In the past century, farms in the United States have grown enormously in scale, tending towards mechanization, monoculture, and application of petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides, and chemical insecticides. One consequence of this spread of monoculture and pesticide use across our agricultural landscape is a vast lack of suitable habitat for both pollinating insects and soil microorganisms. It has also increased modern conventional agriculture’s dependence on managed pollination by honeybees. Truckloads of millions of hives of honey bees are unloaded from semitrailers to pollinate crops because modern industrial scale agriculture has reduced the area of habitat to support the bee species that are native to the area. The honeybees must also move when the bloom of a particular crop is over, due to a lack of forage.
The reason for this change in how we do agriculture is largely a result of Green Revolution policies beginning in the 1930s, and the effects of seed-patent technology, monoculture, petro-chemical and fertilizer application. This trend towards mechanization initially reaps surplus in agricultural yield, but has far-reaching consequences for ecological health. It has brought us to a political-agricultural climate of former Monsanto executives holding important agricultural positions in government, as well as government subsidization of farms that use these methods to produce the ingredients for heavily processed foods containing white flour and high-fructose corn syrup. This is partially why processed foods are the cheapest and often most abundant option on grocery store shelves.
Rudolf Steiner, the visionary German philosopher and inventor of biodynamic farming and Waldorf education, predicted in a series of lectures in 1924 that we would start to see a decline in honeybee populations in the next 50-80 years. he warned of “the consequences of mechanizing the forces that had previously operated organically in the beehive.”
Scientists have been documenting with particular alarm the dramatic declines in populations of bees and other pollinating insects in recent decades. Colony Collapse Disorder of the honeybees has received widespread media attention, and has placed a spotlight on the honeybee’s importance in our modern agricultural paradigm. Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, could perhaps be viewed as similar to AIDS in humans, where the bees are suffering severely compromised immune systems. It is likely that the cumulative effects of pesticide exposure, poor nutrition from corn syrup feedings, and a general exhaustion from being shipped all over the country have compromised honeybee’s immune systems, leaving them susceptible to all manner of bacteria, fungi, virus, and parasite.
The economic value of insect-pollinated crops in the US in 2003 estimated to be between $18 and 27 billion. If this calculation is expanded to include indirect products, such as the milk and beef from cattle fed alfalfa, pollinators may be responsible for more than twice this amount. Approximately one in three mouthfuls of food and drink requires the presence of a pollinator.
Four factors account for most of the declines in populations of bees and other pollinators:
1. The loss and fragmentation of habitat
2. The degradation of remaining habitat
3. Pesticide poisoning – herbicides, insecticides, systemic insecticides, insect-resistant GM crops, herbicide-resistant GM crops
4. The spread of disease and parasites – which can happen to native bee population via spreading from commercially reared colonies
(Source: Xerces Society Guide).
In china’s Sichuan Province, one of the largest apple-producing regions in the world, farmers perch on ladders in mountainside orchards to pollinate the blossoms by hand. The farmers have adopted this practice because wild bees are now absent in their area, and honey beekeepers refuse to bring in their hives due to excessive pesticide use in the orchards. It would be an impossible feat for humans to take on the role pollinating our food crops on a worldwide scale, because we did not care for the pollinating insects who perform this service for us.
The loss of pollinators provides a chilling preview into additional massive species loss: birds, lizards, spiders, and animals that depend on insect pollinated fruits and seeds. Pollinators are a keystone species group; the survival of a large number of other species depends on them. They are essential to most flowering plants, and support plant populations that animals and birds rely on for food and shelter.
A movement towards a more sustainable agriculture that limits the use of pesticides and favors the smaller scale, diverse farm creates valuable habitat and forage for both honeybees and native bees year round, and also improves regional food security. Providing habitat on the farm for pollinating insects year-round decreases the need for large-scale industrialized beekeeping, and the toll this takes on the honeybee’s health.
More and more people are realizing that the healthiest food comes from healthy soil, and choose to shop at farmers markets and get to know the people producing their food. The interest in urban agriculture, community gardening, and other strategies that involve people getting their food from their immediate environments decreases dependence on industrialized farming, and creates more habitat for pollinators in urban areas.
Making the connection between pollinator health and your own dinner plate is an essential step to re-enlivening pollinator populations. Participating in your local food network and choosing produce grown without the use of pesticides is a valuable first step.
Stay tuned for our next blog post, all about how to help pollinators in your garden!
Additional sources for this topic:
Film: Queen of the Sun
Film: Vanishing of the Bees
Film: King of Corn
The Xerces Society Guide: Attracting Native Pollinators.
Towards Saving the Honeybee by Gunther Hauk
Vandana Shiva – Monocultures of the Mind
Rudolf Steiner’s lectures on bees: http://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/GA351/English/SGP1975/NinBee_index.html