What’s the problem, honey?

By Danielle Downey, Executive Director of Project Apis m.

honeybeeHoney bees are making headlines more often than ever, and you might wonder, “What’s the big deal? Honey is great, but I could live without it…” Well, at Project Apis m., we love honey.  After all, we named our project after the Latin name of the honey bee, Apis mellifera. But bees making the news these days isn’t about honey at all: if you like to eat, you need bees.

Our food security and nutrition rely heavily on honey bees, which are mostly managed and rented for pollination by commercial beekeepers. As agricultural systems become more consolidated, with vast acreages of a single crop, habitat and diversity of nutrition sources for bees is shrinking. As a result, moving managed pollinators to blooming crops when needed is now a cornerstone of U.S. food production. There is no better pollination ‘bang for your buck’ than honey bee colonies, which reach 60,000 individuals, can be transported in boxes and adapt quickly upon arrival to the best forage resources available ( i.e., nearby blooming crops!).

Almonds are a great example of this activity. California’s Central Valley is home to 1.24 million acres of almonds. That’s 130 million trees! California almonds host the single greatest pollination event on earth, requiring most of the managed bees in the U.S. to be moved to California for almond pollination contracts.

honeybeeThe almond crop is valued at $5 billion annually, and pollination is a key consideration for a successful crop. Since the trees bloom in March, two bee hives per acre are placed in orchards by January/February. The bees are moved on trucks – often from dead of winter conditions – to a running start in pollinating almonds.  After blossoms drop, they must be relocated to flowering plants that will sustain their growth. Colonies are moved from almonds to apples, blueberries and cranberries, often not creating any surplus honey until after their pollination work is done when they reach their summer locations in the upper Midwest.

These two events – pollinating almonds and replenishing/producing a honey crop – are where Project Apis m. can reach the most bees with our forage programs, planting flowers that support honey bee nutrition and productivity.  Seeds for Bees, our California program sponsored in part by the Bayer Bee Care Program, offers free seeds to growers to plant cover crops in and around their almond orchards. These blooming plants benefit pollinators, including natives and those transported, by extending the duration, diversity and density of blooms. The greater benefit, however, may be to the orchard for soil health. Cover crops:

  • Increase organic matter and water availability
  • Support soil fertility
  • Prevent erosion
  • Increase water infiltration
  • Increase nitrogen
  • Decompose mummy nuts
  • Attract beneficial insects (IPM).

We offer three seed mixes and workshops to support the cover crop movement and have doubled the program acreage each year, with over 6,000 acres planted in 2017. Learn more here.

honeybeeOur second forage initiative is a collaboration called the Bee & Butterfly Habitat Fund, focused in the upper Midwest. This might not seem connected to almonds but is where 75 percent of the nation’s pollinating bees spend their summers replenishing, producing a honey crop and getting ready for winter. Running a successful marathon is not about what you eat for breakfast; similarly, having a good supply of healthy pollinators for almonds depends on their health well before the event. Summer ground for bees is declining in quantity and quality, and the Bee & Butterfly Habitat Fund, in partnership with Bayer, aims to put back what has been lost to benefit our crop pollinators, and also provide habitat for monarchs, upland song birds, game birds and other wildlife.

There are many beneficiaries who need the scraps of land in and around our most productive agricultural landscapes, and Project Apis m. has developed strategic partnerships to expand the reach of this movement and replace lost habitat, in addition to funding and directing honey bee health research projects that support our pollinating bees. You don’t have to keep bees to help them! Planting good clean forage, donating to forage programs and, yes, buying local honey to support hardworking bees and beekeepers are ways we can all help pollinators. After all, the fruits of their labor are the fruits on your table!