To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
The revery alone will do
If bees are few.
I want to preface this by pointing out that I'm not a beekeeper (although this was supposed to be my first year - but I think I'll wait until we know a little more about the future of honeybees), or an expert on Colony Collapse Disorder. On the other hand, it seems pretty clear that something really awful is happening to honeybees. If you haven't been watching the news about Colony Collapse Disorder, here are some links (and thanks to Roel again for providing them):
I'll also say that I don't intend this to be scaremongering - none of us know what effect this might have on our lives. The end of the honeybee has been predicted before, and it didn't happen then. But speaking pragmatically, I think it is generally better to know and prepare for the worst outcomes, and then be pleasantly surprised when they do not happen. I've not seen an essay yet anywhere that talks about how our local food systems might have to respond to CCD, so I've written one.
Now this may turn out to be something rapidly remedied. Or it may not be. In all likelihood, the honeybee will not go wholly extinct (and let us all pray that's true). But CCD has led to a loss of almost 1/3 of all hives in the US, and is now spreading across Europe. And if the worst case were to come true, we would all of us need to rapidly adapt to a significant change in our society and its food security. G-d willing, the much quoted line from Albert Einstein, that if the honeybee went extinct human beings would be extinct in four years is an exaggeration. So we pray. But as we all know, G-d and good fortune help those who help themselves. Even if we cannot prevent the decline of the honeybee, there are some ways to ensure that local food systems survive and continue - we hope. This post is concerned primarily with ways that we can each respond locally to CCD, and ensure stable food sytems.
First of all, it is important to know which crops are dependent on bee pollination. About 1/3 of all food crops, including a vast majority of fruits and nuts, most oilseeds, coconuts, honey (duh) and other foods are dependent upon honeybees. In addition to that first 1/3, another 1/3 of what we eat is indirectly affected by bee pollination - either because bees give better yields, as in the case of some partially self-pollinating fruiting plants, soybeans, sesame, cowpeas, mustard and cashews. Or they are dependent on bee pollination because our food is indirectly dependent on them. For example, the milk you drink, or the beef you eat are a product of pasture and hay plants like clovers and alfalfa. In Australia, just less than 1/2 of the total economic product of agriculture is subsidized for free by honeybees. Here, because we eat so much meat and milk, it is very slightly more. The good news is that almost all grain crops are self or wind pollinating, and thus don't depend on beans. Buckwheat is an exception, but since most people depend on wheat, corn and rice, rather than buckwheat, that's a good thing.
The bad news that the majority of our vitamin C, fat and protein crops depend, at least partially, on honey bee pollination, as do many of our fiber crops - wool (indirectly), along with cotton and flax. Fully one half of all the fats in the world come from oil plants at least partially benefitted by honeybee pollination, and in some cases entirely dependent on it. These crops include sunflowers, coconuts, palms, olives, peanuts, rape and sunflowers. And a majority of our protein crops depend either directly on pollination to some degree, or come from animals that eat pollinator-dependent crops. These include beans, soybeans, peas, peanuts, nuts and many hay crops. Virtually all fruits are bee dependent, and the few exceptions tend not to be less common in our diets, such as paw paws, which depend on wasps.
There are other crops, not so major, whose loss we would notice as well, and other consequences that aren't as obvious up front. Many flowers, and many medicinal herbs are bee dependent. Most legumes, used to build soil quality because they extract nitrogen from the air are to some degree bee dependent. Our ability to garden organically in a world of depleting fossil fuels depends on pollinators. The plants honeybees pollinate provide food and habitat for thousands of other species of insects, birds and animals. We can expect to see other extinctions follow if we lose the honeybee. And most of all, cross pollination and hybridity often increase the vigor of natural species. All of species diversity is threatened by the loss of honeybees.
Honeybees are not native to the Americas, and so most crops that were here before the pilgrims brought bees to the continent can be pollinated with native species. The difficulty with this is that many native species are in decline right now - some seriously endangered. So while squash and blueberries have potential native pollinators, our practices have reduced their numbers so that it may be very difficult at best to achieve decent pollination. One of the best things you can do to attract and protect native pollinators is to plant native gardens, with combinations of native plants. These are the ones that our pollinators evolved to attend to. You want regionally specific and appropriate plants - if you live in the Dakotas, your plant choices will be different than if you live in Florida.
What else can we do? As noted we can bring other pollinators to our gardens. Orchard Mason bees are one such option, but there are many others. You can order pollinating insects and get instructions for making homes for them here: www.homeorchardsociety.com. They are sold out for this year, and it is too late to ship them, but consider ordering early for next year. They also have some excellent information about pollination, pollinators and fruit crops.
