How bee-friendly farming could save food systems
Just as you can easily shop for organic or fair-trade products, you might soon be able to scan the aisles of your local supermarket for a bee-friendly seal.
Certain berries, wines, and ice creams already carry a black-and-white logo of a bee on their packaging, indicating that they were made with ingredients grown in ways that allow bees to thrive.
The seal comes from Bee Better Certified, a nonprofit formed by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in 2017. The group aims first and foremost to promote sustainable farming that protects pollinator species — many of which are threatened with extinction — but it’s also seeking to rehabilitate degraded landscapes and change the way we produce food more broadly.
Bees are essential to functioning ecosystems and food webs, so their health acts as a gauge of wildlife everywhere. In this way, Bee Better Certified is a useful label for the Anthropocene, the current geologic era marked by intensifying climate change, pollution, and resource exploitation. Buying products that protect bees helps to support wildlife in general, potentially reversing some of the dangerous environmental trends — from soil loss to species extinction — that have emerged in recent decades.
It’s also a cause that has widespread support. In the US, for example, 95% of respondents to a 2019 survey by the National Recreation and Park Association said they want to take action to support bees.
“It’s bee-focused but [the seal] really seeks to put the diversity of plants back into agricultural landscapes to support not just bees but many other creatures out there,” Cameron Newell, pollinator conservation specialist and Bee Better Certified program coordinator, told Global Citizen.
“Insects and plants are the foundation of healthy ecosystems — if you can get those into agricultural landscapes, you start to see other things come back: birds, lizards, snakes, and frogs, and all those sorts of things that feed on insects.”
News that the Asian giant hornet, also known as the “murder hornet,” had begun appearing in parts of the United States recently sparked widespread concern for the safety of honey bees hunted by the ferocious insects.
But murder hornets rank relatively low on the list of threats to bees.
Far more pressing are habitat loss, pesticide use, commercial bee practices, climate change, parasites, and diseases.
Bees require diverse and lush landscapes for food, reproduction, and nesting. In fact, 70% of the more than 3,600 bee species in North America nest in the ground, according to Newell. The growth of industrial agriculture over the past several decades has degraded soil quality around the world, making it harder for bees to nest, store nectar and pollen, and rest.
Industrial agriculture also depletes areas of plant diversity, depriving bees of key sources of food, and unleashes vast amounts of pesticides onto landscapes to manage pests, which ends up causing illnesses in bees. Neonicitinoids, for example, are a class of insecticides that have been shown to cause “colony collapse disorder,” when an entire hive of bees suddenly dies.
Global temperature increases limit the habitat range of bees and cause population declines. The commercial overuse of bees, meanwhile, puts excessive stress on their immune systems, exposing them to pathogens. In the winter of 2018-19, more than 50 billion commercial bees were wiped out due to the various stresses of industrial agriculture, according to the Guardian.
“The high mortality rate creates a sad business model for beekeepers,” Nate Donley, a senior scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity, told the Guardian. “It’s like sending the bees to war. Many don’t come back.”
Diseases and parasites are decimating many bee species as their immune systems decline from environmental stressors. For instance, more than half of the honey bee colonies in the US are affected by a deadly mite that could cause their disappearance within years.
If these trends continue, many bee species could go extinct, which would endanger the hundreds of plants they pollinate — including crops that account for a third of what humans eat — and cause myriad environmental repercussions.
Protecting bees is about more than allowing insects to buzz from flower to flower — it’s about protecting the integrity of ecosystems and our food systems.
Bee-friendly agriculture doesn’t require cutting-edge technology, or elaborate interventions, but it does take ongoing work. Above all, it means allowing land to return to a more natural state, Newell said.
Bee Better Certified requires farmers to abide by a few basic principles to earn the seal.
Farmers have to dedicate 5% of their land to bee habitats featuring various types of flowers that provide nectar and pollen. Farmers can plant hedgerows of native plants for permanent habitats, and use flowering crops such as sunflower and lettuce that bloom throughout the year for temporary habitats.
Sran Family Orchards in California, which became the first Bee Better Certified brand, planted 116 acres of understory flowers beneath their almond orchards to support bees. AC Foods, meanwhile, restored many acres of degraded farmland to native plant habitat.
“You have to have a diversity of flower shapes and sizes because native bees come in various shapes and sizes, from tiny little bees the size of a pin to the size of your thumb,” Newell said. “Having structural diversity [among plants] is important as well, because a good chunk of native bees will nest in cavities, so it’s important to have stemmed plants that a bee can hollow out for nesting in.”
Newell said that certain bees like to use particular plants for partitioning their nests and laying eggs.
To become certified, farmers have to stop using pesticides and herbicides that harm bees, especially neonicotinoids. (Farmers in the European Union, for example, recently learned they'll get state support to transition away from pesticides as part of a broader push to protect bees by 2030.) Bee Certified farmers also have to create buffer zones between their land and other farms to prevent pesticide drift, which happens when the wind carries pesticides far distances, potentially contaminating organic crops.
Newell said that one obstacle for strawberry farmers interested in the program has been their heavy use of fumigation that ends up harming bees. The type of sustainable farming practices Bee Better promotes have been shown to improve the resilience of crops and reduce the need for chemical intervention.
The certificate also calls on farmers to minimize their use of tillage — overturning and digging up soil to prepare it for crops — and to use shallow tillage methods instead of deep soil tillage when possible. This allows soil to build up nutrients and become more suitable for bee nesting. It also protects bees from being destroyed during tilling season.
“There’s a good body of evidence that shows when you build these habits and protect them, then bees and other pollinators will re-pollinate the area,” Newell said. “Generalist bees definitely do recover if you can put some habitat in and make sure they’re protected from stresses.”
Finally, all farms have to undergo third-party verification from the Oregon Tilth, an organic farming certifier.
The certificate has implications far beyond bees. Sustainable agriculture of this kind has the ability to combat climate change, increase food production, and reduce poverty globally. It can even act as the bedrock for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals by empowering communities and restoring ecosystems.
Agricultural producers, big and small, have expressed interest in Bee Better Certified, according to Newell, but there’s often reluctance to pay for transforming farms and orchards into what is essentially an enhanced form of organic food production. Farms often have to maintain organic standards for a few years before they receive a certification that can then translate into earning more money for products. Quality Insurance International has created the Certified Transitional program to ease this bridge period for farmers and incentivize the move toward organic.
Newell said that everyday people also have a role to play. By calling on your favorite brands to adopt Bee Better standards, you can help create momentum for widespread adoption.
“The seal is slowly gaining more recognition,” Newell said. “There’ll be a tipping point when folks see enough and say we need to do that.”