Chris of Libra Fitness asked me the other day whether I had any thoughts on backyard gardening and its implications for the health of otherwise declining honeybee populations, and our ability as a society to continue raising crops that require honeybees as pollinators.
I have to admit, I haven’t really kept up with research relating to Colony Collapse Disorder or honeybee declines in general, or with what sometimes comes across as the apocalyptic nature of predictions that our food supply is about to collapse since bees are a critical component of that infrastructure. The Wikipedia entry (linked above) is a good summary of all the specific factors that may be playing a role in honeybee die-offs – specifically, insecticides; viral, bacterial and fungal pathogens; the stresses of transporting hives cross-coutry to pollinate crops year-round; hive malnutrition (as commercial hives are often supplemented with high-fructose corn syrup); and even radio-frequency interference and genetically-modified crops have all been accused or implicated. But the truth is, no one seems to know why the large-scale disappearances are occurring… least of all me.
When I wander around my yard, I see plenty of honeybees. I see enough that you couldn’t convince me there was a problem with honeybee populations based solely on my observations. They are a significant portion of the pollinator population in my yard.
But they aren’t the only pollinators I see. Butterflies, beetles, wasps, flies, moths, solitary bees, and ants all play their part. When you factor in all the other species of insects doing their work, honeybees become perhaps a rough 15% portion of the pollinating insect population I see.
So, were honeybees to disappear entirely, the varied plants in my yard would probably keep getting the pollination support they need. I won’t rule out that perhaps a few species of plants might collapse – specialists with a direct tie to honeybees – but from the perspective of moving bits of pollen around from plant to plant, honeybees are but a small factor.
In industrialized agriculture, where honeybees often have to be imported from other states (bringing with them the diseases and fungi of other ecosystems to remnants of any native bee populations), quite often much of the native insect population (bees and otherwise) has been wiped out by broadcast spraying of insecticides to control one or two pests specific to that crop. Imported honeybees become, then, the only insect pollinator of those crops.
So, again, as in my rant about Monsanto, the antidote to bee die-offs is probably a return to small-scale organic farming, stuff that doesn’t foster a monoculture, either in crops or in their pollinators. Back-yard farmers are an important piece of that, both ecologically and ideologically.