Eating organic food is healthy for bees and beekeepers

‘Colony Collapse Disorder’ root cause is poor bee diets; bees traveling the country by semi-truck

By Gregory Jackson


(Just like ordering parts or scanning a barcode, bees are treated like a product to pollinate our food.)

You would not expect to find 14 million bees swarming around Interstate 5 near Lynnwood, Washington at 3:30am being fought by firefighters a couple months ago; you would expect them to be pollinating a milkweed or blueberry.

At the beginning of the Cretaceous Period, 140 million years ago plant life diversity exploded, by changing to pollen grains.  During the Carboniferous Period (400 million years ago), plants were coniferous, ‘naked seed’, which depended solely on the wind to disperse their seed.  During the Cretaceous Period, plant diversity expanded that matched the diversity of pollinator insects of the world; bees and other pollinator insects are vital to the survival of 235,000 angiosperms (plants that require pollination by insect).

Angiosperms are plant species that depend on pollinator insect (insect like honeybee Apis mellifera and solitary/bumble bees, butterflies, moths, and wasps) to fertilizer male and female flowers.

For bees, pollen is protein, nectar is vitamins, and honey is carbohydrates.  However in the past four years 250 billion bees have died; there are 20,000 species of bee or about half of the bee species yet to be discovered, according to The Incomparable Honeybee:  And the Economics of Pollination by Dr. Reese Halter.  When Halter observed colony collapse disorder (CCD), he identified soil health as a factor.

“In 2007, tests of almond, plum, kiwi, and cherry had little protein content,” writes Halter.  “Infertile soils lacking essential nutrients, bacteria, fungi, and protozoa – along with global warming – worked together to cause this phenomenon” (p.85).  It is not so much global warming that is at issue, but global carbon cycles that effect what Halter refers to as phonological timing – plants have begun blooming weeks earlier – as a pollinator arrives blooms are likely to be done.

Just as the honeybee would benefit from a healthy mix of pollen, or us a healthy diet, soil fertility to grow organic food depends on diverse microbe life like nematodes, beneficial bacteria and fungus feeding on a variety of organic waste.

When we sent out our second compost sample to earthfort labs to test its organic contents, the sample diversity with nematodes, bacterial to fungus ratio, and nitrogen are what most of our croplands lack.

Aphelenchoides sp. a species of nematode, are fungal/root feeders that eat other nematodes known to cause disease in crops.  They also help prevent corky root disease and with their presence in the soil is an indicator of healthy microbial diversity for soil fertility.  Unlike in our first sample, which was mailed in a Ziplock bag causing anaerobic conditions, we drill holes in our lids so compost can breathe.

But when thousands of pounds of pesticides and chemical fertilizers are applied, kill this rhizosphere bacteria and fungus that give crops nutrition and help them resist pests.  Bees pollinate at least 100 crops.

How do we have enough bees to pollinate our food?

Bees do more than provide us honey.  They also travel on semi-trucks all over the country to pollinate large-scale farms.  Once they have finished pollinating, they are then trucked to the next large-scale farm hundreds of miles away.  In all, they likely travel thousands of miles before they can “rest” back at their home beekeeper.

In the 1940’s there were six million bee colonies.  Today that number is near 2.5 million, but a drop in bee colonies there is also a collapse in beekeepers.  Since bees pollinate more that $15 billion per year of crops like almonds, apples, cherries, and others prices for food could increase and more food be imported.

Bumble and solitary bees pollinate by sonification, which is required for crops like sunflower, canola, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, lentils, peas, tomato, chilies, red clover, alfalfa, and all species of potato, according to Halter.

Pollination by sonification is accomplished by a bee’s ability to sip nectar at sonic rates.

While a single cause cannot be selected for CCD, bee’s lack of native wildflowers for nectar and pollen is common, where a whole bee ritual has been going on for millions of years, in a bee dance.

Bees perform three different kinds of dancing when they find new sources of nectar, according to von Fritsch on his recognition of bee dancing.

The round dance is performed when nectar sources are found within 33 feet from the hive.  She exchanges a couple drops of nectar so other bees can taste it.  Then she spins in narrow circles, changing direction to the right, then left.  Dancing one or two circles in each direction, the others learn where the food is located (Halter, 38).  Nectar collects on her hairs and she dances up to 20 dance cycles – the longer she dances the more bee workers she recruits – and more food variety assures survival.

