Appetites: The decline of bees could change the way we eat

Family business
Beekeeper Kyle Anderson holds a frame in one hand while checking on honey bees in a yard near Eagle Bend, Minn., on Monday, July 11, 2011. The Anderson family has been in the honey and pollination business for decades.
MPR Photo/Ann Arbor Miller

The declining honeybee population and the phenomenon of colony collapse has serious implications for the way we eat. In this month's Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl asked: Is this the end of the world as we know it?

Grumdahl joined MPR's Tom Crann to discuss what she's learned about bees, moths and other pollinators.

TOM CRANN: How important is the decline of pollinating insects?

DARA MOSKOWITZ GRUMDAHL: It's the biggest food story right now, and food only plays a secondary role. This is not a story on how high almond prices are going to spike.

Checking for infestation
On Sept. 24, 2013, Mark Sundberg checks bee hives for signs of infestation by varroa mites. Sundberg is using selective breeding to develop bee colonies that can survive parasitic mites.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

We all know about colony collapse disorder among bees, right? It is a problem that has been plaguing hives since about 2006, bees have been dying willy-nilly.

There is a lot of data now because of research on honeybees showing that they are in trouble, dying. Last winter, a third of the bees died. People have been searching for the answer to why this is happening, spending a lot of money on research. And it is a big deal — $15 billion of America's food is said to be pollinated by bees.

CRANN: So, the impact also goes well beyond honey — fruits and nuts are also affected, right?

MOSKOWITZ GRUMDAHL: Yes, most crops that grow from a flowering plant — pumpkins, apples, all of them.

But I also looked beyond the data about honeybees to see how other bees that were in North America before European colonization are faring. What about bumblebees? What about mason bees and other varieties. There are actually about 300 different species of bees that are native to Minnesota. They are all crashing and having trouble, facing endangerment or possible extinction.

Then I wondered about other pollinators — butterflies, moths. I didn't even know that moths are pollinators, but that is what their job in life is. They are also struggling.

CRANN: Is there a single smoking gun here, as to what's causing this problem among pollinators?

Sweeping for bees
University of Minnesota researcher Marla Spivak sweeps a roadside ditch near Hannaford, N.D. for insects on Aug. 16, 2010. Her research team is studying how well native pollinators survive in differing landscapes.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

MOSKOWITZ GRUMDAHL: It's not just one pesticide or herbicide. Spraying corn fields with herbicides to get rid of weeds may benefit corn, but the chemicals kill off the flowers and food that butterflies and bees rely on.

Our system of subsidizing corn also gives farmers the incentive of planting corn as far as the eye can see, even into fencerows. Fencerows and field borders used to be havens for wild plants, but now those spaces are taken up by crops.

People are saying 75, 80 percent of plants are pollinated plants. If you don't have pollinators, what happens to the plants?

CRANN: When it comes to food, we're asking really, what happens to our fruits, our vegetables, and the way we eat? Is there anyone making dire predictions about our food supply?

MOSKOWITZ GRUMDAHL: People are making really dire predictions. You can say goodbye to everything that's not corn, because corn is wind-pollinated. In China, where they've made tremendous mistakes, now they are pollinating fruits by hand. So we could be headed there if we don't dial things back and think about some really easy fixes.

CRANN: In the article you detail "17 things we can do right now to fix this mess."

MOSKOWITZ GRUMDAHL: Some of them are easy. Like buying local honey. How about supporting our local beekeepers? If you go to low-end chain stories, what they sell is not even honey, the pollen has been filtered out. It puts downward price pressure on all our local honey producers. So buying local honey is very important.

Also, change your aesthetic. We need to start thinking not of a lawn that's saturated with chemicals and bright green. We need to appreciate lawns that have clover in them and support bees and butterflies. We need to plant bee food, things like local flowers — Joe Pye weed, mint, oregano. If you let plants like that flower, it's great bee food.

And even though it's easy to despair, I always keep in mind we brought back bald eagles, we brought back wolves, we can really help with the bees. And especially if you live in the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, there's a little critter called the Rusty Patch bumblebee, cute and fuzzy. He's almost gone, but you can find them in areas near Lake Harriet and Lake Como. If you plant bee food, you can bring back the Rusty Patch bumblebee.