Bees are Vital to Human Welfare PDF Print E-mail

The honeybee and the American honey industry are a topic that does not occupy most people’s attention. Yet their important presence on an agricultural level and indeed in our personal lives cannot be overstated. The following essay addresses how important bees are to our livelihood as humans, as well as the dramatic challenges these diligent insects are facing. Furthermore, it describes how beekeepers in the United States are struggling to bring you the sweetness that is honey from the hive.

Without the honey bee, we would have much less food. Bees pollinate dozens of the plants that produce what many Americans eat. From almonds, apricots, avocadoes and beans, to cucumbers, melons, pears, and zucchini, the list goes on. Bees also pollinate many of the grasses that feed the animals we eat. These include alfalfa and clover which in turn fuel the beef, poultry, lamb and dairy products industries. One third of our total diet is dependent, directly or indirectly, on the honeybee.

Yet we are losing the bees that live naturally in the wild. We depend on these insects for our food, but in an ecosystem where pollution and urbanization are altering nature dramatically, bees are in major trouble. There are three main reasons for this. 1.) Bees are losing their food sources. Rural and forested land is consistently being developed for housing and shopping malls, reducing the flower sources bees feed on. In addition, bees can’t find nectar and pollen as easily as they used to because of weed sprays and “better” pasture care. The weeds, from which they gather much wildflower honey, simply aren’t there. 2.) Bees are adversely affected by conventional agriculture practices. This kind of farming utilizes pesticides which kill harmful pests but also beneficial insects like the bees. 3.) The varroa mite. This mite is an external parasite of minute proportions that plagues bees. It was first discovered in Indonesia in 1904 and was transported to the Americas by humans. It attaches itself to bees and sucks their blood, significantly reducing their life-span. (Commercial beekeepers developed a remedy for the mite, a miticide that keeps their hives alive and able to work. The miticide is, however, yet another poison bees come into contact with.)

As a result of the loss of wild bees, farmers in the United States have resorted to renting bee hives from commercial beekeepers for pollination. This allows farmers to ensure having bees during the critical flowering period of a given crop. Indeed, this business has become so important that the beekeeper is often paid more money to haul his or her bees from flowering crop to flowering crop than they are for honey: up to $350 per hive per season. Multiply that by hundreds, even thousands of hives that are needed and that’s much more than a beekeeper can make selling honey. Take the California almond industry, for example. In 2007, the California Almond Board stated that almonds are California’s number one horticultural export, occupying 550,000 acres of land. In 2006, this important revenue-generating crop required over one million beehives to support its yield, and the Board projects needing over two million hives by the year 2012!

Not only do bees have to contend with the loss of their natural habitats, pesticides, parasites and miticides, so do their keepers. Beekeepers are losing yields in honey to all these influences too. Yet there are two other factors that make the job of the American beekeeper very difficult: The Africanized bee and globalization.

The presence of Africanized bees in the Americas is the outcome of a genetic science experiment in the 1950s, in Brazil. (It is important to put this into context, and note that the first European colonists introduced Apis mellifera, the common honeybee, to the Americas. She is not native to the continent of the Americas.) At this time, the European honeybee lived in Brazil but did not do well in Brazil’s hot, tropical environment, because she was genetically adapted to Europe’s cooler climates. Because of this, scientists again imported bees into Brazil but this time from South Africa, believing these new bees would do better in Brazil’s sultry climate. In contrast to the European honeybee, African bees are adapted to a hotter, more hostile landscape and look a lot like their European cousins but are smaller, lighter and nomadic, able to reproduce faster. They earned their nickname "killer" bees because of the way they sting their enemies. They have the same venom as European bees but when provoked will attack aggressively. An entire African colony will often go after and sting their victim en mass thousands of times, chasing them over many miles, while the Europeans are more likely to sting individually, as more of a warning, and only until the danger to their colony is over.

Shortly after they arrived in Brazil, several colonies of African bees escaped into Brazil’s forests and began usurping the existing queendoms of European bees. The African bees would find colonies of European bees, kill the European queen, and place an African queen in her place. With this new African queen laying eggs, the genetic makeup of the beehive began to change rapidly. Within about three years, Brazil’s gentler bee population was conquered. The African bee moved northward and southward at a pace of about 300 miles per year. It mated with the existing European bees from Argentina to the United States, leaving its aggressive genetic mark on beehives all over the Americas. Four decades later, in 1990, the African bee arrived in south Texas. It likes dry, hot, arid landscapes and has since then also moved into New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California but reports of the African bee’s presence have come from places as far north as the U.S. border with Canada. Holly Bishop, author of Robbing the Bees compares European bees to African bees thus: "African bees, like a pack of wild dogs, are fierce, dominant and aggressive in every way that the Europeans, like groomed, shiny golden retrievers, are gentle and submissive." It is easy to see why a beekeeper in the continental United States has a difficult time working with colonies that carry the African gene because they are so rebellious and difficult to manage.

Our global marketplace is also a threat to domestic honey producers. The facility with which we import and export goods all over the world allows less expensive honey from other countries to be sold here, namely from Argentina, India and China. Take a look at the jar of honey you purchased from a conventional supermarket and you might be surprised to see it contains a mix of honeys from all these different countries. The U.S. Commerce Department did begin imposing antidumping tariffs on foreign honey, taxing it 200 percent, which has stabilized the domestic honey market. Yet the United States’ demand for honey far outweighs the supply by domestic beekeepers, therefore the importation of foreign honey will not cease anytime soon.

Like many of the world’s agricultural industries, beekeeping has changed dramatically in the last 100 years. In light of these great changes, more and more consumers are becoming aware of the politics and polemics surrounding their food and how what they eat has a direct effect on our world’s ecosystem and our country’s economy. The honeybee, the beekeeper and their plight are just one point of departure from which all the facets of agriculture and our food can be viewed.