Very excited for my new book “Listening to the Bees” co-authored with poet Renee Saklikar. Manuscript in to the publisher (Nightwood Editions), book due out 30 April 2018. Stay tuned!
It was a red brick former one-room schoolhouse, standing forlorn and isolated at the edge of a swatch of Midwestern prairie. I was similarly lonely, having just arrived in Lawrence, Kansas to take up graduate studies, with no place to live, very little money and no job to support myself.
That August was particularly hot and humid, even for a Kansas summer, quite a comedown from the Cape Cod sea breezes, salt marshes, sand dunes and ocean vistas I had left behind just as few days before. I had abandoned many friends, a developing career in marine biology and a classically quaint Cape-style cottage to pursue a different life, that of an entomologist studying bees.
It was a desolate moment, that arrival, but good fortune soon shifted my mood. Within hours I checked in at the Entomology Department, and a few minutes later the sympathetic Chair of the department had provided me with both a job and a free place to live. The job was bread-and-butter graduate student employment, working as a teaching assistant in a biology class, but the living arrangements were, well, unusual.
I headed out that afternoon to the edge of the city to take up my new residence, a former schoolhouse that had been taken over by the Entomology Department and nicknamed the bee house, a research facility used to study bees and wasps. All I had to do in return for a bed, a hot plate, a small refrigerator, worn wooden floors and blackboarded walls was inhabit the place to discourage vandals.
There were a few disadvantages the Chair hadn’t mentioned. For one, I couldn’t open the windows, in spite of the daily 100oF temperatures, because each window had a papery grey wasp nest hung on the outside, study colonies for a graduate student interested in how wasps organized their social behaviour.
(Photo by Bob Peterson, Creative Commons)
Lack of privacy was another tradeoff for no rent, with students coming in at all hours of the day and night, not only to record behaviors from the window nests but also to traipse around the basement, which was full of more wasp nests as well as colonies of halictid bees that nested in dirt.
The wasp-studying students were having an art contest, putting colored paper into plexiglass boxes for the wasps to use as building material, creating rainbow nests. The bee guys had taken a layer of dirt one bee width in diameter and sandwiched it between two sheets of plate glass, so that they could observe the bee behaviours.
Weekdays and many weekends I spent up the hill on campus, taking classes, reading journal articles, writing research proposals for funding, going to seminars and teaching undergraduate laboratories. Evenings I was alone, and after my hot plate dinners I often descended to the bee house basement for hymenopteran company, mesmerized watching the wasps build their nests of many colours and the bees bumping into each other as they navigated the tunnels they had carved into the dirt.
Graduate school is like that, lonely at first, an unbalanced full immersion experience with work predominant and social life suppressed. But as the bee and wasp nests died off and fall arrived, I physically and metaphorically opened the windows.
My evenings soon filled with friends, guitar playing, and student potluck dinners followed by dancing to country swing music at local clubs. Midnight often found us at the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and we met many a dawn at Jennings Daylight Donuts.
I also soon had a different job, a research assistantship spent looking through a microscope for hours and drawing bee mouthparts. The work provided the income I needed to go to South America for a year, to study killer bees in French Guiana for my doctoral degree.
Even while away I thought of the bee house as home, and felt cruelly uprooted when I returned to Lawrence a year later to find the schoolhouse no longer mine, taken over by the next impoverished graduate student who had arrived in my absence. Now I had to live like a regular person, renting an apartment with rooms and a real kitchen and no bees or wasps as co-tenants.
But perhaps my year in the bee house had primed me for a different way to thank about the meaning of home. A journalist asked me once to describe my first visit to a honeybee hive, and my responses was that “I opened the lid of that first hive, began pulling out combs of bees, and I felt like I was home.”
Living in the schoolhouse, I imprinted on the company of bees and wasps. Every new dwelling since has not become home until I connect with the local social insects. I’ve put a honeybee colony into the backyard, valued the wasp nest growing under the eaves, enjoyed the mating ants flying up from beneath the sidewalk or appreciated the neighborhood bees foraging on my lawn and garden.
Home is where the heart is, and my heart, still, is with the bees.
