13 March 2014
In an effort to maintain the population of bees and other pollinators, the United States Department of Agriculture has budgeted $3 million. Most of the money will go to ranchers, farmers and beekeepers in a conservation effort to preserve and expand pollinator habitat.
WHAT’S HAPPENING TO THE BEES?
Bee populations have been declining for over 7 years now. First, termed a “disappearance,” then, a “die-off.” the continuing depopulation is, now, formally referred to as “Colony Collapse Disorder.” The continuing decline has been both rapid and widespread affecting perhaps the entire world.
Bees get a lot of scientific attention because they are vital to American agriculture, which is vital to the American economy. Without bees, production of some of our most profitable crops would be impossible. Every few weeks, a news article announces the discovery of “the cause” of the threatened bee “extinction.” In fact, there probably isn’t a single cause. The current die-off seems to be the result of several factors working together.
The puzzle goes like this. A bee (1) has a parasite like varroa mites; (2) is exhausted by transport over long distances; and (3) is exposed to a particular pesticide. Alone, none of these factors would kill a bee. Even all of these put together wouldn’t kill a bee. However, all of these put together might weaken the bee’s immune system. Then, with a compromised immune system, the bee contracts, and dies from, a completely unrelated disease. That disease is the final cause the bee’s death. However, the underlying cause is an immune system compromised, not by one factor, but by a particular combination of several factors. For now, that combination remains a mystery.
A SHORT HISTORY OF AMERICAN AGRICULTURE
Modern agriculture has come to be dominated by a particular style called monoculture. The modern farm is a study in intensive land use with about every square foot of available soil used for the continuous cultivation of crops – or more precisely a signal crop. This modern style has little in common with the traditional agriculture of even a generation ago.
In the past, the typical farm included a fair number of fallow (unplanted) tracts of land in which wild brush and unmown grass were allowed to grow. These tracts served several purposes. They provided “breaks,” uncultivated buffer areas between cultivated fields of crops. First, breaks slowed or prevented the spread of disease from field to field. And, second, breaks prevented the seeds of one kind of crop from creeping into fields planted with another. The third purpose of keeping some land fallow (unused) was to prevent soil depletion. The practice of letting some fields “rest” for an a season was called crop rotation, which helped prevent a loss of, or restore, fertility to tracts of land.
Traditional agriculture had always avoided modern monoculture’s practice of planting only one kind of crop. The traditional reason for planting several different kinds of crops was, again, a sort of insurance against the spread of disease. While one kind of crop might fall victim to disease, another would be less susceptible and survive to produce a much-needed yield at harvest.
What happened to traditional agriculture? Advances in chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides have dramatically reduced the need for crop rotation and fallow tracks of land as buffers. But this created another problem. The modern farm needs bees just as much as the traditional farm it replaced. And bees need habitat.
DO BEES NEED HABITAT?
When we think of bees, we tend to think of the hive-dwelling honeybee. The honeybee seemed to fit in perfectly with modern monoculture. Like everything else needed by the modern industrial farm, when you need bees, you just order them “brought in.” Beekeepers truck bees, sometimes hundreds of miles, to various locations during pollination season. Then, the bees are trucked out when pollination is over. At least, that was the plan before CCD and honeybee depopulation became a reality.
But, with or without depopulation, what’s with “habitat?” The only thing honeybees need is a hive, a beekeeper, and the beekeeper’s truck. Right? Well, not quite. Honeybees aren’t the only pollinators. Worse, honeybees can’t pollinate some cash crops including certain varieties of tomatoes, cranberries, almonds, apples, zucchinis, avocados, and plums. For these crops you need bumblebees.
So, why not truck-in some bumblebee hives? And there’s the problem. Bumblebees don’t live in hives. The plump bumblebee is the nearest thing to a loner within its social species. Bumblebees don’t build permanent hives. They build nests that are deserted for a new location on a yearly basis. The bumblebees don’t forage (search for and find food) in swarms, but wander alone from flower to flower in open grasslands.
On the traditional farm, these wild bees made their nests in fallow tracks of grass lands or break areas between cultivated fields. Because the bumblebee’s service as a pollinator is only needed seasonally, these bees survived during the rest of the year by foraging in the same wild grasslands in which they built their nests.
THE HABITAT VANISHES
Monoculture changed all that. Fallow tracts, breaks, and buffers vanished with every yard of available soil planted with a crop. Even the small islands of wild grass along the farms paths and roadways were pressed into service. And the bumblebees left.
What did we lose? A lot. The bumble’s unique style of pollination is required, and accounts, for about 3 billion dollars in produce each year.
Fresh off the farm, the bumblebee made its way to the city or, at least, to more populated areas to find the welcome mat missing. Modern urban and highway landscaping favors a neatly manicured look that requires the elimination of the wild grasslands required by the bumblebee’s lifestyle. In parks and even around highway overpasses, that great enemy of bumblebee habitat, the lawn mower, doesn’t destroy the grass, but prevents the appearance the blooms and blossoms on which the bumblebees depend for food. And worse, the lawn mower is the arch-enemy of bumblebee nests.
When the habitat vanished, so did the bumblebee. Beginning in the late 1990’s, these bees all but disappeared from a vast area of their range extending from the Pacific Coast of California north into British Columbia. Only recently have there been sightings of even a single bumblebee in several states that once supported an enormous population.
THE MOUNTAIN BEE?
It is said that those who felt uncomfortable in “civilization” used to become trappers and wander into the mountains — earning the name “mountain men.” Well, maybe bumblebees did the same. As these bees almost completely disappeared from their lowland range, their numbers were, and are, unaffected in the North American Rockies where they continue to live and thrive. Mountains are not favored for agriculture and the rough beauty of mountainous areas is only enhanced by wild growing grasslands. The mountain habitat is well within the bumblebees comfort zone.
THE USDA & A CHANGE IN ARGI’S “CULTURE”?
With all the developments in the efficiency of modern agriculture, it is a little surprising to read of a USDA spokesman discussing the use of cover crops, rangeland, pasture management and other practices that dropped out of modern agriculture decades ago. But the purpose behind the reintroduction of crop rotation, breaks, and buffers makes sense if the purpose is to preserve native pollinators, most prominently the often forgotten bumblebee.
Without effective pollinators, there will be no harvest in spite of the most intensive and efficient use of the available land. The USDA spokesman explained that these “new” practices “are expected to provide quality forage and habitat for honey bees and other pollinators, as well as habitat for other wildlife.”