Click here for full image (courtesy Whole Foods)
Despite the weekly swarms, the world’s bee populations are rapidly diminishing. Their depleting numbers won’t just rob a certain NYPD Detective of his job, it’ll also rob us of some of the foods we enjoy—and take for granted—on a daily basis. "Of the 100 crop species that provide 90% of the world’s food, over 70 are pollinated by bees," explained Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environmental Program in a report about bee populations.
Take a look at the above photo as a startling example of what the loss of bees—and other pollinators—would mean for our food variety. It’s not just fruits and veggies but products like chocolate, flavored yogurts and almond milk would also be significantly impacted. We spoke with Whole Foods "Eco-Czar," bee expert and regional forager Lee Kane, who provided an overview of the epidemic as it stands and what, if anything, we can do to stop it.
When was the honeybee population decline noticed and how soon did people realize the implications of this decline? Well, those are really good questions. I guess 2006 is the year that’s most often bandied around, when people really realized that something big was going on with honeybees in particular. I’m quite sure that people were seeing trends prior to that but I don’t think people kind of put two and two together and realized there was something quite on the scale that it has turned out to be happening. So it took a while. It’s like that old conundrum, a room full of blind people standing in front of an elephant seeing different parts of it and thinking that’s what was going on. It wasn’t until people started to put all those pieces together that they realized this is really big and this is really serious.
What kind of a population decrease are we looking at between 2006 and the present? Well, the rate of die-off average annually has been running about 30% a year. I can’t give you an exact percentage of how much that’s up but it was nowhere near that much prior to 2006, so the decline has been pretty escalated and pretty dramatic since that year. The colony collapse disorder is the biggest piece of that puzzle but there are other factors that are affecting honeybees in particular, and pollinators in general that have been more long standing issues. The decline of natural forage land has been a really big piece of this and then obviously—well, maybe not so obviously—the increase in pesticides and other chemicals, and in particular the neonicotinoid pesticides seem to have dramatically escalated the die off. Actually that’s even debatable, but it’s been one of the main contributing factors to what’s happening with the bees.
Is this something that we’re seeing on a global scale or is this colony collapse disorder that you mentioned more localized in certain countries or certain regions of the planet? Seems to be happening everywhere. You know the European countries took a stand against neonicotinoids and they’re not currently using those. We haven’t gone there yet in this country, although there’s lots of lots of vibration and rumbling about going in that direction. The longer term impacts on the pollinators have been the loss of habitat. That’s been a biggie.
How long until we see significant effects of this decline on the environment or has that already begun in earnest? Can we already see the changes? It’s a really excellent question. I think we’re seeing examples. For example in the almond world, honeybees are the main pollinator; in fact, they’re almost the exclusive pollinator of the almond crop, and it’s been extremely hard for the almond farmers to get healthy honeybees in to pollinate that crop. That’s been increasing dramatically over the past two years, to the point where beekeepers are reluctant to bring their bees to the almond crop any longer because of the significant rate of die-off there. But partly that’s because it’s a significant monoculture where the almond farms are located in California. There’s literally nothing else for the bees to forage besides the almonds, and the almond crop and the flowering is only a couple of weeks a year. So once the almond flowers are gone, there is literally nothing else for the bees to eat.
It’s not a healthy environment, plus it requires bringing together bees from all over the world at this point, because they can’t find enough bees domestically. So there are bees coming that have diseases and viruses, there’s just this kind of big mish-mash of all those factors that are affecting the bees here. That’s just one example but it’s pretty significant and pretty serious.
You keep your own bees, and we’ve also seen a rise in New York City of urban beekeeping. Is that something that is going to help and if so—or in addition to that—what are other ways that we can stop this terrifying trend and maybe turn things around, ultimately? Well, let me answer the first question by saying that we’re promoting beekeeping, and we really believe strongly that the more people who take up beekeeping either as a hobby or even professionally but who do it in a sustainable fashion, the better it’s going to be to help restore the bee populations. Also, people creating friendly forage zones for not only honeybees but native bees and other native pollinators by being much more conscious about not clearing areas. Leaving some natural areas for bees and pollinators and then planting pollinator-friendly flowers and plants is really significant. One of the keys about that now is that everybody can do something actively to make a difference, and that’s one of the big things people can do.
Other things they can do, we promote strongly buying organic products and supporting organic agriculture and biodynamic agriculture because they don’t use lots of the chemicals. It’s a much more integrated and holistic form of agriculture and it’s much healthier for pollinators. That’s one of the things that Whole Foods market promotes, buying organic products, thinking about how organic products fit into the whole realm of agriculture.
Would you go so far as to say that industrial agriculture has been a huge part of the problem? You know what we say—and I think it’s not over simplistic to say it—is that the bees in this scenario really are the canary in the coal mine. What’s happening with the bees is pointing out that the system is broken and it just can’t sustain biodiversity the way it needs to. So yes, I think we would say that. What’s happening is a direct result of a lot of different things that are just not healthy for the biodiversity. For all of the different species that need to rely on the environment.
