Why Bees are So Important to Our Food System - Clean Eating Magazine

Where Have All the Bees Gone?

Bee populations are in decline. Find out why pollinators are vital to a thriving and healthy ecological system and what you can do to protect them.
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What do Clean Eating favorites like almonds, strawberries, pumpkins, blueberries and mango have in common?

Without pollinators, they couldn’t exist. While that may sound like a quaint elementary school science lesson, you might be surprised to discover that bees are one of the biggest topics buzzing around “good food” conversations today. Here’s why they matter for a healthy diet and a greener world.

Why Pollinators Are the Bee’s Knees

Bees do far more for your diet than create delicious honey. As pollinators, they are the hidden heroes of the food system, playing a crucial role in producing more than one-third of the world’s food crops. The economic value of the services they perform reaches into the billions (they pollinate more than $15 billion worth of crops) – though they do it free of charge. In practical terms, one in every three bites of the food you eat depends on bees, including crops such as certain fruits, vegetables and nuts that are the cornerstone of a healthy diet. And, if you’re a coffee drinker, well, guess what: Coffee beans depend on bees, too. In fact, bees are so fundamental to the food chain that they have a special name: They’re known as a “keystone species,” meaning they play a disproportionately large (and environmentally critical) role in an ecosystem relative to their abundance in that ecosystem.

“To estimate their total value to our planet would be like trying to put a price on water or oxygen,” says Eric Mader, co-director of the Pollinator Program at The Xerces Society.

Why Are Bees in Such Decline?

Here’s where the challenge comes in. Worldwide, the numbers of honeybees and native bee populations are dropping at an alarming rate. According to The Xerces Society, there are three main reasons for this: habitat loss, pesticide use and introduced diseases. In addition, protecting pollinators requires a fundamental shift in how we grow our food. Conventional agriculture typically relies on single-crop farming, which means that outside of crop bloom periods, food sources for pollinators are scarce. Even when crops are in bloom, however, they may be contaminated with pesticides. Without a robust population of native bees, many farms now must bring in large numbers of bees seasonally to pollinate crops. However, transporting bees around the country creates other problems, such as making it easier for disease to spread between hives.

While the exact role each of these modern-day factors plays on bee health is still being worked out by researchers, experts seem to agree on another key point: When bees don’t have access to a variety of diverse food sources, they have weaker immune systems and are more susceptible to other stress factors such as pesticides and disease. (If humans ate the exact same few foods day after day, we would create nutrient deficiencies that sap our health.)

Thankfully, a growing chorus of large-scale food companies, researchers and government officials have started to sound the alarm that we must fundamentally change the way ingredients are grown to help bring back native bee populations. And many are working to create more bee-friendly habitats on farms and in our communities.

4 Things You Can Do Now

Here are four steps you can take to help restore and protect the health and resilience of local bees.

  1. Plant native flowers. 
    Creating a more diverse supply of nectar and pollen sources, as well as year-round habitat for bees is key to helping them thrive. This summer, plant a wildflower window box, a rooftop or container garden or a patch of local flowers to provide bees with sources of food and shelter. (Visit xerces.org for more information on what works in your area.)
  2. Keep some untidy areas.
    Leave a bit of “mess” in your yard this season. Tree stumps, brush piles, sandy soils and other unkempt areas of your yard help create a natural pollinator haven that helps local bees thrive.
  3. Minimize pesticides and insecticides.
    When purchasing plants for your garden or choosing lawn care products, look for options that avoid pesticides and insecticides. At the grocery store, prioritize products that have a Certified Organic or Biodynamic seal, as both prohibit the use of pesticides such as neonics, which can harm bees. (Biodynamic also requires at least 10% of the farm is set aside for biodiversity.) Many sustainable-minded food companies have started partnering with The Xerces Society to make large-scale, public commitments to bee health, so read labels and check websites.
  4. Spread the word.
    Ask the farmers at your local farmers’ market what they are doing to boost pollinator health on their acreage. Talk with neighbors, your local garden clubs and school groups about how they can help restore pollinator habitat in your area. And for your next dinner party or birthday celebration, consider gift packets of local wildflower seeds.