Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=154674
Story Retrieval Date: 5/21/2013 9:19:46 PM CST
Nearly one-third of all food consumed in the U.S. – mostly vegetables, fruits and nuts – is dependent on pollination by honeybees.
The honeybee population nationally, which has been declining since 1980, although not yet at catastrophic levels, is threatening our future food supply and providing fodder for the argument that our current agriculture system lacks sufficient diversity to promote a healthy, sustainable food system.
A group of Chicagoans has been having a conversation about the food supply, threats to it and ways to protect it.
On Tuesday, about 100 people gathered at Hull-House to watch a PBS documentary on the decline of the bees and discuss the implications.
The discussion occurred over a communal meal of soup and bread, staples at Chicago’s famed settlement house.
Honeybees have been “around for 50 million years, exactly the way they are now,” said Michael Thompson, manager of the Chicago Honey Co-op, after watching the film. “Somehow they’re going to make it. Is it going to change agriculture? I hope it does.”
Diana Cox-Foster, a Pennsylvania State University professor of entomology featured in the 2007 PBS documentary, “Silence of the Bees,” said honeybees have received increased attention since the film was released.
Researchers predict that honeybees are falling victim to stress – driven by pesticide chemicals and lack of nutrition – which then weakens their immune systems, making them vulnerable to deadly viruses.
The film also prompted researchers to examine other pollinators, leading to the discovery that pollinating insects and bird populations are also declining, and possibly for the same reasons.
“In terms of biodiversity, one of the main concerns is that honeybees are our canary in the coal mine,” Diana Cox-Foster, professor of entomology at Pennsylvania State University, said.
Honeybees are extremely important for U.S. agriculture because of the prominence of large acreages of monoculture –where large fields are devoted to only one crop. This has enabled farmers to gain efficiencies to feed a growing population.
But, in the process, farmers have eliminated weeds and natural plants that polliantors rely on for food and shelter. “We’ve eliminated the habitats where native pollinators can live,” Cox-Foster said. “This means we have lost the native species that could be there to pollinate the crop.”
Faced with the declining honeybee population, commercial beekeepers' transport honeybees across the country – and the world – to meet pollinating needs. For example, in late February/early March, more than half of the colonies in the U.S. will be driven in trucks to California to pollinate acres of almonds. The almond growers' cost of pollination is estimated at $15 billion this year.
Consumers can help promote local bee colonies by supporting local beekeepers and planting pollinator-friendly meadows and gardens to create more natural habitats.
“People need to find some way to be a part of the food movement that is changing the world,” said Thompson.