It's hard to fathom that such a tiny creature can have so large an impact on our food supply. But honeybees, as writer Susan Sward wrote in The Bee's California Forum section on Sunday, are essential components in the production of fully one-third of the food Americans eat from almonds and cherries to broccoli and cabbage, from peaches and apples to coffee and grapes, from Brussels sprouts and cashews to onions and lemons.
Bees pollinate crops worth $20 billion to $30 billion annually in the United States alone. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, bees pollinate 71 of the 100 crops that provide 90 percent of human food.
Without these essential pollinators, the crops would bear no fruit.
That's why the massive collapse of bee colonies in Europe and the United States represent a crisis of major proportion. Since 2006, 30 percent or 5.6 million U.S. hives have been lost.
A study released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency just last week pointed to multiple factors, including parasites and disease, lack of genetic diversity, poor nutrition and pesticide exposure.
Given the magnitude of the problem, the report's principal recommendation a "colony collapse disorder action plan" that will outline major priorities to be addressed in the next five to 10 years seems far too timid.
Faced with a similar collapse of its bee colonies, the European Union did more. Last month the EU's health commissioner enacted a two-year ban on a class of pesticides, neonicotinoids, believed to be harmful to insects, especially bees. They are among the most widely used insecticides in the world. When applied to seeds, neonicotinoids migrate to the roots, leaves and the flowers of a plant, eventually getting absorbed in pollen and nectar.
While some critics complain the European ban is premature, supporters point out it will give bees a breather and researchers an opportunity to see in a real-world environment if bee colonies survive better in neonicotinoid-free zones.
While they are clearly a factor, most experts agree that pesticides alone don't fully explain the massive die-offs. Industrial agriculture has created vast monocultures of a single type of crop, resulting in poor nutrition for bees that have evolved over the ages in far more diverse habitat. In California's Central Valley, acres and acres of a single crop, such as almonds, don't provide enough nutritional variety in bees' diets.
Apparently, bees need more than almond blossoms to survive. They need clover, native wild flowers and other sources of pollen and nectar to maintain healthy hives. Some beekeepers are experimenting with planting bee pastures or creating bee forage areas between rows of crops or land management systems that create and preserve more natural habitat of these pollinators.
Whatever the reason, the impact of bee die-offs is potentially disastrous. Very few animals are as vital to human existence as bees and none is more important to California's agriculture. Their demise demands an urgent response by government and industries that have a stake in a healthy farm economy, ranging from growers to the pesticide industry.