For the food supply, the question quite literally is to bee or not to bee.
And without a healthy population of the flying insect pollinators, the livelihood of millions of people and global supplies of crops like coffee, apples, strawberries and chocolate are threatened.
Bees, butterflies and other species help produce $24 billion of crops. Honeybee pollination alone accounts for $15 billion in crops from more than 130 fruits and vegetables, the Obama administration estimated. Nearly a third of all food and beverages are made possible by insect pollination, the majority of it coming from honeybees. Pollinators also are instrumental in helping grow plants such as alfalfa and clover eaten by cattle.
“Bees are often perceived as pesky insects, but most people don’t understand the value of bees as pollinators of our food sources," Erik Intermill, a restaurant entrepreneur in Southern California who has a beehive at his home, told Food Dive.
Bees are disappearing at an alarming rate due to a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder. Other environmental factors, including pesticides meant for other less helpful insects, can also impact pollinators.
The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Pesticides released results from a two-year study last year showing the population of bees is falling at an alarming rate. Annual surveys of U.S. beekeepers have found that about 29% of honeybee colonies have died during the winter since 2006.
With more attention focused on meeting the public's demand for local and organic products, bee supporters say not enough is being talked about protecting the flying insects crucial to produce these foods in the first place.
“Unfortunately, many people are recognizing the benefits of GMO and antibiotic-free foods, but not fully understanding that food we consume also requires nutrition that comes in the form of natural pollination,” Intermill said.
Fewer bees means smaller yields
Katharina Ullmann, a national crop pollination specialist for environmental nonprofit the Xerces Society, said both managed honeybees and wild, native bees continue to face serious threats.
“In North America, experts found that about 25% of our bumblebee species are at risk. And in January 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to list one species, the rusty patched bumblebee, under the Endangered Species Act,” Ullmann told Food Dive by email. “These signs of declining bumblebees are indicative of the situation facing other bees.”
For farmers, food manufacturers and consumers, the absence of beers could be detrimental to the food supply. In some areas, crops will still get pollinated, but fewer bees means smaller yields.
The Government Accountability Office, the independent investigative arm of Congress, said last year that addressing the factors affecting bee health will be “a complex undertaking that may take many years and require advances in science and changes in agricultural land-use practices.” The agency said U.S. Department of Agriculture oversight of honeybee colonies managed by beekeepers had improved, but the department must work closer with other agencies to monitor wild, native bees, and evaluate any gaps in staff expertise in conservation practices.
Chad Hoefler, associate professor of biology at Arcadia University, said dangers to the bee population could be coming from many threats, many of which are not fully understood by researchers. They include urban expansion, modern agricultural practices, the application of pesticides, presence of invasive plants, competition with invasive pollinator species, climate change, spread of pests and pathogens, electromagnetic pollution and genetically modified crops.
With “approximately 35% of the world’s food comes from insect pollination, we should all be alarmed by the rapid decline,” Hoefler told Food Dive.
If the decline in the bee population can be reversed, consumers and food manufactures will need to be at the forefront of the change, Hoefler said.
“Food manufacturers will have to alter current practices, and consumers should be more curious about where their food comes from and the impact that their economic decisions at the grocery store may be having on the environment including bee populations,” he said.
Alex Placzek, U.S. director of marketing for Häagen-Dazs, said honeybees pollinate many of the ingredients used to make its ice cream, bars and sorbet. About 40% of all Häagen-Dazs flavors have bee-dependent ingredients.
“If companies, consumers, media and organizations can join together for the bees, we can all make informed decisions to help reverse some of the issues the bees are now facing.”
U.S. marketing director at Häagen-Dazs
In 2008, the company launched the Häagen-Dazs loves Honey Bees program. The ice cream maker donated more than $1 million to support honey bee research and education. Recently, it funded the installation of pollinator habitats on an 840-acre almond farm in California’s Central Valley.
“Today, we are expanding to take a proactive and hands-on approach to rejuvenate pollinator habitats that allow native bees to flourish,” Placzek told Food Dive. “Our goal is to repeat this work on farms that supply the bee-dependent ingredients used in our ice creams, bars and sorbet.”
Brands such as Celestial Seasonings from Hain Celestial and Talenti, a Unilever brand, also have partnered with the Xerces Society. Whole Foods has launched “Human Bee-In” events and “Give Bees A Chance” promotions during the past few years. And General Mills has partnered with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Xerces Society in a five-year program to restore more than 100,000 acres of pollinator habitat by 2021.
“If companies, consumers, media and organizations can join together for the bees, we can all make informed decisions to help reverse some of the issues the bees are now facing,” Placzek said. “Whether that is by planting a pollinator-friendly habitat in your front yard or planting six and a half miles on an almond farm, every bit helps the bees.”