Pollinators in Peril, Our Food System in Crisis, and the Potential for Restoration

I have had the fortune to travel widely since I was a teenager with my studies and then eight years working as a flight attendant.  While this was a rich experience, I found that almost every place I visited again later was in a more damaged and less healthy ecological state. I thought that this experience is common for most people until when I started to work with ecological farmers in Thailand for almost 20 years ago, I experienced something different. The farmers were describing and showing me signs of how the soil, ecological life and abundance of the land were returning and growing. Since then I have been working with small-scale farmers to support organic farming, fair trade, agroforestry and biodiversity in general.  

Sometimes I help to facilitate knowledge-building courses around these themes to share this wisdom of the land. It was during such a course a little over a year ago in the diverse forest garden of Loong Choke, a renowned farmer elder expert in bamboo. It hit us during an evening that there were so few insects. We recalled how when we were younger that in such an environment with bright light there would be a great number and diversity of insects attracted to the light. This realization was both shocking and disturbing to me.

I did further investigation and found more and more research showing this drastic and rapid disappearance of insects.[1]  The most cited study from Germany shows a decrease of 76% in only 27 years.[2] I had previously understood that insects being at the base of the food chain should be more versatile and resilient. A number of climate change studies even predicted increasing insect populations and pest problems. While I think this loss has been overlooked as most people do not care much about insects and see them more as a nuisance than a benefit, as insects are the primary food for so many birds, amphibians, spiders, and reptiles, their decline correlates with a decline in many other species.[3] While as compassionate humans and fellow beings of the planet Earth, the loss of any species should draw our concern, when it comes to our own livelihood and the food on our tables, the insects that are so critical are those that pollinate our crops.  


Ms. Katrina Klett and Mr. Guoxing He

Recently, I had the good fortune to facilitate a course on Native Beekeeping as an Integral Part of Forest Gardening Systems led by Ms. Katrina Klett and Mr. Guoxing He of Elevated Honey in Yunnan, China. Katrina grew up in a beekeeper family in the USA since she was born, her father and brother are beekepers, and she has done many years of research on bees and beekeeping. She explained the severity of the pollinator problem, being most acute in the USA and EU as these places have most severely transitioned to industrial agriculture.

She stated that 1/3 of our food production is dependent upon pollinators - which in the industrial food system means fleets of trucks filled with beehives moving across the country to pollenate monocultures that come into bloom.  There are many crops, such as all tree nuts which are completely dependent on pollinators and would vanish without them.  At the same time on average 45% of the bee colonies are lost each year.[4]  While these can be replaced with queen breeding programmes and such, this is clearly a dire situation.

She explained six reasons for this crisis in details:

  1. Systemic pesticides - being in particular the neonicotinoids. These are applied as seed coatings or to the soil. They act within the whole plant making it (and its pollen) toxic. So a canola (mustard seed used for oil) which was a very good bee fodder crop- now with this as a regular application - is toxic and dangerous. Aside from affecting the intended crop, the neonicotinoids flow with the water and get into other vegetation. So if a field has windbreaks or buffer areas, these too can become toxic. She explained that the toxicity within these crops when visited by bees is not normally enough to kill them directly but it impacts their ability to navigate. So many bees may die, but not directly in the field with these systems. This makes proving them as the cause of death difficult.
  2. All sorts of other pesticides. She showed a slide of bee comb taken for testing after the colony collapse disorder outbreak. The testing found that this sample has 17 different pesticide residues. This is in the wax where young bees develop. The pollen, their food, would have even greater concentrations.
  3. The use of fungicides with fruit crops.  I find this is very true in Thailand as well. Sometimes fruit crops are even being sprayed during pollination periods. Fungicides are normally sub-lethal and toxic also the bees are regularly exposed.
  4. The quality of food and habitat. Healthy bees would harvest pollen and nectar from a great diversity of plants, each with their own nutritional value.  Just like humans, bees need a diversity of food. However most of the agricultural areas in the USA and EU has been transformed into vast areas with one or two crops being grown. The disappearance of small farms since the World War 2 means that farms have been combined and cleared. There are no longer windbreaks and buffer areas, but often just corn or soybeans for miles. Weeds are also controlled and eliminated. Katrina said that these areas could be deserts of sand or concrete as far as pollinators are concerned. While for crops that need pollination, like almonds, as there is nothing else they cannot support pollinators year-round but only during their flowering seasons. They thus require this mass-import of pollinators.
  5. Mass-migrations/congregations of bees. The long distances and conditions the bees face moving across the country are very stressful. Then when bees join together, they share of diseases and parasites, so that any population that was free from disease or parasites would likely be infected afterwards.
  6. Verroa mites - (for Apis mellifera). These are a key problem but only in combination with all of these other very stressful conditions, and Katrina is convinced they can be managed with other changes. Apis cerena, the Asian honeybee, has a good natural resistance to verroa mites which do not pose any problems. So for us in Asia, this native, in fact wild honeybee, that we can assist and help raise has a natural strength and no threat from verroa mites.

