06/30/2020 | News release | Distributed by Public on 06/30/2020 14:01
By Jeanne Janson, NFU Intern
The answer to rapidly declining pollinator populations and the climate crisis may lie in an unexpected place: cow pastures.
After years of declines in bee populations due to climate change, disease, and other factors, beekeepers are now looking toward regenerative agricultural practices that promote the integration of livestock grazing in whole farm systems in order to improve the health of their hives.
To be sure, this process brings together distant corners of agriculture: commercial beekeepers tend to work with specialty crop producers, not cattle ranchers. But there is growing evidence that the same forage can provide a nutritious diet for both species.
'As I toured pastures and visited ranches, I noticed that there was a definitive lack of floral diversity for bees,' said beekeeper and Northwest Farmers Union president Sarah Red-Laird. Sarah is the founder of the Bee Girl organization, which is working on developing an inexpensive, flower-rich pasture mix that would be mutually beneficial for livestock and bees. 'It's not coming from a place of purposefulness. It's coming from a place of just not knowing. It's not a cattle rancher's job to know what types of flowers support a multitude of bee species.'
With every sector of agriculture feeling the effects of climate change, finding ways to come together and collaborate will be crucial to make the food system as resilient and sustainable as possible. Incorporating beekeeping into the regenerative agriculture system can help combat problems pollinators face related to climate change while increasing biodiversity, restoring habitat, and strengthening the whole system overall.
Honeybees are increasingly at risk. In 2018, beekeepers in the U.S. lost 40.7 percent of their managed honey bee colonies. According to Sarah, 'there's four public enemies:' Varroa Mites and the diseases they vector, pesticides, habitat loss, and climate change. 'They all switch spots to number one depending upon where in the country you are and what time of year it is.'
Each hive is its own well-balanced system. Inside bees build wax comb, make honey, raise their young, and occasionally revolt against the queen. For each hive to thrive there are a plethora of outside factors that play a role- namely temperature, food, and water. If the bees can keep the center of the hive around 91 degrees and have ample access to nectar, pollen, and water, they have a good chance of succeeding.
However, as the earth warms, flowers are blooming at an average of a half-day earlier each year. This may seem incremental, but in total some species are now beginning their growing season up to a month earlier compared to 45 years ago. In the pastures Sarah monitors, she has noticed this awkward phonological mismatch.
'We had plants that really shouldn't be blooming until the beginning of June blooming in April and there just weren't the bees,' she noted. 'They weren't up and at 'em enough to be able to utilize those flowers and the native bees that I usually see on those flowers in June hadn't emerged yet, so they totally missed out.'
This isn't the only challenge climate change brings. In the age of shorter winters and warmer summers, pest and weed pressure is expected to worsen, which could mean more Vorroa Mites and more neighbors spraying harmful pesticides and herbicides. Extreme weather events, like wildfires, droughts, and floods, are also predicted to occur with greater frequency and severity, which will affect air quality, destroy floral resources, and diminish available water sources.
This presents a serious problem for the food supply: three-fourths of the fruits and seeds we consume depend on pollinators for production, yield, and quality.
Julia McGuire, vice president of Iowa Farmers Union and founder of Bee Laws, has seen a demonstrable difference in plant productivity since introducing bees. 'I like to tell people I had these six strawberry plants for two or three years before we got bees in 2008, and maybe just harvested a handful or two of strawberries. But as soon as we got bees, I was pulling down a quart every other day with the same five or six plants.'
For all their economic, societal and environmental value, pollinators are still dying at a rapid rate. Julia looks at her colonies as a gauge for how the environment is doing-the health of your hive equals the health of your land, air, water, and environment. In her opinion, 'honeybees are kind of the canary in the coal mine.'
Meanwhile regenerative agriculture is increasingly gaining attention as a way to help land adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change by emphasizing a whole-system approach for farming. Regenerative agricultural practices prioritize building soil health and minimizing inputs through the management of livestock, cropping, and other activities. While some farmers who are using regenerative practices are starting to see the return of pollinators to their land, more work needs to be done on plant mixes that are optimal for both cattle and bees.
That's what Sarah's project aims to figure out. Buckwheat, for example, would provide high levels of protein for cattle and sheep and has abundant nectar and nutrient-rich pollen for the bees. If the crop is added to seed mixes across U.S. rangeland, bees and other pollinators would have better access to food, livestock would benefit from the nutrients, and plant biodiversity would increase. Sarah views this as a 'win-win-win' solution for farmers and ranchers, bees and beekeepers and the environment.
'If bees have more food to eat and healthier food to eat, the diseases the Vorroa Mites vector aren't as big of a deal,' Sarah said. 'If bees have flowers nearby and plenty of places to go to get floral resources, then when the wildfires startup they don't have to fly as far and it's not as hard on them. If a bee is healthy and has a good diet, they have that much more of an ability to survive.'
Currently, regenerative bee pastures are still in the research and development phase, but the next step is to create and implement educational programming to bring this solution to farmers and ranchers. You can follow the project's progress on Instagram or Facebook.
Sarah is optimistic that the conversations the project will start with livestock producers and ranchers is just the beginning for beekeepers to find new opportunities working with other parts of agriculture.
'I was getting really frustrated going to beekeeping conferences, and I felt like we were never reaching out to farmers and we were never talking to anybody else in agriculture except for ourselves,' said Sarah. 'I felt like a large part of the issue here is just the lack of communication and reaching into other parts of agriculture to see where we could be more collaborative.'
For more information on policy efforts related to climate change and agriculture, check out NFU's climate resource center here.