard news reports on the alarming decline in the bee population in recent years, but what does this have to do with sustainable agriculture? Plenty. Not only do bees pollinate the crops we depend on for food and fiber, but they are also a key component in the ecosystems that support agricultural production.
As the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has reported, our diet is responsible for an estimated 80 percent of the environmental impact of food. Protecting our pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, is a key part of reducing that impact.
Pollinators—both wild and domesticated—are responsible for the production of over 90 percent of the world’s food crop species. Bees pollinate over 90 fruit, vegetable, and nut crops in the United States.
They are particularly effective at pollinating over 300 varieties of apples, more than 400 varieties of strawberries, and hundreds of varieties of blueberries.
The world is facing a crisis impacting farmers, the environment, and the food we eat. In the past decade, both domestic honeybee colonies and wild bee populations have dropped dramatically.
While the problem has been linked to a wide range of factors, pesticides are a major concern. Bees absorb pesticides when they drink nectar from plants, and when those plants are sprayed with pesticides, the bees are exposed to even more, which may lead to their death.
Pesticides and Bees
Bee populations have been declining in recent years. Although there are likely many contributing factors, the use of neonicotinoid pesticides has been linked to the loss of bees in many studies . These pesticides are used in farming and gardening and are designed to be toxic to insects.
They are used on crops both before and after harvest. For example, they are applied to seeds before planting to kill insects that might feed on the crops after they have sprouted. In addition, they are used to keep pests from eating crops after they have grown, such as on strawberries and apples.
The use of pesticides in the agriculture industry has been a controversial issue in recent years, with many voicing concerns over its safety.
While there is no doubt that pesticides are used to maintain a high yield of crops, some argue that in doing so, we are putting the bees that pollinate these plants in danger. In fact, recent reports have even suggested that neonicotinoids, a type of pesticide, have been linked to the decline of the bee population in the United States.
Statistics of beekeeping
There are more than 25,000 registered beekeepers in the United States. The number of beekeepers has been steadily decreasing for the past 50 years, and is projected to continue declining.
When you look at the statistics of beekeeping it’s impossible not to conclude that a worldwide bee population collapse is imminent. These declines are the result of numerous factors including technology, policy, and habitat.
On the one hand, changing climate and agriculture have increased the use of pesticides, and the spread of diseases and pests. On the other hand, regulations on pesticides and land-use only restrict the use of chemicals, but they don’t stop the spread of disease and pests.
It’s not just about the honey
As you may know, honey bees are the essential pollinators of our crops and therefore critical to the sustainability of agriculture and food production. That’s why honey bees figure in almost every conversation about sustainable agriculture, the future of food production, and the health of our environment.
Because honeybees aren’t native to North America, their hives have to be transported around to provide pollination services.
To make matters worse, the same kind of migratory pollination that makes honeybees ideal for farms makes them more susceptible to diseases and parasites. Not only that, their hives can be attacked by pests, including mice and moths.
Just as bees pollinate flowers to create honey, they also pollinate crops contributing to the sustainable production of a third of all foods worldwide. The bee population is currently dropping by an average of 30% per year and if something isn’t done to save the bees the results will be devastating.