You can also make your garden as hospitable as possible to alternate pollinators, both native and non-native - there are thousands of other species of bug and bird that do at least some pollinating. Here are some suggestions for plants to grow and ways to make your garden species diverse: http://nature.berkeley.edu/urbanbeegardens/ Some studies suggest that bumblebees may pollinate many of the same crops that honeybees do. The problem is that population densities of bumblebees are often much lower than honeybees.
One of the most important things you can do is discourage the use of pesticides in your neighborhood - we need all the pollinators we can get. You might consider putting together a fact sheet about CCD, pollination and food systems and passing it out to neighbors, to discourage them from spraying. I have no idea whether the rather sketchy connection between cell phones and bees has anything to it or not, but just on principle, you might consider cutting back on using yours, and discouraging your community from putting up more towers. Couldn't hurt.
Another important role - support research into CCD, limiting GMOs and your local beekeepers. The latter are suffering the most - encourage your state to offer subsidies. And remember, every bee we preserve is a hedge against hard times. It is not clear yet whether GMOs have anything to do with CCD, but whether or not it does, the precautionary principle alone would mark a compelling argument in favor of not putting our food supply at risk because of unproven technologies whose long term effects we do not know.
Ok, on to making sure you get some food even if the bees are not pollinating. One of the most basic things you can do is to rely primarily on species that *don't* require bee pollination. For staple foods, this would involve grains, potatoes and sweet potatoes - corn is wind pollinated, and while bees do visit potato blossoms, potatos are vegetatively propagated. I will be adding more of both crops to my gardens this year. If the worst were to happen, and we were to experience a major shortage of protein and fat crops, we will have to have more staple grain crops to compensate. I would also overplant leguminous crops - these are only partly dependent on pollination, so if you plant a lot of soybeans or peas or peanuts, you will get some harvest. These are important crops for us. It goes without saying that in hard times, such grains should go to feed people primarily, rather than animals.
On the subject of animals, it might make sense to consider raising animals that have evolved to handle flexible diets and lower inputs, even if the short term yields are lower. That is, it might make more sense to raise raise older breeds of chicken, for example, like the Dominique, which forage well and can adapt to and still lay even without high protein, soy-based feeds. If fats and proteins are in short supply, eggs will be extremely valuable. Icelandic and Soay sheep, and Dexter Cattle are among the other breeds that one might consider. Geese are an excellent resource - they live almost entirely on grasses, and produce high quality fats. This might be very important in difficult times. I don't claim to be an expert on any livestock, and I myself only have poultry (chickens, geese, ducks, we're adding turkeys this year). I would welcome more expert advice. One thing I would say is that if we have to rely on non-leguminous grasses and grass hay alone, we will probably be producing far fewer animals, and many of them may have lower body weights. Keeping animals through the winter will also be more difficult (not impossible - Europeans wintered animals on root crops for centuries). But planning for a lower meat diet would only be prudent.
Fruits are a harder nut to crack, so to speak. If you have a small enough number of trees or vines, you can hand pollinate - this is fairly easily done with a small paintbrush. But there are limits to how much hand pollination anyone can do. You might also want to invest in fruiting plants that don't require outside pollination. These plants will be labelled "self-pollinating" in your catalog. Among the fruits that are at least partially self-fertile (that is, they'll produce some fruit without insect pollination) are lingonberries, Blue Elder variety of elderberry, some raspberries and blackberries, red and white currants (but not black), highbush cranberry, serviceberries, Queen Cox Apple (the only self-fruitful one I've seen), Moonglow Pears, some peaches and peach/plum crosses, Stanley and Sprite Plums, Some sweet cherries and all tart cherries, Puget Gold Apricots, Quinces, Medlars, Paw Paws, Mulberries and Pomegranites. Almost none of these will pollinate nearly as well without bees, but they may get you a crop. It is also worth noting that you can get vitamin C from a variety of other sources that don't depend on insect pollination.
As far as I know, there are no nuts that aren't dependent on bees, and other major bee dependent crops include cucumbers, melons, and all squashes, as well as beans and legumes. Tomatoes, peppers and eggplant produce much better with bees. Adapting to the absence of honeybees will probably involve a combination of hand pollination, changing our diets to live with far fewer of these crops, and finding alternate pollinators. I'm still figuring this one out myself. I strongly recommend that any and all of my readers begin working on adapting their diets, their garden practices and their planning to this - add self-fruitful fruiting plants, and grow flowers to attract beneficial insects. Change your recipes around to reduce your dependence on bee-pollinated foods. Experiment with hand pollination and seed saving. Start adapting your animals to different diets, and thinking in terms of how you will respond if the very worst case scenario occurred. Because if it did, we'd need all hands on deck, make sure that Albert Einstein was wrong.