You’ve mentioned native pollinators, so I guess animals that aren’t bees. What would be an example of another kind of native pollinator? There’s around 400 native bumble bees species that are really, severely challenged. Honeybees are not a native pollinator. They’re domesticated, they weren’t here originally. So they kind of coexist along with the native pollinators. But to answer your question, bats are pollinators, humming birds are pollinators. Other types of insects are pollinators, so the honeybee tends to be the one we know the best and think about the most. It’s kind of become a very lovable creature in our public consciousness, which is interesting because it’s still a stinging insect. But, be that as it may, they never sting unless they’re protecting their honey or their brood. They die if they sting; I don’t know if you know that or not, but the honeybee can only sting once and then it’s dead—unlike other bee species like yellow jackets and wasps that can sting repeatedly. So anyway there are lots and lots of different types of pollinators and they’re all challenged for a lot of the same reasons: loss of forage, use of chemicals, pesticides, things like that.
If things don’t change and the 30% trend that you mentioned earlier in the conversation persists, how long do we have until we have no more native pollinators, until the bee populations are decimated. When that happens, what kind of an outcome should we be prepared for? What will we be faced with if we have no more pollinators? I hope we have a long time, but I think we need to wake up now. It’s hard to put a number of years on a question like that, but the fact is that it’s a significant decline and that unless things do get reversed, what’s gonna happen? I mean, there will be food, but there’s going to be significantly less and it’s going to be much less variety and a rather bland selection of foods that aren’t pollinated by bees. So the really flavorful, exciting variety that we’re used to in the food world just isn’t there.
(courtesy Whole Foods)
We did the produce campaign last year because that seemed the most obvious, and that’s where people think the most naturally about where the impacts of honeybees in particular and other pollinators are seen. We ended up taking over 50% of our products out of our produce department, so the kind of aftershock was really stark and bland and scary and it’s bad, really. And this year, we extended that to the dairy case because we wanted to show that even though people don’t tend to think of the dairy aisle as a place where bees and pollinators have an impact…on the milk and cheese side of things, clover and alfalfa among other types of crops and grasses are largely dependent on bee population for seeding. The amount of milk and dairy products themselves would be significantly decreased by about 50%, we guessed, if not more.
Many products that we sell are fruit juices or almond milks or other types of products that are directly impacted by bees; all of our flavored yogurts, for example. We were left with about half of our plain yogurt and all of our flavored yogurts, all of our fruit yogurts, were gone. So I think you can see the photos in the case, it’s a pretty significant contrast. And we haven’t even gotten to the rest of our grocery aisles yet to see what that would look like or our meat department or cheese department, all of which are the same same deal, just pretty significant hits in selection and variety and things like that.
Whole Foods has done the campaign for the produce, now it’s dairy; are there plans to go further with this campaign? Is there a particular item in the grocery store that you think people would be surprised to find would be affected by this crisis? Well, personally, I was surprised to find out about the milk and the cheese side of it. And chocolate is another one that people I don’t think tend to think about that propped up in our dairy aisle campaign. I was just thinking about this today. I think the only department in our entire store that probably wouldn’t be directly affected would be seafood, I can’t think of any direct connection there. There might be one but otherwise all of our departments have impacts from the loss of pollination.
And then there’s China, for example, which has been doing a lot of hand pollination because they can. So they have human beings with little cigarette filter type things that they brush pollen onto flowering plants. That’s not something I anticipate would be a really good thing for agriculture in general but that’s kind of what they resorted to. You hear really scary stories about Harvard developing little drones, robotic bees. Those are all sort of end-of-the-world scenarios, I don’t believe that’s what’s gonna happen. But the fact is, we rely on pollinators to a huge extent. Our purpose for this whole campaign now is to get people thinking about that. That’s really what it’s about. That there is a very critical link in the food supply here that people tend not to make a conscious connection to and we’re trying to make that conscious.
The President just announced a new government task force about this very issue and $50 million dollars from the federal budget for research and conservation. Are you encouraged that the government is taking a more proactive approach? What other steps would you like to see the government taking? Well, I think it’s really terrific that the government’s taking a position and that the President is sending funds in this direction and I hope it’s the beginning of a long and deeper process that will take place. The level of silence on the government’s part was pretty scary prior to this, so the fact they have publicly said that, "Yes, this is an issue, yes we need to address it aggressively and fund research and remediation" is a good sign. But there’s a really long way to go. I’m encouraged. I’m kind of an eternal optimist. I really do believe that if people really start doing the right things and thinking in the right ways that this can be turned around. I don’t think it’s a doomsday scenario. I don’t think it’s a hopeless situation.
I guess what I would wrap up with and partly why I finished with what I just did is that what we have seen in our Share the Buzz campaign this year is a tremendous connection with children and young people around this issue. Really growing awareness about what’s going on with pollinators. I know there’s probably good work in schools and educational programs. Our own Whole Kids Foundation has adopted pollinators as one of the key parts of their program that they’re supporting. School gardens and community gardens that kids get involved in. Where in the past there was a lot of fear around bees—for some of the issues that we talked about a little earlier—I think now there’s really a deeper sense on the part of children that this is an important part of nature and an important part of the food system. They just seem to be very fond of this campaign. I do feel really hopefully about that.
A portion of sales from certain products identified by markers as part of the Share The Buzz campaign will benefit The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, who have partnered with Whole Foods for this campaign.
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