(photo by Kevin Payravi, Wikimedia Commons)
I recently authored a report for the Vancity Credit Union about economic opportunities with bees and pollination. There’s lots of gloom and doom out there about bees, but there also are many opportunities. Vancity is a wonderful organization, deeply imbedded in community, and publishes regular in-depth reports about economic issues in British Columbia. The full report can be found at “Sweet Deal: The value of bees to British Columbia’s economy” but here’s a few highlights:
Honeybees and wild bees are vital to B.C.’s economy, producing honey and pollinating berry, tree fruit, oilseed and vegetable crops, with a total annual current value of close to $500 million in products and pollinating services, and excellent potential to rise to $553 million annually within five years.
Pollination is the primary, and growing, economic benefit of bees, valued in B.C. at $468 million in 2014, a 67% increase since 2001.
The number of beekeepers in B.C. has risen 35% since 2009, with notable increase in beekeepers under the age of 40.
Blueberries are B.C.’s most highly valued crop, and provide a strong example of how insufficient pollination is limiting yields, increasing costs to consumers and diminishing profits for farmers. Blueberry growers are short 10,000 to 20,000 honeybee colonies each year, and fields have insufficient wild bees, resulting in $10 million to $20 million in losses.
Reducing pesticide use and enhancing habitats in and around blueberry farms would increase wild bee populations and improve pollination, boosting yields and profits for growers and reducing retail prices for consumers.
Declining bee populations are one symptom of increasingly harmful agricultural practices. Canadian pesticide use increased 25% from 87.5 million kilograms in 2008 to 109 million kilograms in 2014. Development of organic and sustainable farming practices would stimulate more diverse and abundant wild bee populations, reduce pesticide use, improve human and environmental health and create value-added options for B.C. growers.
A favourable climate in southwestern B.C. allows the production and sale of bees and small nucleus colonies across Canada and for export, with an immediate potential annual market of at least $10 to $15 million. This figure could grow to $30 million by 2021 if we begin exporting bees to the U.S. Expanding our local industry would also increase B.C. colony numbers to more closely align with blueberry pollination needs.
Consumer interest in locally produced honey has grown, giving B.C. beekeepers an opportunity to focus on retail sales of well-branded local honey. The total value of retail sales for B.C. honey doubled from $8 to $16 million between 2014 and 2015, reflecting an increase in retail prices from $4.60/lb. in 2014 to $7.45/lb. in 2015.
In 2014, we imported 573,200 pounds of honey, the equivalent of one-fifth of provincial production, so there is room and opportunity in the retail market for at least $3 million more B.C. honey production.
Government working in partnership with beekeepers and growers could stimulate province-wide branding of honey and bee-pollinated crops as local and sustainable, supported by bee-friendly practices advertising and branding. Development of appropriate labels and marketing strategies for all B.C. farm products would be powerful tools to stimulate bee conservation while adding value.
Poetry and science may seem to have little in common, but they do share one trait: building from fragments. I’m collaborating with a wonderful poet, Renee Sarojini Saklikar, on the Honey, Hives and Poetry project, in which we’ve been reading together at events from her poems and my prose, and writing some new material in response to each other’s work.
As Renee puts it: “One of my poetry obsessions is the fragment. Each time I read from my long poems I select fragments, further reducing the pieces, a reductive process that speaks to me of possibility . . .”
Scientific research is simultaneously reductive while discovering meaning by repeatedly recombining small bits of information in different ways. Experiments resemble poems trimmed down to their simplest bytes, expressing the scientist’s hope that disparate data might assemble into the fullness of story, revealing objective truth considerably more profound than its constituent parts.
So it was that words became a line and eventually a poem as we unraveled the identity and function of the honeybee queen pheromone over close to two decades of research. My chemistry colleague, the late Keith Slessor, had become interested in the retinue of ten to twelve worker bees that surround the queen, licking and touching their antennae to her furiously for one to two minutes each. Our hypothesis was that they were picking up the queen’s pheromones and transmitting them throughout the nest.
We had made extracts from dead queens to use in identifying her chemical signature, but had no way of determining whether worker bees responded. One day, in frustration, one of our students put a dab of extract onto a glass pipette and thrust it into into a cage of bees, exclaiming, “Take that, you bloody bees.” To her surprise, they formed a retinue around the glass as if it were a queen.
