Advocating for Honey Bee Health During Pollinator Week
Summer comes quickly in the Midwest. Recently, the temperatures jumped into the 90s, we have had plenty of rain, my lawn is growing like crazy, blackberries in the garden are starting to turn from green to red to black, and my honey bee colonies in my backyard are foraging on all of the beautiful blooming flowers and bringing that taste of summer back to the hive. Every time you see a honey bee, remember that about one-third of our food results from the fact that a honey bee visited a flower, picked up pollen and took it to another flower so that a seed could be fertilized and the plant could produce the delicious fruits, berries, nuts and vegetables that makes summer fun.
Monsanto is committed to honey bee health. That is why I am here. Maybe you didn’t know this, but Monsanto spends about $1 million per year renting honey bee colonies from commercial beekeepers to pollinate many of our production vegetable and canola seed crops. Without those seeds, our customers can’t grow those crops that nourish our world.
This week, June 15-21, is National Pollinator Week in the United States. It’s the eighth year for this celebration. Having been in the beekeeping industry for a very long time, I remember the first Pollinator Week. I thought it would be just a passing political gesture and disappear in a few years, except as a note on the calendar. But with lots of help and engagement with and through beekeepers and growers and the interest of the public, Pollinator Week has grown and is garnering even more attention. It seems like everyone is interested in honey bees and other pollinators. People are asking: “What is happening? Is honey bee health getting better? How can I help?”
If we go to the ‘Way Back’ machine, I first became enthralled with honey bees and what they do and how they do it in about 1979. To the consternation of parents and in-laws and some friends, but with support from my best friend – my wife – my life, career and culture changed as I immersed myself in the world of honey bees and their keepers. All of these years later, I can still get up in the morning and say “This is a pretty cool life.”
Identifying Threats to Honey Bee Health
Fast forward to 2006, when I was the Chief of the Apiary Section for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. I was getting reports from large Florida commercial beekeepers that they were seeing honey bee colony deaths that were different from what they previously had ever seen. I remember sitting on my bedroom floor at 10:30 p.m. having been on a conference call for hours with colleagues from universities, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other state departments of agriculture discussing what they were seeing. That night, we named the phenomenon “Colony Collapse Disorder.” Now in 2015, the work has been done to identify the multiple factors impacting honey bee health:
- The invasive, external parasite called the varroa destructor mite;
- The virus pathogen connection vectored by the varroa mite;
- Loss of natural flower nutrition for commercial beekeepers having thousands of colonies; and
- Chemical toxins, most of which are the pesticides beekeepers apply to a honey bee colony to control the varroa mite.
This is what brought me to Monsanto. Putting pesticides in an insect’s nest (i.e., honey bee colony) to kill, hurt and damage a little bug (varroa) on a big bug (honey bee) was always a head scratcher for me… but there were no better alternatives. And these pesticides/miticides saved the industry for a number of years. But all these years later, varroa still can’t be controlled well and safely. The beekeeping industry is on a treadmill going nowhere. We have to do something more sanely and safely. We have to do something different. And we are.
Working with Others to Find Solutions
At Monsanto, we believe that finding solutions to some of the world’s greatest challenges starts by collaborating with others. We’ve made great progress the past three years by joining The Keystone Center’s Honey Bee Health Coalition, founding the Honey Bee Advisory Council and hosting the first-ever Honey Bee Health Summit alongside our partners. These forums have brought together beekeepers, agricultural leaders and researchers to move the honey bee health conversation forward. Recent highlights of these efforts include:
- The Coalition’s Bee Healthy Roadmap, which outlines common goals and actions for achieving a healthy population of honey bees.
- The Bee Understanding Project, a series of short films in which farmers and beekeepers switch jobs to learn how their roles are intrinsically linked.
Other efforts include President Barack Obama’s creation of the Pollinator Health Task Force, which released the National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators in May 2015. The strategy focuses on the importance of public-private partnerships as a means for progress, and it demonstrates the high level of focus on this important issue.
For a comprehensive update on our commitment to bee health, I encourage you to check out our June 2015 newsletter. You can also view Monsanto’s 2014 Sustainability Report to learn more about our sustainable agriculture initiatives, and in particular, Monsanto’s commitment to pollinators, on pages 65-68.
The Importance of Honey Bees
I think what I want to leave with you are these three things: honey bees are vital to food production and a healthy environment; honey bees need help; and we have to do something different. The United States is tremendously and amazingly fortunate to have the bounty of food that we have. Food does not come from the grocery store. It comes from farmers, ranchers, orchardists, vegetable growers and hard-working pollinators like honey bees. Compared to the vast majority of the world, the U.S. food supply is plentiful and affordable – and we have honey bees and other pollinators to thank for that. The next time you enjoy fruits, nuts or a cup of coffee, I hope you’ll remember the role of honey bees in making those foods possible.