If ever you needed a visual example of the value of ecosystem services, try envisioning an army of human laborers attempting to pollinate an orchard of fruit trees by hand, one blossom at a time. Absurdly enough, an alarming decrease of bee populations worldwide, known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), has some farmers hiring teams to do just that.
With much of our focus on bigger species as indications of environmental crisis -- polar bears drowning, grizzly bears terminating hibernation early -- we sometimes forget about the little creatures that keep things in balance. But bees are an important provider of the ecosystem service of pollination, and as calamity strikes it is all the more obvious how important they are in the agricultural economy. From a strictly financial perspective, pollination is an invaluable service, provided by bees at no cost. But the cost we'd incur if the buzzing workers disappeared has been estimated at anywhere between $14 billion and $92 billion in the U.S. alone.
There's also speculation that genetic modification may be contributing to physiological dysfunctions in bees which lead to their decline.
According to Hans-Hinrich Kaatz, a professor at the University of Halle in eastern Germany and the director of a study...examining the effects of pollen from a genetically modified maize variant called "Bt corn" on bees...the bacterial toxin in the genetically modified corn may have "altered the surface of the bee's intestines, sufficiently weakening the bees to allow the parasites to gain entry..."
The causes haven't been determined with certainty, but many farmers have begun instituting precautionary solutions. In the Himalayan regions of Northern India and Tibet, as well as in parts of China, farmers have found some entrepreneurial opportunity in the necessity to hand-pollinate as their bee crews diminish, but managing a labor force doesn't make up in the long run for an orchard suffering from sterility.
Hand pollination is an interesting method of pollinating crops and provides employment and income generating opportunities to many people during apple flowering season. But at the same time it is an expensive, time-consuming and highly unsustainable proposition of crop pollination owing to the increased labour scarcity and costs. Moreover, a large part of farmers’ income is used in managing pollination of their crops.
The longer-term solution to CCD is the most obvious: steward bee populations and keep them thriving. Bees have become a mostly domesticated insect, which means it's up to us to help keep them populous. As professor May Berenbaum said in a podcast on Earth & Sky, "I don’t think people realize just how utterly dependent we are on bees. To some extent, historically, there have been feral bees, wild bees that people haven’t domesticated that contribute pollination services. But when verola mites were introduced, feral populations all over the country crashed; nobody was there to protect them. And as a consequence, nobody has been there monitoring them, we have no idea what the feral bee population is in this country, whether there are bees that can fill in for the missing bees is just an open question." Apiculture advocates have set up numerous web-based resources which allow beekeepers to do some citizen science, swapping important observations about their experiences, and tracking trends through systems like this open survey run by Bee Alert. The International Bee Research Association has a huge archive of information to help guide people through keeping hives. And of course, while the pollination value of bee colonies may be a more serious reason to protect them than for the honey and wax they produce, it's an undeniable benefit. In urban environments, just a small hive can keep pollination healthy and produce bee products for a household or two. An urban farmer in New York named David Graves, is a model of a self-taught apiculturalist, having learned the ropes through reading and watching instructional videos, and started a network of rooftop hives in Manhattan and Brooklyn. He now sells his famed "high-rise
honey" at the city's farmer's markets.
Urban flowers provide a surprising line of uniquely flavored honeys. Graves's bees work asters (supplying abundant nectar in the fall), locust, sumac and the August-blooming Chinese Scholar tree. A coveted mint-flavored honey from the Linden tree is a fast seller. Nectar from an inconspicuous Japanese plant, growing even in parking lot cracks, produces a dark, caramel candy like honey, which Graves considers one of his best. It is popular with his customers, as they love its unique taste.
He claims healthy hives, and his honey production supports that. Two years ago, a record honey harvest yielded 140 pounds from one Upper West Side rooftop hive (unfortunately, the stolen hive), exceeding an average annual yield by 60 pounds.
While CCD is bound to have negative consequences for both farmers and apiculturists, looking at the entire agroecological system, bees are only responsible for a part of all the pollination services delivered. Other insects, birds, wind and rain make up the rest of pollination we rely on for our daily bread. But alas, some of those pollinators are facing declines too as a report from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development cites "decline in wilderness and loss of habitat, land use changes, monoculture-dominated agriculture and excessive and indiscriminate use of agricultural chemicals and pesticides" as composite factors in a challenge that worsens yearly.
