Abello: What’s all the buzz?

 

 

Oscar Abello

Even before it was a peach, it was a peach blossom. It would be nothing more than a picturesque flower were it not for one of nature’s busiest creatures and humanity’s most loyal friends: honeybees. When a honeybee comes looking for nectar, it pollinates the flower and does it again and again all day long during the pollination period for peaches, apples, almonds, avocados, oranges, watermelon and the many other crops that depend on insect pollination – over a hundred in total, making up roughly one third of all crops grown in the United States.

Honeybees and humankind have a long and fruitful friendship, dating back at least 10,000 years. Nevertheless, in the past three decades true wild honeybee colonies have nearly disappeared from America due to pesticide use, industrial expansion and suburban encroachment. The worst may still be on the way. There are other kinds of bees – bumblebees and other species still commonly seen (and heard) – but the honeybee is unique.

Commercial beekeepers run on tight schedules. Most have established annual contracts to bring their colonies of honeybees by truck to farms around the country, arriving to pollinate at the appropriate time of year depending on the state and the crop. Trucking around the country for months at a time puts stress on honeybees and keeps them from adapting to survive best in any one particular environment.

They have proven themselves incredibly resilient, keeping up with increasing agricultural production demanding larger and larger crops to pollinate. Much of the resilience comes from their highly organized social structure, complete with its own language. There is nothing to replace honeybees.

Late in 2006, beekeepers across America raised alarm that over a quarter of the American honeybee population simply vanished. Reports were concurrent with similar loses in Western Europe. The pandemic was bestowed a name: Colony Collapse Disorder. Researchers across the country have been scrambling to determine what is at the root of a potential catastrophe.

Results have not been conclusive. Besides pesticide use, extensive mono-crop farms are thought to have taken a toll on honeybee health. Imagine eating nothing but peaches for an entire month. The same goes for a single colony pollinating nothing but peaches, getting only peach nectar for that month – not a healthy, well-rounded diet. There is evidence of a genetic disease, as well as an AIDS-type disease for honeybees. No one will know what might happen until beekeepers perform their mid-winter check on the colonies during the seasonal hibernation period.

Consumers can do much to help. Buying from small local growers or purchasing food through local co-ops can encourage less mono-crop farming and pesticide use. Smaller local farms tend to have a more sustainable view of agriculture as opposed to the major agribusiness tendency to make as much as possible in the smallest amount of time, placing undue stress on the environment and on bees.

America’s 2.4 million bee colonies – containing tens of millions of bees – are responsible for pollinating 80 percent of insect-pollinated crops, leading to an estimated market value of $15 billion, according to a 2001 study by Cornell University. There are other pollinators, but none approach the honeybee’s importance for agriculture – not to mention for public parks, private gardens and the general eye candy of flowers in springtime.

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Oscar Abello is a senior economics major from Philadelphia, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected]