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| Human World on Aug 14, 2012

Claire Kremen: Wild bees and the future of food

Harnessing the power of wild bees to help pollinate U.S. crops.

Each year, farmers in the U.S. import millions of honeybees, which aren’t native, to pollinate crops like apples, strawberries, and almonds. Berkeley conservation biologist Claire Kremen discusses how farmers could harness the power of native bees for free to pollinate our crops. This interview is part of a special EarthSky series, Feeding the Future, produced in partnership with Fast Company and sponsored by Dow.

Image Credit: Christopher Down

You might think of bees as a nuisance you want to avoid. But, if you like to eat, you might think again. They’re vital for the future of our food supply. That’s because bees are necessary to pollinate food crops. Claire Kemen told EarthSky:

About one-third of the food that we eat by weight depends on an animal pollinator visiting to produce that food or that vegetable or that seed. In other words, you can thank a pollinator for about one out of every three mouthfuls that you take each day.

Here in the U.S., every year, farmers import millions of honey bees to pollinate crops like apples, strawberries, almonds and more. But in recent years those bees have become a weak link in the chain that brings food from the fields to your fork.

“Colony collapse disorder” is a phenomenon in which worker bees from a European honey bee colony abruptly disappear. The term began to be used when beekeepers in North America noticed a dramatic rise in the number of disappearances of commercial honey bee colonies.

One solution might be to use wild bees as pollinators – instead of imported European honey bees. Kremen said:

Wild bees can make a real difference to the future of food. In the first place wild bees can substitute for honeybees. They can provide the pollination services that we need and formally they did provide all the pollination services that we need. There are still places in the world where wild bee communities are providing those pollination services on cropped fields. A second way is that sometimes wild bees can pollinate certain crops much better than the honeybees can.

The research by Claire Kremen and her team shows that wild bees can provide enough crop pollination for farms. Why aren’t we doing this already? One reason is that – to make wild bees work as effective pollinators for our food crops – research shows that farms themselves need to undergo a change. To encourage and support the bees, the farms would need to include a variety of different types of crops and also include wild places like pastures, fallows, meadows and woodlots.

And also flowers. The research suggests including some plantings specifically for the bees, like hedgerows around farmers fields or strips of flowers within the farm fields.

Farms that are friendly to wild bees, through diversified farming, might gain a valuable ally in growing food for the future. In 2012, dozens of farmers in California are testing Kremen’s ideas, and the research is ongoing. Kremen said:

When we create this diversified farming system what we’re doing is we’re creating conditions that generate and regenerate these pollination services in the farming system itself and for that reason we then don’t need to bring honeybees around by the millions. We don’t need to use fossil fuels to do that. And we don’t need to rely on a single species. So we’ve developed sort of an insurance policy that provides our pollination services.

The really beautiful thing though is that when we create this diversified farming system we’re not only taking care of the pollination services and the pollinators but we’re also taking care of a number of other critical ecosystem services that provide essential inputs to agriculture. Things like that soil health, soil fertility, water cycling, nutrient cycling and pest control. So we create a much more sustainable system through a diversified farming system and the bees show us how to do it. When we take a bee’s eye view we find that we can create a much more sustainable system.