On a global level she feels that the best way to address the dire situation for pollinators and bees are: to stop the use of systemic pesticides that convert food into poison and get into the larger ecology making even trees and weeds toxic for pollinators, and to restore habitat and forage for pollinators - For agriculture this means at least windrows and buffer areas, but she showed excellent interventions such as converting "right of way" areas such as those under high voltage power lines or roadsides- into pollinator sanctuaries.  In urban and peri-urban areas, there are many small areas that could be transformed with pollinator-friendly plant mixes.   Even golf courses and lawns can be managed differently to greatly increase the forage and habitat they provide for pollinators.


Hive in the forest garden

From our course working with organic forest coffee growers in the upland watershed of Northern Thailand, we saw and learned how these farmers were restoring their local ecological health and providing habitat for pollinators, greatly increasing their presence and benefit even as they also could harvest some of that amazing golden liquid, honey. We also learned how this was a conscious decision and change that arrested a trend of deforestation and degradation.

While these mountain communities had long lived in dependance and relationship with the surrounding forest, changing economic expectations along with promotion of crops including feed corn and passionfruit, brought on a trend of clearing land to grow these cash crops with the ensuing environmental degradation from erosion and chemicals. Fortunately relationships with a local NGO, Earth Net Foundation, brought on a process to see how this might be arrested and reversed while maintaining and improving local incomes. Highland Arabica coffee, which in shade produces a better quality bean, was seen as the best potential solution. Years later, these initial efforts have paid off with these communities producing very high quality Arabica and the formally open fields returned to forest gardens with a mix of fruit and forest trees with coffee bushes below and other herbs and local vegetables as ground covers. The villagers and staff have witnessed clear signs of ecological restoration, such as improved water quality, return and increase of fish species, wild mushrooms and wildlife, and a greener environment less at risk of forest fires during the dry season.  

We all felt the diversity and abundance present in these villages and their forest gardens. While the natural pollinator health as observed by a number of Apis rostrata colonies on one large tree would seem to be better than most places, these villages work with the Asiatic honeybee, Apis cerena following a tradition that has been going on in Asia for over 2000 years. The greatest limitation for these bees is habitat for their hives. 


A farmer with log hives

At the time of our visit, Mr. Srinuan, an organic forest coffee farmer and cerena beekeeper in the village of Huay Krai, was preparing new hives in the basic and most ancient form of a hollowed out log with a cap or lid on one side. In Chiang Rai, a native palm species (whose hand-shaped fronds are also used for traditional thatching) is the preferred material. Once it is cut to appropriate lengths, he hollowed them out and then burnt the inside, a way to prevent pests that might be in the wood.  With a hole for a door and application of cerena wax to attract the bees, the hives are set out and will normally be occupied by swarms of bees during the peak nectar season between February and April.   Almost no other management is done aside from harvesting honey when it appears the hive is full at the end of the nectar flow in May.

While Katrina and Guoxing also taught more modern methods of keeping these bees using boxes with movable frames, whether ancient or modern, these methods allow for a much larger bee population in the area. In another village visited, Huay Khun Phra, about 20 villagers keep between 10 and 50 hives each in what seems like a rather small area. Katrina said that even if every villager had 100 hives, there would still be plenty of forage for the bees in that area. The key message is that we have far fewer pollinators than we should and while we need desperately to change our land management practices, we also need more people to raise bees, which in this context just means creating the habitat they need.


Katrina and Guoxing on how to make hives

This sort of farming system and relationship is not only applicable with forest coffee. After this course in Chiang Mai, I returned to visit rubber forest gardeners in Songkhla province in Southern Thailand. One rubber forest gardener community is raising 5 different species of stingless bees in their gardens that combine rubber trees with other forest trees, fruits, and herbs. Some farmers have these small hives only a few meters apart spread throughout their gardens, yet they have had no problems in terms of fodder for their bees and can harvest their highly valued honey 2 - 3 times per year.

The importance of pollinators for our planetary well-being and economies cannot be underestimated. Using an FAO tool, the economic value of insect pollination for the Philippines in 2009 was estimated at $710 million USD and for Vietnam in 2010, $1.76 billion USD[5]. The same study finds well over 70% of crop varieties grown in the Philippines are dependent on pollinators. While there is clearly a lack of research on insect pollinator populations and their rate of decline, a study on bats, another key pollinator group, finds that almost a quarter of bats in southeast Asia face extinction.[6]  

While our food system, ecology, and pollinator populations are all on the edge and without changes there is a real risk of collapse with its drastic implications,  we also have knowledge of the changes that need to happen and examples of highly productive and economically lucrative farming systems that are restoring local ecologies and refuges for biodiversity. While these systems have common elements of halting use of agrochemicals and integrating diversity, each community and place has their own knowledge and relationship with the land and its biodiversity and the chance to restore balance. While now we mostly view ourselves as the heart of the problem, we as humans are also part of this ecology we depend on, and we can return to our role as stewards of ecological health, balance, and abundance.