Vancouver Island is latest region to suffer massive honey bee losses. The BC Beekeepers’ Association and local producers estimate as many as 90% of the regional hives died-out over winter.
In the temperate belts of the world, honey bees survive the winter months as intact colonies with queens beginning egg laying in late winter to early spring. A flush of new worker bees emerges with the annual return of new plant growth and flowering. The loss of these overwintering colonies means costly replacement with new stock to start the process of rebuilding the regional bee population.
The financial losses of the individual beekeepers aside, this die-off is yet another warning of how vulnerable our food systems can be to environmental disruptions. Bees not only directly create food by converting nectar to honey, but more importantly support agriculture through their pollination work. They are commonly understood to be responsible for at least one-third of global food supplies and billions of dollars of agricultural production, although the actual figures have not been definitively measured. Bee-dependent crops include the majority of tree fruits and berries, many vegetables and important forage species, including alfalfa, clovers and other legumes, that are fed to livestock.
The cause of the Vancouver Island ‘bee-mageddon’ has not been clearly determined, but early speculation is that either Varroa mites, viruses or warmer than normal weather could have contributed. Similar colony collapses have been at play around the world in the past decade with increasing severity and frequency.
With our heavy reliance on pollinators for a portion of global food supplies, we need to rethink the risks to food security in light of potential regional or even broader bee population crashes. Combine a bee collapse with extreme drought or frost events in a major production zone and food supplies could be in serious jeopardy.
I believe part of the solution to managing this production and food security risk can come from boosting native pollinators. And this in turn, is further evidence that we need to diversify our agricultural landscapes to better replicate natural conditions. A diverse population of native and feral pollinators may not provide the same level of pollination services as mass hiving of domesticated honey bees, but they will function to ensure crops receive some pollination and fruiting if honey bee populations fail. Think of it as an insurance policy on food production with other benefits.
Hedgerows, conservation reserves, integrated riparian management zones, timber and shelterbelts can all function to provide this habitat in agricultural settings without greatly impacting the area devoted to cultivation. Native pollinators are resident in specific areas, and are not moved around like their domesticated cousins. They therefore need season-long sources of nectar that can only realistically be provided by a diverse complement of plant species that flower at different times throughout the year.
The move over the past century to remove brush and other uncultivated vegetation zones from farmland has contributed to the loss pollinator habitat (and adversely impacted other wildlife, hydrological and other natural functions). Restoring or creating new conservation reserves can therefore directly contribute to food security by rebuilding diverse habitats of flowering plants and pollinators. Urban and suburban developments have also built over large areas of pollinator habitat. Planning the rural-urban fringe with green belts to buffer development from agricultural zones can address this problem as well as serving other functions to mitigate rural-urban conflicts over noise, odour and dust.
Alternative pollinators are already used in some commercial production, such as leafcutter bees used for alfalfa pollination and bumblebees in greenhouse vegetable production. But, by and large, honey bees are the most widely chosen insects for managed pollination to achieve maximum results. But when it comes to risk management, “optimum” is often a better strategy than “maximum”. And the optimal pollination strategy needs honey bees complemented with healthy populations of native pollinators with equally healthy and diverse agricultural landscapes.