Of the Bees and the Birds

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Ricardo Bayon on July 7, 2009

We think we understand everything there is to know about the birds and bees… And when I say that I speak not in the figurative, but in the actual. I’m talking about the real birds and bees that pollinate our crops. We know they are important, we understand the biology, the chemistry, and pretty much everything else there is to know about how a plant becomes a flower, a fruit, or seed. It is basic botany, easy as pie…

But the truth is that while we may understand it conceptually, we still take it mostly for granted. Of course we will get a healthy crop of almonds, oranges, apples, tomatoes, coffee this year. Naturally — and assuming no major acts of God or nature — we will plant our plants, get our fruit, grow our food… Right?

Wrong. The truth is we are all part of an incredibly complex machine made up of cogs as small as bacteria, as big as whales, and as full as hubris as humans. We may say we understand how this machine works, but we persist in messing with the machine, removing entire pieces (i.e. species), adding pollutants, and yet we hope the machine will continue to run and operate unchanged. How deluded is that?

Then along comes a wake-up call like the recent “colony collapse disorder” — the mystery affliction that has decimated honeybee populations in North America — and we pay attention to the essential cog that are the millions of insects that pollinate our crops. But we pay attention to the issue for the geological equivalent of a New York millisecond. Bees are dying off. We don’t really know why, or how, or whodunnit. Bees help pollinate most of the things we eat and drink, and we have so badly mangled nature that native pollinator species aren’t able to pick up the slack. Try to imagine what happens to food supply if the pollinators disappear… And, as you do, consider that it has been estimated that one out of every 3 bites of food we eat comes to us through the work of animal pollinators (birds, bees, bats, etc.)… But as far as news goes, this rates somewhere after a new hairdo for Brittany Spears and way, way behind the launch of a new Harry Potter book, let alone the death of Michael Jackson. Sad…

To get a sense of how warped are our priorities, just witness one of my favorite pollinator stories coming out of the agricultural heartland of California: As you may or may not know, one of the most commercially important crops for California are almonds. In the words of the California Almond Board:

“Valued at $1.9 billion, almonds remain first on the list of top ten US specialty crop exports and the largest agricultural export of the state of California. Almonds account for about a fifth of the state’s total agricultural exports, exceeding the combined value of grape-related products, including wine, table grapes, raisins, and grape juice. Almonds also rank as California’s top agricultural export to the EU and India, as well as the second largest to Japan and China.”

Or to put it simply: Almonds matter a great deal to California. And pollination is a major concern to California’s almond growers. It is such a concern that every year almond growers spend tens of millions of dollars to import pollinators from throughout the entire US. That’s right, every year, around February when the almond trees are starting to come into bloom, the almond growers ship in bee hives from as far as Florida in order to help pollinate their crops. After all, we’ve so decimated most of the local pollinators in parts of California, that we now need the insect equivalents of migrant workers. It has gotten to a point where some beekeepers make more money by providing “pollination services” for almonds and other crops (sometimes as much as $100 a hive), than they do from selling honey or other bee products.

But the plot thickens: Recently, a new crop has been gaining traction in California, a variety of mandarin orange known as the clementine. One of the reasons clementines have become so popular is that they come in some very tasty seedless varieties. And God knows that dealing with annoying seeds in our fruit is SUCH a major inconvenience… So much so that farmers can charge about 5 times as much for seedless varieties of fruit than they do for the good old-fashioned seeded varieties.

The problem, however, comes because the particular variety of seedless clementine that has been planted in parts of California (ironically in some of the same parts where almonds grow) tends to produce seeds if it is cross-pollinated with other varieties of citrus. In other words, as far as the clementine farmers are concerned, the imported bees can become a major financial problem if they start pollinating their fruit trees. Try telling that to the bees.

The problem became so bad a few years back that the clementine growers threatened to sue beekeepers in the area, and some are still trying to get the state to pass a law that would ban hives from areas anywhere near their trees (a similar “no-fly zone” for bees has been declared around some of Spain’s seedless clementine farms). Naturally, this puts the anti-pollination seedless clementine growers in direct conflict with the pro-pollinator needs of almond growers. And the issue has yet to be fully resolved (if it comes to that, my money is on the almond farmers, because, to put it bluntly, they’ve got more of the financial and political muscle behind them).