We had found our bioassay, but it still took tens of thousands of assays excising, macerating, extracting, eluting and observing over two decades to identify nine compounds that work in a synergistic mix, attracting worker bees to attend their monarch. Each individual pheromone we identified represented another fragment that then had to be tested in combination with the growing number of other compounds, until eventually the full poem of the complex honeybee queen pheromone grew from its nine simple words.
It’s a thing of beauty, this multi-fragment queen pheromone, an elixir of elegant function, reminiscent of the elusive perfection captured in the best poetry, where snippets of language weave together into a whole much more compelling than its individual parts.
I imagine writing poetry is like that, a mental image of Renee at work in her writing laboratory, testing combinations of words together, rejecting innumerable linguistic dead ends until the etymological data tell her the poem is done.
It’s fragments coalescing into meaning, at the junction where science and poetry intersect on common ground.
(In memory of Keith Slessor, a poet in chemistry)
I recently reviewed a new book for Nature ( 533, 32–33, 05 May 2016, doi:10.1038/533032a), “The Dancing Bees” by Tania Munz, focused largely on how Karl von Frisch discovered the function of the honeybee dance language while in the heart of Nazi Germany. It’s a fascinating story, how a scientist immersed in the unimaginable horrors perpetrated by a brutal regime managed to craft a hugely significant scientific discovery. Click on the link above for the full review. (Note that after I posted the review was put behind a paywall. It can be accessed through most library systems that have a subscription to Nature).
Your thoughtful comments are welcome, as always:
Bees, dance, playgrounds and children’s books came together unexpectedly in Toronto last week, along with synchrony, the idea of simultaneous occurrence or motion.
The children’s book was not so much the book as its author JonArno Lawson, whom I met at the Governor-General’s Literary Awards in December. His and illustrator Sydney Smith’s winning book was “Sidewalk Flowers,” which I recommend highly for children and adults alike.
I was delighted that JonArno was free one night while I was in Toronto, as he is a most engaging dinner companion. At one point he told me about a remarkable bit of playground research he’d uncovered, conducted by a student of the American anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher Edward T. Hall. JonArno subsequently sent me a few pages from Hall’s 1983 Book “The Dance of Life,” that described the study.
As Hall wrote, “He began to notice one very active little girl who seemed to stand out from the rest. She was all over the place. My student noticed that whenever she was near a cluster of children the members of that group were in sync not only with each other but with her. Many viewings later, he realized that this girl, with her skipping and dancing and twirling, was actually orchestrating movements of the entire playground!”
Hall went on to describe how the pattern of movement was like the beat of music, with the playground’s children dancing to its silent rhythm. There was no music, however. Rather, the kids were tapping into some subconscious rhythm of play they perceived in a non-audible way.
I immediately thought of bees, and the transcendent spirit of the hive by which the colony collective seems to skip and dance and twirl within the hive much like Hall’s children on the playground.
There is a rhythm to each colony, a beat of activity set by a few individual bees. All might be quiet in the hive until a scout forager returns, dancing vigorously to inform her nestmates of the distance and direction to a field of nectar or pollen-yielding flowers. Potential foragers follow the dance and then fly out themselves, returning with nectar or pollen or both, and performing their own dances that excite other workers.
It all begins with that first scout setting the beat, but soon the pace of the hive has escalated, with some workers accepting and processing the incoming nectar, some packing pollen into cells, and still others following the now-numerous dances and then flying out to forage.
The colony appears in simultaneous motion, a synchronous blending of tasks that creates a palpable rhythm, each bee responding to the beat with different tasks while staying true to the inflections of the collective.
JonArno also suggested that perhaps human dancers resemble bees in our capacity to pace dance to a subtle rhythm-setter. We’ve all been at parties where we might be dancing fluidly among many partners, but there’s usually someone who is influencing the entire dance floor’s pace without being an obvious leader.
I experienced this intersection between bee and human dance most intensely when I was part of two dance projects with Vancouver’s LINK Dance Foundation. I’d never performed on stage with dancers before, but what struck me as most profound was how aware we were of each other without any direct look or other signals. Rather, each segment from each dance had its rhythm subtly conducted by a different performer’s individual beat, with understated leadership shifting between dancers as the piece progressed.
