What's the Relationship Between Bees and Food?
Not all flowers need honeybees. The majority of plants can be pollinated by other insects (like the other 20,000 types of bees), butterflies, and birds. The carpenter bees that bore into your deck and the sweat bees clinging to the inside of your elbow are just two types of bees that contribute to the pollination of our food system. Thousands of insects perform the same job as honeybees, but there is no equal to honeybees—they're the workhorses of the pollination world.
Most types of bees live by themselves or in groups smaller than 10, while a single honeybee colony will contain nearly 70,000 honeybees in mid-summer. A honeybee colony can send out tens of thousands of pollinators every day, creating a huge impact on an area's food system.
The problem is that honeybees can’t survive on a farm that contains only one crop, also known as a monoculture farm. While the one crop may be nutritious, it isn’t the diverse diet a honeybee needs to survive. It’s like going to a grocery store all year, but only buying apples. As nutritious as apples are, you need a variety of nutrients to survive, and they can’t be found in apples alone.
Honeybees can’t survive on a monoculture farm year-round, so colonies are moved from farm to farm, transported on semitrucks elsewhere (and, sadly, sometimes they crash) when the flowers nearby stop blooming. To honeybees, the monoculture farm is the “Land of Milk and Honey” for 2 weeks, then turns into a food desert for the remaining 50 weeks of the year. It's a death sentence to any colony unless moved to a more desirable place for bees to forage.
Each year, the Bee Informed Partnership conducts a national survey to help us better understand what management techniques are helping and hurting our bees. To give you an idea of the percentage of bees being trucked around the country, this is the ratio from 2014:
3% of beekeepers (about 200) in the U.S. are migratory beekeepers
Migratory beekeepers own 76% of the managed colonies in the United States
Our 6,717 backyard beekeepers only manage 24% of our country's beesHoly cow, that is a significant percentage of our honeybees being stressed by moving around the country constantly. On the other hand, if we didn’t have migratory beekeepers trucking their bees around, we would not have a food supply. The mono-crop farm system our country uses could not survive without commercial beekeepers bringing in bees. It’s an unfortunate cycle, but our food supply and the success of our commercial beekeepers are directly related.
What does this mean, exactly? If our country's monoculture farms or our commercial beekeepers fail, we can't enjoy almonds, apples, asparagus, avocados, broccoli, blueberries, or onions. All of those crops are 90-100% dependent on our honeybees.
Adam Hickman works in the Cooking Light Test Kitchen and as a beekeeper in Birmingham, founding Foxhound Bee Company in 2014.