In a way, this is all a modern-day parable with more than a few morals:

. We have become so disconnected from the natural workings of things that we expect fruit (which are basically nature’s seed-dispersal devices) to be seedless. We’ve fallen in so in love with the packaging that we’ve totally forgotten what it was meant to package…

. Furthermore, we’ve thrown such massive wrenches into nature’s machinery, that we are beginning to experience pollinator shortages and unexplained problems such as “colony-collapse disorder”. Our situation is so bad that we don’t bat an eyelid at the prospect of importing pollinators (i.e. transporting bees thousands of miles) to meet our growing pollination services demands. (Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if the fact that we are moving hives –which in nature are designed to be stationary– isn’t somehow a contributing factor to the colony-collapse problem.); and

. Finally, getting to the “market-based” point of this post, pollination is fast becoming a perfect example of a service that nature provides that is becoming increasingly scarce, and therefore increasingly valuable. A problem tailor-made for market-based solutions.

So the question then becomes, can we use market-based approaches to help solve this pollinator problem? And, as you might imagine, I think the answer could be a resounding “yes”. Let me explain.

First, there is the demand: Agriculturalists everywhere rely to great extents on the services provided by pollinators, and they have already proven themselves ready to pay (and pay heavily) for them. So now we need to figure out how to provide the supply. Here we can turn to groups that know much more about these things than I do. They tell us that a major part of the problem is decreased pollinator habitat. In other words, in order to create our own supply of pollinators, one that is, as it were, home-grown, we need to increase the amount of habitat that pollinators like. Groups like the Pollinator Partnership even have entire booklets that go into great detail on what this habitat looks like for most parts of the US. So, if there is demand, and we know how to generate supply, a market cannot be far behind.

Perhaps. But the truth is that I think this one will probably, at first, rely on some level of government intervention.

For example, imagine what would happen if the government of California (which has already pioneered the creation of species and conservation mitigation banks) took it upon itself to create a program of pollinator habitat mitigation? It could do this by saying that for every acre of pollinator-dependent agriculture in the state, there should be an equivalent acre (or 2, or .5, whatever) of pollinator habitat within the same county. Those farmers who don’t decide to provide that habitat on their farms, could pay others to provide it for them (pollinator habitat credits, as it were).

Beyond that, the government might force those who damage an acre of pollinator habitat (to build roads, strip malls, or new farms) to offset that damage by creating, enhancing or restoring 2, 3, or even 5 acres of similar habitat in the same region (sort of like wetland mitigation banking). And, while we’re at it, why not gently request that companies whose entire line of product are dependent on pollinated crops or pollinators (Burt’s Bees, for instance, or Haagen Dazs, or the makers of Honey Nut Cheerios) to contribute money into the creation of native pollinator habitat? Many of them (like Burt’s Bees and Haagen Dazs) already do, but why not make it a habit? If that were done, the creation of pollinator habitat could become an industry worth serious money and I have no doubt that we would soon see private sector companies jumping into the business. That is the kind of incentive we need to get the whole system, as it were, buzzing…

Writing in 1894, John Muir had this to say about the central valley of California:

“WHEN California was wild, it was one sweet bee-garden throughout its entire length, north and south, and all the way across from the snowy Sierra to the ocean… The Great Central Plain of California, during the months of March, April, and May, was one smooth, continuous bed of honey-bloom, so marvelously rich that, in walking from one end of it to the other, a distance of more than 400 miles, your foot would press about a hundred flowers at every step. Mints, gilias, nemophilas, castilleias, and innumerable compositæ were so crowded together that, had ninety-nine per cent of them been taken away, the plain would still have seemed to any but Californians extravagantly flowery.”

Today, the central valley is a much different place. I would even venture to guess that it is worse than Muir’s nightmare scenario of seeing 99 percent of those flowers removed. We’ve probably taken out 99.99% of them. That wondrous honey-bloom has now been replaced by dairy cows, manure pits, almond farms, citrus orchards, and some pretty pesticide-laden pieces of land, with all the environmental and social problems that such a transformation entails. Now, I’m not saying we will ever be able to re-make Muir’s “sweet bee-gardens”, but at least we should strive to re-create enough habitat for entire swarms of native pollinators whose unsung services are sorely missed.

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