The C-Shaped dance is performed when nectar is 33-328 feet away from the hive.   C-Shaped dance is similar to the round dance, but the circle is never finished.

The Waggle dance is performed when nectar is up to eight miles away from the hive.  She dances in figure 8’s and then connects the semi-circles with a “bee line.”  What happens when these bee boxes are set in large-scale farms?  Major crops have little protein content.  Bees have been known to visit the same wildflowers thousands of times, buffeting on a smorgasbord of pollen (which makes protein).

Native urban trees are vital in providing millions of blossoms for pollinators:  maple, tulip tree, even apple.  As these travelling bees are trucked all over the country and “rented” to pollinate crops (in 2004 hives could be rented $40 each while in 2006-2007 now rent at $150 each), bees get malnourished, tired, and weak.  This makes them susceptible to mites like Varroa, tobacco virus, and bee parasites like Nosema.

Millions of bees traveling by truck have ended up on the highway after semi-trucks crash.

In 2011, when a semi-truck crashed on Highway 20 near Island Park, Idaho, 400 hives tipped over and honey spilt onto the freeway, 14 million bees swarmed the area, were sprayed with firefighter foam.  Fire Chief Kenny Strandberg worried about all the honey attracting grizzly bears.

If the bees do make it to the farm for pollination duty, they face another challenge.

As the European Union bans neonicotinoids, a pesticide U.S. farmers commonly use, debate ensues about the relationship of pesticides to bees.  Neonicotinoids are applied at wheat, corn, soy, and cotton crops and its effect on bees may cause Nosema to infect them more easily.  Pesticides do accumulate and waste hive space for nutrients.

Bees feeding on an assortment of native wildflowers also are those with access to best pollens (25 percent or more protein and amino acids), according to National Geographic news article two years ago on the honeybee  featuring the pollinator crises.  Pollen is food for bee larvae.

If the queen dies, the workers (which are all female), feed one of the workers royal jelly.  Royal jelly is a special type of food bees make with best pollen sources.  If these sources are not available, then bees may not be able to produce effective royal jelly.  Throughout the winter bees live on honey and stored pollen.

When Morgan Spurlock did an Inside Man investigation of CCD on CNN, sweeping monoculture farms could not possibly supply enough pollen for bee health.  Feeding on one type of crop is not healthy and on these farms you will notice two vital components missing: wildflowers and compost.

Wildflowers provide nectar, which honeybees store in their hive for vitamins and compost provides solution for organic waste recycling and replaces the need for fertilizers and pesticides.

Native wildflower rows that could be artistically designed and sown throughout monoculture farms for hundreds of feet and compost are not obvious.  How much social and well “bee-ing” does a colony experience during their nectar dances?  There must be a certain level of excitement when bees do find new sources of nectar, even if they are bees rented from a bee box from semi-trucks.

Some bees are able to collect floral oils instead of pollen, or the male orchid bee (the only bee able to gather aromatic orchid compounds); some endangered plants are endangered because in some cases only one type of species can pollinate a certain type of blossom.

Insects have been known to identify weak plants from certain pheromones, anyway.  These plants are weak because they have no compost, which produces rich soil containing microbial life that crops need.  Instead farmers treat the symptoms instead of prevention:  organic composting.

Last month the White House published the National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators, to provide parameters and goals to understand the complex interactions among the pollinator health of honeybees, monarch butterflies, and pollinator habitat acreage.

However the industry is not worried about the extinction of bees, but do worry over the extinction of beekeepers, according to Dennis vanEngelssorp, bee researcher at the University of Maryland.  Some farms, like Paramount Farms in California is one of the largest U.S. growers of almond, may soon buy beekeeping operations it can own.  As beekeepers become large growers, bees will most likely not be feed with nectar diversity for protein-rich pollen nor bee dances taken into account.

To provide food in your own backyard for beneficial pollinators plant native wildflowers and native trees on your property, food from your garden will taste better, too.


2 responses to “Eating organic food is healthy for bees and beekeepers

  1. Pingback: Hawken School 8th graders build 4 raised beds at Willow Community Garden | GroundZ·

  2. Pingback: Allegheny Serviceberry provides native local berries grown in the shade | GroundZ·

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