Industrial agriculture, problematic as it is, affords those of us living within the system something of a cushion in looking at ways to deal with these pollinator declines. But for subsistence and small commercial farmers, inadequate pollination poses a serious and fairly immediate threat to livelihoods and food security. Unfortunately -- though not surprisingly -- it's in part because of industrial agriculture that bees find themselves under threat. While we hold bees to such high regard, we must also remember that at least in North America they are not a native species, and as succinctly said by Prof. May Berenbaum, "over-reliance on one managed non-native species is inherently unstable."
Bees are a fantastic example of taking an ecosystem service and through skillful management, turning it into a commodity. As the delivery of this service is put in jeopardy, it is essential that we look for ways to maintain our pollination needs. Agriculturally dominated landscapes have supplanted the rich mix of land cover types that are necessary for keeping the system in balance. The idea of Countryside biogeography has emerged as a potential solution by incorporating a mix of agricultural lands and natural habitats that provide a storehouse for biodiversity. These reservoirs provide services such as pest regulation and pollination that are often absent in purely agricultural landscapes. Studies done on coffee crops in Costa Rica has shown that crops close to forest fragments were more likely to be visited by pollinators and yields increased 20% within ~1 km of forest remnants, also increasing the income of the farmer. Similar results have been shown for agricultural fields near hedgerows and wetlands. Not only does the inclusion of natural habitats in the agricultural matrix provide the much needed pollination services, but it is also a booster for farmer income. These win-win opportunities illustrate that small loss-big gain opportunities are going to be necessary as we seek to increase the resilience of the agricultural system.
Whether in the rural Himalaya, the heart of New York, or the coffee fields of Costa Rica there's a little bit of entrepreneurial thrill and DIY satisfaction in managing the trade-offs that need to be made to ensure the delivery of these crucial ecosystem services. We may not be able to halt the negative impacts of pesticides, reckless genetic modification and endless fields of monoculture crops, but anyone with the smallest plot of land can easily find all the necessary resources to give a home to the pollinators we so dearly count on for their "free" services.
jointly authored by Sarah Rich and David Zaks
Creative Commons Photo Credit
Hear hear! My mother is a beekeeper, and it goes hand-in-hand with her permaculture farming philosophy. Unfortunately, the muddled laws about GMO property also apply to bees; I remember hearing her tell me that if her bees fly two miles away to a soybean field growing GMO soybeans, then pollinate those soybeans and carry some of the goodies back to their hive, SHE is somehow responsible for whatever diseases or sicknesses that might befall her hive. Amazing, huh? Everyone dodges responsibility, except the lonely beekeeper.
Thank you for shedding light on this very important issue!
I wrote a blog entry on this, not nearly as thorough as yours citing a couple of articles on bee population drop - http://sustainablewealth.blogspot.com/2007/03/squandering-our-wealth-it-appears.html
There was another factor brought into the conversation - sun spots, which may have also weakened the bees, creating a "perfect storm" for there recent decline. What I found interesting, is that it reveals, and considers, realities and influences on bee-life that is far more subtle, and complex than I ever considered.
Today the NY Times (buried but there) and Deseret News both carried stories about the disappearing honey bees.
What the world doesn't seem to grasp is that without these busy little workers crops will begin to fail at a critical rate. The following clip is from Mercola.com and should be a front page item on every paper.
"A group of scientists meeting in Maryland this week are comparing notes about some newer, more ordinary and just as deadly reasons that may explain why honeybees have disappeared at an alarming rate in 27 states, apart from cellular phones and genetically modified crops.
Apparently, researchers have reduced their scope of culprits to a virus, pesticides or fungus. In the case of fungi, geneticists at Columbia University have detected fungi in some dead bees that are also found in the humans whose immune systems have been suppressed by cancer or AIDS. And a study by the National Honey Board questions if the renewed vigor of honeybees to irradiated bee boxes may indicate signs of a pathogen."
One theory is that bees are said to be dying off because their genes aren't equipped to fight off harmful toxins. Genes are a complicated science, but if scientists were able to clone animal genes, why can't they clone insect genes from insects that have protection against toxins and add them to bees genes to help keep them from dying off?