EJ Graphic/Travis Charlson
Apples. Almonds. Coffee. Oranges. Onions. Avocado. Tomatoes. Lemons. Strawberries. Watermelon. These items are commonplace on any supermarket shelf or grocery list.
But for how long?
Without bees, some of these foods will be harder to grow. Some will get much more expensive. Some will go away altogether. In fact, studies show that 20 percent of the world’s crops require bee pollination, and nearly 70 percent of the worlds crops are aided by bee pollination.
The problem? We’re running out of bees.
Sure, this isn’t exactly “news”. Reports have been surfacing for years now about how important bees are and how they’re disappearing in droves, almost to the point of cliche.
But it’s like the old saying — a cliche is a cliche because it’s true.
And the truth is scary. Some species of bees have declined 90 percent in the US over the last twenty years.
“If you look at your dinner plate, take one-third of the food on that plate and throw it away.” said Randy Elsbernd, President of the North Iowa Beekeepers Club. “If we lose honey bees, that’s what will happen.”
Elsbernd has been keeping bees for over a decade, and has learned first-hand the struggles that bees face.
Elsbernd said that bees are often just recognized for their honey, but that’s just a by-product of their most important purpose — pollination.
“[Professional] Beekepers do it for the pollination,” Elsbernd said. “They don’t really do it for the honey, that’s kind of just an added bonus.”
His 40 to 50 colonies spend each winter pollinating almond farms in California, where the bees play a vital role producing the state’s largest export. In fact, one truck load of bee hives shipped to almond farms in California can fetch over $80,000.
California produces 80 percent of the world’s almonds, and according to reports, the multi-billion dollar industry requires half of the country’s honey bee population to function.
But honey bees are just one type of bee. And almonds are just one food they help produce.
What’s being done
Several factors contribute to declining bee populations. Chief among them are loss of habitat, diseases like mites and viruses, and pesticides.
Last year, the European Union announced a total-ban on bee-killing insecticides in efforts to turn things around.
Unfortunately, the United States is doing much less on this front. Previously, there were similar bans in place at least for designated wildlife refugees in the U.S., but the Trump administration lifted those bans in 2018.
“They’re not taking the research far enough,” Elsbernd said, noting how agricultural pesticide producers essentially don’t factor in the damage their products do to bees.
But not all hope is lost. Scores of 4-Hers across the state will roll up their sleeves and do what they can help the bees this summer.
Iowa State University Extension is launching a campaign called the “Native Bee Challenge”, which aims to enlist an army of youngsters to learn about the challenges these endangered bees face, and task them with building as many nests and habitats as they can.
The program, with a goal of reaching more than 1,000 youth in 2019, is based on activities targeted for third through eighth grade students. By taking part in collaborative, hands-on activities, these youth will learn how increasing biodiversity — specifically by increasing habitat for the native bees — benefits our food supply and agriculture.
“Most people don’t realize the importance of native bees in our food production,” said Maya Hayslett, crop science youth extension specialist and organizer of the program. “The Native Bee Challenge will engage youth and communities in learning about native bees as pollinators of food crops and how they can increase habitat for bees.”
Leading the charge will be 18 teenagers from 4-H programs across the state, and they will facilitate these hands-on activities about pollination, native bees, increasing habitat and making bee nests.
One of these facilitators happens to be my younger sister, Tianna, and I first heard about the program when she showed me a sawed-off chunk of PVC pipe.
It didn’t look like much, just an i.d. sticker on the side and a small bundle of cardboard tubes stuffed into the pipe. But that’s all a bee needs to make a nest.
“Each new ‘hive’ has a sticker, and you can go online and register the nests.” Charlson said. “Then you can look online and see a map of all of the new nests across Iowa.”
If a thousand kids across the state are running around and putting up these simple little nests, more nests mean more eggs. More eggs mean more bees. And more bees means all the grandmothers of the world can keep making those delicious peach cobblers and blueberry pies.
This program is aimed more towards bees native to America, such as the bumble bee, and less about honey bees, which were once upon a time imported from Europe.
“Native bees are different than honey bees,” Charlson said. “Some can only pollinate certain plants, so it’s important to have good sources close by, such as flowers.”
Even so, no matter what kind of bee they are, they all need help and they all serve different purposes. For example, a honey bee can’t pollenate a tomato plant, only a bumble bee can. The aptly-named squash bee only pollinates squash plants. Almonds would be almost non-existent without honey bees. So would honey, for that matter.
If you or someone you know might be interested in learning more about the program, contact your county’s Iowa State Extension and Outreach office.