Back in 2013, the state of North Dakota led the nation in honey production, with 33 million pounds of the sweet stuff produced. But today bee populations are declining all across the country, and particularly here in New York state. Those who are apiphobic or allergic to bee stings might think this is good news. In reality, it’s a trend that could spell disaster for the entire nation’s food supply, as these pollinators are essential to producing many of the fruits and vegetables humans rely on.
Last year’s drought was devastating for Central New York bees. The lack of water degraded pollen quality, which made it much harder for them to survive during the region’s harsh winter. Many New York beekeepers lost 70 to 90% of their hives as a result. This year, local farmers and even casual gardeners aren’t seeing the bee activity to which they’re accustomed.
The owners and seed manager of Lakeview Organic Grain in Penn Yann, New York, have taken notice of the shift. Their 1,000 acres of organic grain and orchards are typically a hot spot for bees. But that hasn’t been the case this year.
“Usually a corn field, at this time of year, is filled with bees harvesting on henbit,” says owner Mary-Howell Martens to The Chronicle-Express, referring to small flowers naturally found in unplowed cornfields. But, she adds, “There’s nobody out there.”
Seed manager Jeff O’Briens hasn’t seen any buzzing creatures at home, either.
“There’s a lot of things in bloom right now, flowers that I would normally be kind of leery of in my garden, ’cause they’re normally crawling with bees,” says O’Brien. “But there aren’t any. So it’s kind of worrying for the future.”
The issues faced by bee populations in New York State are a reflection of what’s going on throughout the country. According to Bee Informed, American beekeepers lost 44% of their colonies from April 2015 to April 2016. Drought, habitat destruction, air pollution, nutrition deficit, pesticides, and climate change are all factors at play.
The big picture is that bees pollinate virtually every living thing, either directly or indirectly. They’re responsible for about one-third of the global food supply and nearly 80% of all pollination around the world. Throughout the U.S., the value of crops that are pollination-dependent is estimated to be around $15 billion. As pollination becomes more rare, the price of food will undoubtedly rise.
For a state as rich in agriculture as New York, the results could be dire. Apples, cherries, squash, and other mega-important fruits and vegetables grown here are totally dependent on bee pollination.
Experts stress that one of the best things farmers and home gardeners alike can do is to plant more wildflowers. Around 51% of homeowners who choose to upgrade their outdoor spaces spend six or more hours there per week, with gardening being one of the top three recreational uses of these spots. Those who have gardens or even small green patches should plant bee-friendly flowers, like daisies, marigolds, and wildflowers, to encourage the bees to return.
Lakeview Organic is running a campaign to entice residents to plant some seeds. They’re giving away wildflower seed packets away for free to anyone who comes in. Since these flowers are easy to plant and require very little maintenance, the owners are hoping that customers will take advantage. If that doesn’t work, maybe they’ll pay attention to the foreboding message on the basket of seeds: a cartoon bee with the caption, “If we die, we’re taking you with us.”
Experts also discourage the use of harmful pesticides in orchards, gardens, and other crops. Data from a recent Cornell University study found that honeybee colonies around 30 New York State apple orchards were found to have high levels of pesticide exposure. In fact, 73% of the 120 colonies studied had chronic pesticide exposure. Not only is this harmful for the bees themselves, but it could also present a danger to humans who consume honey produced by these bees.
Ultimately, these disappearing populations are not just problematic for environmentalists or those who like to put honey in their tea. According to experts, it represents a multi-faceted, colossal issue that could impact almost every food source and, ultimately, the planet as we know it.