We have plenty of problems on our farm, as frequent readers of this newsletter know: weather, bugs, weeds, mechanical breakdowns, etc. So when people ask me: “Do you have enough bees? I hear they are in crisis?”, I am happy to give them a positive answer.
We have tons of bees. There is no bee crisis at Terra Firma.
It’s true that bees in general, and honeybees in particular, are in crisis. No one knows exactly why. If someone tells you they do, they don’t know what they are talking about. It probably has something to do with GMO crops, it probably has something to do with neonicotinoid pesticides. But no single factor has been clearly proven as the culprit.
So, science has not proven exactly what is ailing bees. But it has proven what makes them thrive.
Terra Firma Farm. Yup, that’s right. Several years back a team of bee ecologists from UC Berkeley did a multi-year survey of Terra Firma and established that we have one of the healthiest populations of bees of any farm they had seen.
But it wasn’t just our farm. Other, similar farms that grew a wide diversity of organic crops had similarly healthy bee populations.
At the time, we used to host bee hives for a local beekeeper, to ensure that all of our flowering crops were properly pollinated. The beesearchers assured us that this was completely unnecessary. Turns out our fields are so attractive to honeybees that they fly in from miles away to feast on our pollen and nectar. And it wasn’t just honeybees. There were dozens of other species of native and wild bees working our fields: blue orchard bees, bumblebees and others. As if that weren’t enough, we have numerous other pollinating insects helping us out.
|Bees pollinating berry blossoms
It’s not just that we don’t use toxic chemicals or plant GMOs. Organic walnut orchards just a few miles away do not share our bee abundance. Rather, it is the variety of crops we grow that offer an almost continual source of food for the pollinators — like an organic buffet that is open 7 days a week, all year. Weeds play an important role as well, even if they are growing around the edges of the fields. On conventional farms, herbicides generally ensure that few if any weeds ever get big enough to make flowers.
There is one downside to our incredible bee population. Tomato flowers are generally wind-pollinated, and so do not require bees. But we have so many bumblebees at one of our fields that they are always working the tomato blossoms. On certain heirloom varieties, if too many flowers are pollinated, it results in “siamese twin tomatoes”that are usually too ugly and misshapen to harvest.
So we know what bees like: a wide diversity of food sources that are readily available year-round in an environment free of toxic chemicals. Unfortunately, human society seems fully intent on creating the opposite, whether in farm fields, suburbs, or cities. Farms like ours are a rare exception to the norm. The bees are a warning; one of many. We’re going the wrong way.