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Dwindling Bee Population Threatens Food Supply

Natural beekeeper Debra Roberts in her Weaverville, N.C., apiary. Credit: Sarah Kahn

Natural beekeeper Debra Roberts in her Weaverville, N.C., apiary. Credit: Sarah Kahn

And before food, there was pollination. The hum of bees heralds the presence of pollen and nectar entering the apiary, and that means the bees enable good and required plant sex. Healthy plant sex is essential, says Debra Roberts, a master natural beekeeper based in the Appalachian Mountains in the town of Weaverville, N.C., not far from Asheville. She considers herself “a kept woman of sorts” — by her bees, that is. “I am a bee-loving hussy,” she saucily declares. She has even designed bee-loving hussy postcards.

Art adorns the apiary of master natural beekeeper Debra Roberts. Credit: Sarah Khan

Art adorns the apiary of master natural beekeeper Debra Roberts. Credit: Sarah Khan

Roberts often refers to the many “Bee Illuminati” who teach or guest lecture for the Center for Honeybee Research in Asheville, a community of beekeepers where she contributes to and learns much  about natural beekeeping. Since 2006, there has been a dramatic decrease in managed honeybees of approximately 33% yearly. A third of that decrease is attributed to colony collapse disorder, or CCD. That one in every three bites of food is thanks to a honeybee pollinator resonates with many across Asheville and the nation, so much so that beekeepers from Asheville as well as from Buncombe and adjoining counties are determined more than ever to help the honeybee (Apis mellifera) and her pollinator cousins through education, celebration and collaboration with the city.

What is colony collapse disorder (CCD)?

As defined by Agricultural Research Services, colony collapse disorder includes the following characteristics:

  • Disappearance of most, if not all, of the adult honey bees in a colony.
  • Leaving behind honey and brood but no dead bee bodies.
  • Low levels of Varroa mite and other pathogens, such as Nosema, as probable contributing factors.

Statistics about U.S. beekeepers and beekeeping

  • There are an estimated 115,000 to 125,000 beekeepers in the U.S.
  • The majority are considered hobbyists with less than 25 hives.
  • Commercial beekeepers are defined as those with 300 hives or more.
  • Most commercial beekeepers migrate their colonies to provide pollination services to farmers.
  • Bee pollination is estimated at $15 billion a year in increased crop value.
  • Commercial crops that are dependent on bee pollination include almonds, apples, avocados, blueberries, cherries, cranberries, sunflowers, cucumbers, kiwis, melons and vegetables.

Source: National Honey Board

California almond production statistics

  • California has about 740,000 acres bearing almond trees.
  • California produces about 80% of the world’s almonds.
  • About 70% of California almonds are exported.
  • Almonds are California’s largest-value agricultural export.
  • Almonds are California’s largest user of pollination services.
  • It is estimated that 60% of all U.S. bee colonies are used to pollinate California almonds.
  • After the almond bloom, hives are moved to pollinate other crops typically two to three times during the season.

Source: Carman, H. 2011. "The Estimated Impact of Bee Colony Collapse Disorder on Almond Pollination Fees." ARE Update 14(5): 9-11.University of California Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics.

On June 26, as a result of their hard work, bee appreciators and keepers celebrated the Asheville City Council’s unanimous approval of a resolution making the city the nation’s first Bee City USA. Council members want to encourage and advance backyard beekeepers. Beekeeping is not only vital to the production of many of the foods we eat but it is also essential to the well being of the planet and individual health, Roberts says.

Debates heat up when one compares commercial versus noncommercial beekeeping. And those debates parallel the same issues when one compares agribusiness versus the merits of organic and sustainable agriculture. Roberts’ approach and experience fall squarely in the natural and no chemicals camp, so to speak.

Roberts is a storehouse of practical wisdom based on years of backyard beekeeping that’s unique to her location in the Appalachian Mountains. Bees, the environment and the human body, says Roberts, are susceptible to diseases when compromised. Roberts asserts that “any beekeeper I know worth their salt (pollen) will tell you that diseases come in when the immune systems of the bees are compromised.” Roberts says often the evidence about colony collapse disorder is in front of us but ignored: Bees are dying in large numbers; pesticides, herbicides and fungicides are overused and, in some instances, the accumulated non-lethal doses of pesticides negatively impact bees; and environmental degradation and climate change impact not only the environment but also the bees’ immune system. Yet the official research and findings can be complex, narrow and sometimes funded by corporate interests.  Most often, though, the conclusion is that we just cannot make a definitive conclusion. Yet many of the beekeepers Roberts’ knows are not uncertain at all.