Whether we are well tuned to the playground’s beat or the synchronicity of dance, the pace of human life is remarkably influenced by subtle cues beneath our conscious awareness.
Hall wrote about our perception of that subliminal beat: “I have come to the conclusion that the human species lives in a sea of rhythm, ineffable to some, but quite tangible to others. This explains why some composers really do seem to be able to tap into that sea and express for the people the rhythms that are felt but not yet expressed as music. Poets do this too . . .”
As do bees, themselves composers and poets of their own colony’s cadence, another reminder of the remarkable lessons to be gleaned by those who listen to the rhythm of the hive.
I’d love to hear from you:
I’m having the most marvelous couple of months at work, with a remarkable diversity of pursuits that, at first blush, seem disconnected. What, for example, do naturopaths, territorial legislatures, a polytechnic college, a human rights caucus, agricultural land use planners and writing festivals have in common?
If you’re a winstonhive.com regular, you can see the answer coming: bees. Admittedly I do occupy a senior position at my university’s Centre for Dialogue that allows me considerable latitude in my research, teaching and community engagement activities. But still, it’s bees that have guided me into the diverse portfolios I’ve taken on.
Take the naturopaths, for instance. I was approached by a clinic that was interested in increasing collaboration in their business decisions and professional development, as well as in how their doctors cooperate in patient care.
They turned to me to facilitate a workshop on collaboration after hearing me talk on the radio about how honeybees work together, putting the needs of the colony above those of individuals. And indeed, that was the outcome of our meeting; the group devised strategies by which their solitary endeavours could become communal, which is the essence of collaboration.
I wrote in an earlier blog post about facilitating a priority planning exercise for the 19 newly elected members of the Northwest Territories legislature. The NWT has an unusual form of government, consensus-based rather than the argumentative party politics more common in democracies. There was an excellent fit between how I understood consensus from studying honeybee colonies, and the legislators understood consensus as a decision-making tool.
For example, scout workers in a honeybee swarm searching for a new nest return from scouting and perform dances that contain information about the distance, direction and most importantly quality of a potential nesting cavity. At first there are dances to many sites, but eventually the workers concentrate on one and the swarm lifts off and flies together to the new nest.
David Bohm, one of human dialogue’s historical giants, wrote about how a tribe of native Americans reaches decisions, and his narrative perfectly summarizes how the NWT Territorial Assembly works by consensus, and honeybees as well: “They just talked and talked and talked. They made no decisions. There was no leader. And everybody could participate. The meeting went on, until it finally seemed to stop for no reason at all and the group dispersed. Yet after that, everybody seemed to know what to do, because they understood each other.”
Another bee-related invitation came from Humber College in Toronto, due to an important innovation in their classrooms, HIVES, which stands for Humber Interactive Spaces. HIVES are 19 classrooms designed to function as collaborative learning spaces, where students can learn from and with each other, as well as from the professor. Six to eight students sit in pods at tables with computer and internet access, and use inquiry based curriculum to learn together, guided by their group’s interactions as much or more than by the professor.
HIVES were inspired by honeycomb, which is among nature’s most collaborative enterprises, constructed by thousands of bees that each secrete simple flakes of wax and together form them into a highly complicated and robust structure. It is the venue upon which bees exchange information, communicating their experiences inside and outside the hive, creating awareness of their own community and the external environment. Honeycomb embodies the ideas of collaboration, experience and learning that characterize the HIVES classrooms.
Just yesterday I gave a talk and facilitated a session for a caucus of nurses invested in furthering human rights and equity within their profession and externally. The focus was on how to have difficult conversations. I was able to draw upon honeybee communication to provide ideas for the group to ponder.
If there is a single element that stands out to explain why honeybees work together so well, it’s their intense communication with each other. Honeybees excel at exchanging information with and maintaining a continual awareness of the hive mates around them.
Bees listen to each other, deeply, all channels on, using every mode of communicating we know of and probably some we’re not yet aware of. Vision, odor, taste, hearing, touch, vibration, magnetism, electric fields – the input is constant and the interactions intense. And that same depth of communication is a powerful tool to overcome human rights abuses and establish a more equitable society.
