If you look at the plate of food on your dinner table, bees have played their part either pollinating the many vegetables and fruits we eat directly or pollinating the food for the animals that we then consume. And don’t forget the honey and wax they produce – two other important products that come courtesy of their hard work.
It’s hard to imagine a fruit salad without strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, orchard fruits, citrus fruits and tropical fruits. But precisely what would happen if the honey bee were to disappear (amongst other meals impacted by crop loss).
Pollination is the highest agricultural contributor to yields worldwide, contributing far beyond any other agricultural management practice. This makes bees and other pollinators major contributors to agriculture. Pollinators affect 35 percent of global agricultural land, supporting the production of 87 of the leading food crops worldwide. Amazing!
Disturbingly honey bees, a very important pollinator, are disappearing globally at an alarmingly rate due to pesticides, parasites, habitat loss, and disease. Declines in their health and populations are seen globally as posing risks for biodiversity, long-term food security and ultimately human health.
With a potentially pessimistic outlook for the honey bee it’s great to hear that a study published in June (2019) shows that organic farming can mitigate the negative effects of intensive farming and increase in particular honeybee colony survival.
Researchers of the French national research institutes INRA and CNRS are the first to show that organic farming benefits honeybee colonies. Compared with bee colonies on non-organic land, colonies on organic farms had 37% more broods, with 20% more adult bees, and 53% greater honey production. Whilst they expected to confirm the benefits of organic farming with honeybee colonies they were surprised at the scale of the positive effects.
The research team analysed six years of data collected through a honeybee monitoring scheme ECOBEE which has been operating in France since 2008., Researchers particularly noted the benefits of organic farming to honeybee colonies during the flower-scarce period between the blooms of rapeseed and sunflower.
Since 2000, honeybee colonies have shown an increasing trend of poor development and high death rate. This has been attributed in part to intensive agriculture with its high usage of chemicals and single crop planting. Evidence from this study indicates that organic farming can mitigate this decline and, moreover, can benefit the yields of crops grown by conventional farmers within 1500m of the hives.
The researchers found that the development of the colony ie the number of living adults benefited mostly where organic farmland is up to 300m from the hives thought to be due to more diverse pollen resource and decreased pesticide drift at the local scale.
But when it comes to honey reserves these benefited where organic farmland is up to 1,500m from the hives thought to be due to an increased availability of melliferous1 flowers over a longer distance for foraging bees.
A wonderful explanation given by Vincent Bretagnolle, the project leader, demonstrates the distain and lack of awareness that we know from our growers is often shown by their conventional neighbours. He noted “Organic farms and fields are often seen by conventional farmers as a source for pests; we show here that organic farming has actually positive effects at the landscape scale, not only for biodiversity in general, but for beekeepers as well and even for conventional farmers since honeybees contribute to rapeseed and sunflower yields”.
When you next tuck into a delicious Greener Greens fruit salad or bowl of steamed vegetables recognise that you are not only nourishing your body and supporting our fabulous farmers but you’re doing your bit to help support our wonderful honeybees who do so much for us.
1 A melliferous flower is a plant which produces substances that can be collected by insects and turned into honey
Wintermantel, D, Odoux, J-F, Chadœuf, J, Bretagnolle, V. Organic farming positively affects honeybee colonies in a flower-poor period in agricultural landscapes. J Appl Ecol 2019. DOI: 10.1111/1365-2664.13447
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, (May 2018), Why bees matter