By Ahren von Schnell | Photos by Jessica McCafferty
The role of bees in food production is one which is now widely acknowledged as significant. In 2000, it was estimated that honeybees alone contributed approximately $15 billion in value to the agricultural output of the United States. Even for some crops which do not depend exclusively on bees for pollination services, yield increases of up to 40% can be observed when actively visited by them.\
Understanding pollinators, and in particular honeybees, as drivers of food security is therefore fundamental to understanding where our food comes from and more importantly, its accessibility. This is a more nuanced discussion than simply one of availability. For while some food crops may still retain a degree of productivity through other means of pollination, they may not be as productive. This, of course, could have implications for food scarcity. That is to say, how difficult does it become to obtain certain sources of nutrients? What foods become delicacies (and more costly) by virtue of such scarcity?
By 2017, the United States had nearly three million honeybee colonies, which produced over $3 million of honey. These bees play a role in the pollination, and therefore production, of more than 130 types of fruits, nuts, and vegetables. In the North Country, they are a critical component for apple production, and orchards often contract with beekeepers to have their trees pollinated to ensure a bountiful harvest.
One method of mitigating risk to production capacity is through small-scale beekeeping, which has become increasingly popular in recent years. Community organizations, such as Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) Franklin County, have successfully offered training for individuals who are looking to learn the basics of the craft.
Kim Trombly, Association Team Leader with CCE, and a part-time beekeeper/owner of Sperry Brook Apiary, noted that newcomers to apiculture (beekeeping) are often surprised by how much time needs to be invested in managing one or more hives. As a rule, she said a well-managed apiary will require on the order of 40 hours a year, per hive. This involvement on the part of the beekeeper is necessary due to the challenges faced by honeybees. She noted the most significant threat to the health of the hive comes from the Varroa mite, a parasite that transmits disease to the honeybee, or makes them susceptible to other illnesses. These infestations may increase the risk of colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon in which the majority of bees in a hive disappear.
People can support local bee populations, and thus pollination of local crops, by growing pollinator gardens. These feature flowering plants that are particularly attractive to honeybees or other types of pollinators (for example: bumblebees and butterflies) as a source of nectar.
Beekeepers who keep apace of the most current developments in management techniques will also learn that innovation is ongoing. Trombly noted that researchers at Washington State University have been working with extracts from the fungus Ganoderma lucidum to create feed additives that could improve outcomes for honeybees infested with the Varroa mite. So, it seems that even for honeybees, good nutrition is a pillar of health and happiness.
For those who might be considering a foray into this rewarding practice, Trombly has the following advice, “My favorite part of beekeeping is the fascinating complexity of the hive and managing bees. When things go right, beekeeping can be really simple, but when things go wrong (which is often) there are multiple solutions to each problem the hive faces. Book knowledge is a wonderful base, but unfortunately bees do not read! It’s fun and challenging and every day is different.”
While beekeeping may demand dedication and patience, there are knowledgeable experts and excellent training programs right here in the North Country. These can help start the budding enthusiast on the path to an enriching new hobby, or even blossom into a small business that sells locally crafted honey. With resources like these, it doesn’t have to be a bumble.
Sperry Brook Apiary
Mooers, NY 12959