What’s hurting the bee population

When it comes to the commercial pollination industry, Roberts states unequivocally: “The demands of annual almond pollination in California are debilitating for the bees. After traveling long distances (and often through many states) to get to California, they join millions of fellow bees in holding yards where they are exposed to each others’ diseases, pathogens and viruses. They are fed high fructose corn syrup to trick them into thinking it is spring so the queens start laying early. The bees are then ready in greater numbers for the almond bloom around Valentine’s Day. Once they begin the pollination circuit, they have to endure months of mono-food sources, the stress of further travel and sustained exposure to more pesticides. Everything the bees collect, including diseases and pesticides, can come back home in the hive.”

Bees, like so many other species, are bellwethers. Buzzing for some recognition, buzzing to death. Yet, Roberts actively chooses to remain positive and gains sustenance from her daily beekeeping practices. “When I tend to my bees,” Roberts reflects, “when I mindfully lift a hive box, move a frame up or down, when I move gently and respectfully in and out of my hives … I am filled with hope in doing these small sacred things for these remarkable beings. It is what I choose to do as a human being to make the world a better place.” Perhaps Roberts’ actions allow some bees in the Appalachian Mountains to flutter just a bit more and have those flutters turn into ripples, and then those ripples into waves. We can only hope and act.

In her video and extended audio interview below, you can watch and hear Roberts discuss her firsthand knowledge about backyard beekeeping, how beekeeping has helped her and others and how it has the potential to heal the planet, if we just listen to the bees.

Watch a short video of Roberts in her apiary.

Listen to Roberts in this audio interview for a more detailed exploration of natural beekeeping, what the bees teach her, and the how bees have healed others.

Top photo: Master natural beekeeper Debra Roberts in her apiary in Weaverville, N.C. Credit: Sarah Kahn

Zester Daily contributor Sarah Khan writes about food, culture, climate and sustainability. For her second Fulbright, she is presently traveling in South and Central Asia for a year (2014-15) to tell the stories of female farmers as they contend with a rapidly degraded agricultural landscape, gender inequality, poverty and climate change. She will document their challenges and victories in multiple media. To follow her journey, visit her website.

  • Angela 9·28·12

    A great example of making a small impact can bring big change.
    I particularly love the idea that “actions allow some bees in the Appalachian Mountains to flutter just a bit more and have those flutters turn into ripples, and then those ripples into waves. We can only hope and act.”

  • Peter Callen 9·28·12

    Great to see more of the golden land of honey, thanks for sharing your life with us Debra!

  • Katie Birchenough 10·1·12

    Very interesting article and video. What really caught my attention was the mention about the almond harvest and the reality of that impact on bees. The fact that bees are transported to other places to effect our food sources…this is startling, radical information for me (and others, I’m sure). If people knew more about this it could help highlight the plight of the bees and our food chain! I encourage you to write/film more about this. Thanks so much for the work you are doing on behalf of so many beings.

  • Kae Fleming 10·1·12

    This was a wonderful article and video. Debra is a great example for all of us beekeepers that we are not only helpers but we have a loving responsibility to our friends, the honeybees. It helped place into perspective the true meaning of our roles in their activities and brought many facts to the forefront that will hopefully make the public more informed and conscientious about the plight of the honeybee. Debra, you are an awesome lady. Thanks for all you do and the inspiration you are to me!
    Hope to see more articles like this.

  • Maria Epes 10·1·12

    Really important article and video, full of information and inspiration.

  • Maria Epes 10·1·12

    Really important article and video, full of information and inspiration. It is the way to change through spreading the word.

  • katherine leiner 10·3·12

    Spread the word indeed. This is an important piece. I have seen the bees in the almond groves in Central California. It’s a bit like conventional farming , lots of spray, lots of confusion, only here we’re messing with what is at the core of our own survival. Wasn’t it Einstein who said that without the honey bee in four years (might even be two?) that would be the end of us?

  • June Thomas 10·4·12

    For the last few years, I have been trying to turn my back yard into some sort of a bird haven, I have successfully brought in new types of birds to my very virgin suburban area, however, I have found, that more than anything, the bee’s have found me. I have taken on a love and a bit of a passion toward these friendly, hardworking new friends. I have read about the decrease in the population and I would LOVE to do my part, especially because they seemed to have found me. I am not afraid of bee’s, I never have been, but amazingly enough, my husband and family have actually grown to love my relationship with them and truly enjoy thier presence now as well. I want to do my part! I feel that it is something that I am supposed to do, but how do I begin? I want to be sure I am educating myself correctly and get on the right track from the start. I wonder if Debra has or is interested in email communication regarding the wonderful work she is doing? I would love to talk directly to her, but any information or direction would be very much appreciated! Thank you for this beautiful and most important article.