Joni Keefe
Special to The Aspen Times

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December 8, 2013
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Farms Finest: Honeybees are key to food production

Honeybees are not native to America. Their establishment here is credited to European settlers and their long sea voyages in the 1700s and 1800s. These arduous trips lasted six to eight weeks and required the bees to remain tightly confined.

In such an unnatural environment, this precious cargo was difficult to keep alive, and losses were great. These hardworking pollinators were vital for the re-establishment of food gardens, and those survivors were nurtured carefully to assure their success.

By 1639, colonies of bees were well-established in the woods of Massachusetts. Hives will multiply on their own when they become overcrowded. This created a steady migration naturally, and the bees also moved with the pioneers.

In 1848 the Mormons brought hives to Utah in their covered wagons; hence the state’s emblem became the beehive. Eventually honeybees were introduced to California and other Pacific Coast states.

Like previous times, our need for honeybees remains strong. A current example is in the California San Joaquin Valley. Here, 1.6 million beehives are needed to pollinate the almond groves. Seasonally, semi-trucks deliver pallets of hives for the pollination of almond blossoms. Many deliveries arrive from cold-weather states like Colorado and Montana.

For adequate coverage, a minimum of two hives per acre are needed, and the San Joaquin Valley’s crop covers nearly 800,000 acres. This one agriculture harvest requires nearly two-thirds of all commercially available hives. Eighty percent of the nation’s almonds are grown in that valley, and it is a multibillion-dollar crop that is crucial to California.

In 2006, global alarms went off signaling a sudden disappearance of honeybees. Three years later, in 2009, a total of one-third of the bee population had disappeared, and this was now being called “colony collapse disorder.” Because beekeepers have experienced a great loss in hives, many are deciding to forgo delivering to the California groves.

Researchers worked hard to find the cause, and finally the National Academy of Sciences concluded that it was not one singular culprit but a combination of several.

The puzzle came together slowly and various opinions were found to be all partially correct, including fungus, varroa mites and a weakened immune system, which all have added to this alarming problem. The bees are simply unable to withstand the continuous exposure to a toxic soup made of new chemicals, pathogens and parasites.

These losses are being felt worldwide for beekeepers, almond producers, or anyone involved in producing real food. The Department of Agriculture states that one-quarter of America’s diet depends on food that is created by honeybee pollination. Everyone who buys food will feel the change. Fewer bees means there will be less food harvested, which results in even higher costs at checkout. It’s a humbling message delivered to those who blindly consider themselves superior to nature’s tapestry of sustainable relationships.

To date, nearly 50 percent of the hives needed to pollinate the nation’s fruits and vegetables have been wiped out. During the past two years, evidence is growing stronger and pointing to a specific class of chemicals as being one of the largest culprits. This new generation of pesticides is called neonicotinoids.

Neonicotinoid is a neurotoxin that is derived from nicotine. This systemic insecticide is absorbed into all parts of a plant, including nectar and pollen. Whether in a food-producing plant or the flowers purchased for your garden, this silent killer becomes a final meal for the honeybee as well as other insects.

On Dec. 1, the European Union made the initial global gesture for change before more drastic losses occur. On Dec. 1, Claire Kreman, who is the professor of environmental sciences at Berkley Institute, said, “The European Union today boldly begins a two-year ban on selected pesticides thought to be harmful to honeybees and other pollinators — the United States should help protect pollinators by banning these pesticides. But the (United States) should do far more and become a world leader in championing sustainable alternatives to harmful pesticides.”

The California almond crops may be America’s version of a “canary in the coal mine.” Not understanding and appreciating the natural world is proving again to be a costly disconnect. The hard lesson learned from nature is that once it is gone, you cannot just turn to a factory and place another order.

Joni Keefe moved to the Roaring Fork Valley after a career in landscape design. She is passionate about local food and agriculture. For more information, visit www.farms finest.com, or follow her on Twitter. Connect at joni@farmsfinest.com.


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The Aspen Times Updated Dec 8, 2013 12:00AM Published Dec 9, 2013 07:38AM Copyright 2013 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.