Next week I’m on way to Toronto for a dinner meeting with ALUS, the Agricultural Land Use Society. ALUS is a farmer delivered program that gives Canadians the opportunity to play an active role in building a healthier environment by providing support to farmers and ranchers to enhance and maintain ecosystem services.
Bees, both honey and wild, drew me into agriculture, as managed and wild bees can’t be studied without understanding how deeply they depend on healthy agroecosystems. The decline of honeybees and wild bees has been major news for the last ten years or so, and I share the public’s concern for the future of our pollinating global co-inhabitants. As a result, I’ve become increasingly proactive in speaking out in favor of reduced pesticide use, diversified habitats and more sustainable farming as important strategies to preserve pollinators.
The last set of invitations have come through writing, especially my recent book “Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive.” I’ve given 30 or 40 readings over the last year since the book came out, and will be heading to the Winnipeg Writers Festival next week for their annual gala celebrating the Governor General’s Literary Awards.
Writing about bees has been among my greatest personal delights, and the chance to read for a public audience is still a thrill. Invisible to my audience, but visceral to me, is that I’m sharing the podium with the bees.
I rarely spend time in apiaries any more, but the bees are with me no matter what activity has come my way, infused by whatever wisdom the hive has imparted during my 40 years of bee time.
I’d love to hear from you:
I’ve had the opportunity to speak at, oh, probably a gazillion beekeeping meetings over the last 40 years, from small local gatherings to an audience of over 3000 at Apimondia 1999. I had a long absence from meetings for ten years after I began directing my university’s Centre for Dialogue, but with the release of my 2014 book “Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive” I returned to the speaking circuit.
That ten-year gap spanned a tumultuous era in beekeeping, and when I returned to lecturing I discovered that the beekeeping community today is quite different from what it was a decade ago.
A combination of decreased forage, increased pesticide use and rampant disease and pest problems now kills between 30 and 45 per cent of North American colonies annually, compared to the five or ten per cent when I left. That, of course, is a quite different world for bees, but it has also stimulated some dramatic shifts in who comes to meetings and how they keep bees since the advent of the bee apocalypse.
Attendance and makeup of audiences has changed significantly over the last ten years. A typical local meeting back then might have ten crotchety men over the age of 70, and a state or provincial meeting perhaps fifty or so of the same. Now, the audiences I speak to are in the hundreds, sometimes even for a local meeting, and there are many young people and women in the crowd.
Given the problems honeybee colonies experience today, that’s a remarkable increase in audience diversity and abundance. I attribute the increase to two factors. First, people care about bees, and have responded to the crisis by getting involved. And second, the new beekeepers also care about food, and growing local, a movement that seems to have spread into beekeeping along with hands-on gardening and urban farming.
Another observation that fascinates me is the number of beekeepers who no longer treat for Varroa. At all. This lack of chemical dependence is more prominent in the hobby and sideline crowd, but more and more commercial beekeepers with hundreds of colonies are telling me the same thing.
At first I doubted that beekeepers could actually keep their colonies alive without treatments, and they do lose colonies, occasionally large numbers. But the colony losses they report are in the 30 to 40 per cent range, no worse than beekeepers that treat heavily. Perhaps in the pre-collapse days, with low winter mortality, treatment was clearly preferable. But if you’re going to lose over one third of your colonies each year whether you treat or not, skipping treatments may make good sense, saving both labor and the costs of chemical treatments.
What’s missing in this discussion are data. We need more rigorous studies comparing treated and untreated colonies. Relying on anecdote is not a robust way to design colony management recommendations, but there seems to be enough stories out there to justify a large-scale research effort to examine the desirability of few or no treatments in today’s environment of high annual colony losses.
Another surprising impression I have from my travels is an increase in beekeepers who prefer top bar hives to the more standard Langstroth equipment. In New Mexico, for example, half of all colonies are kept in top bar hives.
Top bars would seem to have many disadvantages, particularly the need to destroy the comb to harvest honey, as the frames can’t be spun in extractors like the Langstroth frames. But what’s most interesting about top bar advocates is that they seem less focused on maximizing honey production and more focused on enjoying their bees.
