To build a healthier future for all, we need to think beyond simply increasing humanity’s access to calories, but also to improving access to enough quality and nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables, many of which depend on bees or other insects for pollination.
Nearly one-third of our fruits, nuts and vegetables benefit from pollination by bees. Bees not only contribute to food production, but they are an important part of the environment, contributing to wild plant pollination and providing a food source and other resources to wildlife in their local ecosystems.
There are over 20,000 different bee species in the world, most of them wild. Wild bees vary greatly in appearance and size and are often solitary, relying on a variety of nesting habitats. If they have a suitable habitat on a farm they are freely available to pollinate local crops, however most farmers find that wild bees do not provide the level of pollination service they require for a successful harvest.
Most pollen-dependent crops are pollinated by managed bees, bees cared for by humans. Farmers often hire commercial beekeepers to bring bees, most commonly honey bees, on to the farm for crops like almonds and blueberries to facilitate plant pollination and a successful crop.
A partnership with pollinators
Honey bees are the most common bee species for commercial pollination, but other species are used as well such as bumble bees in greenhouses, mason bees in orchards, and leafcutter bees for alfalfa.
Probably the most popular and common species of honey bee is the Western Honey Bee (Apis mellifera), even in regions where it is not native. This is partly because these bees are easy to breed and are used by beekeepers around the world to produce honey and pollinate crops.
In the past, some farms may have relied on pollination from unmanaged honey bees — but the growth of our population and food system needs coupled with the emergence of the Varroa mite have led to the rise of managed bees. Over the past 100 years, and particularly in the past 40 years, commercial beekeeping has grown to assist with the pollination of more than 100 crops.
Keeping honey bees healthy — combatting the Varroa mite
Beekeepers have always dealt with numerous pests and diseases in managing their hives, but it is no understatement to say that the devastation of the Varroa mite changed everything.
Bee experts agree that the Varroa destructor mite is the greatest threat to Western Honey Bees:
- The mite is about 1.6 millimeters long.
- It sucks on the bee’s hemolymph, a body fluid similar to blood, or on the fat body.
- The mite weakens the bee’s immune system, causing diseases to become more virulent.
- It transmits viruses directly into the bee’s hemolymph, making previously harmless viruses lethal. These viruses spread quickly across bee colonies.
Beekeepers have several options to control this dangerous mite including various biological, physical, chemical and biotechnological options such as:
- Organic acids — lactic acid, ozalic acid and formic acid can often used to control Varroa mites though effectiveness is highly dependent on factors like timing and temperature.
- Varroacides — specially developed to combat parasitic mites without causing damage to the host bees.
- Varroa-resistant bees — bees bred to be naturally resistant to the Varroa mite
The right balance of wild and managed pollinators is important to ensuring access to quality, nutritious foods. However, land use changes like urbanization, the intensification of agriculture and improper pesticide use have negatively affected local pollinator populations in different parts of the world.
In a world where weeds, pests and disease threaten crops, pesticides are an important tool for farmers to be able to deliver successful harvests. However, the success of many crops also depends on sufficient pollination from insects like bees. Protecting crops and ensuring bee safety is not an ‘either-or’ option; they need to go hand in hand. To support that critical relationship we conduct extensive testing, risk assessment, and stewardship measures to optimize crop protection and protect pollinators.
Crop protection products are among the most heavily regulated products in any industry. They require extensive environmental safety testing to ensure they will not pose any unreasonable risks to wildlife, plants, and the environment. Each new crop protection product requires many years of testing to meet the highest standards of safety, at a cost of hundreds of millions of euros, before it can be used.
How we evaluate our progress
To ensure the safety of our products for honey bees and other pollinators, we begin with laboratory tests and move successful candidates to field studies to evaluate potential risks. In our system, only products that pass all of our rigorous criteria can be considered for commercialization.
How to support bees and other pollinators
A lack of nutrition for honey bees and the loss of habitat for wild bees are key threats for these pollinators. The good news is every garden can be a paradise for insects. There are many ways to attract a wide variety of beneficial insects to your garden or balcony, among them numerous ornamental and crop plants, garden ponds or features that offer shelter, such as insect hotels, dead wood or natural stone walls.
Planting flower strips
Planting a strip of flowers in tubs, pots and flower beds in a home garden helps provide food for a wide variety of bees. Suitable seeds can be found in many garden supply stores. Wildflowers need little water to grow and only need to be cut back once or twice a year.
Building an insect hotel
A wooden insect hotel, made from a kit or from scratch, is easy to build and provides nesting and breeding space for wild bees. To make sure that bees are attracted to the hotel, it should be set up in a dry place and face south (in the northern hemisphere).
Farmers can also support bee and pollinator health with similar tactics like planting wildflower strips on the farm and providing nesting sites for ground-nesting wild bees. These pollinator-friendly practices are put to the test on in the Bayer ForwardFarming network where farmers can see, first-hand, these tactics put into practice on real world farms.
On-farm solutions, whether to increase pollination or to conserve pollinators, will become more refined and targeted, providing farmers with the information and tools they need to achieve the right balance between agriculture and nature conservation on their farms. Achieving this understanding will ensure that the pollination provided by bees and other animals will continue benefitting farmers, consumers, and nature.