Two Billion People Could Have More to Eat Thanks to Bees
Driving south on Interstate 5 through the San Joaquin Valley the other weekend, I saw something along the roadside that hadn’t been there just two days before: a slight haze of pink opening at branch tips across the vast orchards that blanket this flat, dry expanse of Central California. Even at 80 miles per hour, you can see the wooden hives scattered between the rows; every year, 1.7 million hives are trucked from around the country to pollinate the valley’s 1 million acres of almond trees.
When we talk about bees and farming—and how the decline of pollinators could cause a devastating disruption of the food supply—this is usually the context that we’re talking about. Large farms, large numbers of bees, large amounts of people being fed—or not being fed—as a result of all that honeybee labor. For some 2 billion people around the globe, however, farming looks nothing like the vast tracts of California’s most important agricultural region. Rather, they rely on smallholder farms—farmers who grow food on plots of five or so acres instead of 500 or 5,000. While trucking in honeybees from half a country away is neither necessary nor in the cards for these often resource-strapped farmers, they have a no less vital relationship between what they grow and the presence of bees on their land, according to a study published in the journal Science earlier this week.
According to the new research, having more bees—honeybees and wild species alike—can increase yields by a median of 24 percent. The researchers from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization compared 344 farms in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, tracking the yields of 33 crops that rely on bees for pollination. On larger plots, the increases were less, and likely for the same reason almond farmers have two hives for every acre of trees—bees don’t like to travel too far from home to collect nectar and pollen.
“The take away from our study is that bees provide a real service and should be taken into account when we plan food security interventions,” Nadine Azzu, who is the global project coordinator for FAO’s Plant Production and Protection Division and worked on the study, said in a statement. “And the best part is: their service is free.”
The huge number of people who rely on these small-scale farms to keep them fed often live in places that not only are poor but are expected to be hit the hardest by the ravages of climate change. One study published last year, for example, found that farming regions in the tropics could lose 200 “suitable growing days” owing to heat, drought, and solar radiation, while another published by Nature in 2014 suggested that increased levels of C02 could simultaneously increase yields and reduce levels of vital nutrients such as zinc and iron in staple crops.
So the potential to increase yields not only promising for feeding people today, but in the future climate as well. Whether the higher yields resulting from bringing more bees onto the farm will persist as the climate changes isn’t addressed in the study, but Azzu noted: “Bees will struggle with the higher temperatures. Plus, flowers in some parts of the world are now opening at different times than they used to, and the bees are not there to pollinate."
Honeybees and native bees are also at risk from pesticide exposure, diseases, and other non-climate-related issues that are threatening populations. Then again, the flowering plants that would draw bees to smallholder plots may, in a small well, help mitigate those issues as well.
Even if the yield increases drop or the bees stop buzzing for one reason or another, there’s little risk involved with trying to increase populations on farms. After all, as Azzu noted, their services are free.