And they do see some advantages in their system. Yes, colonies may have a tendency to swarm more often in top bars, but top bar beekeepers compensate by checking their hives often during swarming season, with a hands-on attitude focused more on observing and enjoying their bees than on producing copious quantities of honey.
They also rarely move their hives, which may be another advantage since moving colonies exposes bees to diseases and pests. And, top bar beekeepers focus on harvesting wax as well as honey; the high value of beeswax provides some economic counterweight to producing less honey.
I may be generalizing from too-few experiences, and perhaps beekeeping hasn’t changed as much as I’m imagining. But if it hasn’t, it should. It would be foolish to continue keeping bees the way we used to, because the old ways no longer work.
The message I take from my limited observations is this: if there is a movement, it’s one that is putting bee health first, emphasizing the enjoyment of beekeeping as much or more as maximizing colony productivity. And it’s a movement deeply rooted in an expanding food culture that favors local farming and reductions of synthetic pesticide and fertilizer use.
I believe that a radical reinvention in how we keep bees is necessary to reduce today’s tragic colony mortality. It’s been gratifying to hear as I travel that many younger people are getting involved, with new ideas, and that they are beginning to redefine what good beekeeping means.
Your comments are most welcome. I’d love to hear from you:
To my great surprise, my recent book “Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive” has won the 2015 Governor-General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction (http://ggbooks.ca/books/non-fiction/english/bee-time-lessons-from-the-hive). It’s been a huge thrill, almost on par with the day my daughter was born, or that first life-changing conversation with Lori at a sculpture artist’s show opening, a chat that has extended into a lifelong dialogue.
And it’s the gift that keeps on giving; pretty much every day since the 28 October announcement has brought some interesting invitation or idea across my cyber-desk. Opportunities to lecture or read at bookstores, invitations to do workshops, quirky thoughts on the telapathetic powers of bees, catch-up notes from long-lost friends, information about fascinating projects being done by artists to draw attention to the plight of bees (see, for example, http://www.thegoodofthehive.com) and much more has filled my inbox.
And there’s been the occasional insult. My favorite so far is that I was a “too smart by half nitwit.” Not bad, although not quite up to the professor who called me a “nincompoop” early in my career.
But I really knew I’d arrived in the literary stratosphere when an editor contacted me about doing one of those interviews that newspapers publish with authors, assuming that we’re interesting and knowledgeable. You know the ones: there’s a nice picture of the author, followed by a series of bolded questions that provide we authors with the opportunity to show off our erudition, but usually come off with us seeming to be crabby and ill-tempered.
I was a bit concerned when I received the request, because the questions can often be hard to answer. Things like “Which of your favorite authors writes the best sentences?” Or “So what are you reading now?” I dread that particular question in radio or live interviews since, although I read constantly, my mind invariably goes blank when asked about what I’m reading or to recommend a great book.
But to my surprise I enjoyed my cyber-chat with Trevor Corkum of the online outlet 49th Shelf. He had read the book, had some insightful questions, and even his query about “writers who have influenced me” wasn’t painful as I had some time to think rather than having to answer on the spot.
Hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did. You can find it at http://49thshelf.com/Blog/2015/11/06/The-Chat-Trevor-Corkum-Interviews-2015-GGs-Winner-Mark-L.-Winston
I’ve been on an extended book tour, giving lectures and reading from “Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive.” It’s been a great ride, and I’ve had the pleasure of talking to a wide range of public, beekeeping, academic and farming audiences.
Whenever I speak, the current plight of honeybees and wild bees has been part of my message. There are many interacting causes behind the decline of bees, but farming practices including heavy pesticide use and the predominance of vast single crop acreages are two of the most significant factors causing bees to circle the drain.
Pesticides have been clearly and irrefutably linked to bee declines, including the immediately toxic as well as longer-term sublethal effects of insecticides and fungicides, and the insidious impact of herbicides that remove flowering plants that are important nectar and pollen sources from fields.
Monocropping has harmed bees by creating vast deserts of one flowering source, which results in poor nutrition and limits nectar and pollen availability to an unduly short few weeks, not sufficient to maintain most wild bees that require longer time spans with floral abundance to survive and reproduce.
My proposed solutions to the negative impacts caused by farming are simple: reduce pesticide use and break up the single-crop system with multiple cropping and crop rotations that extend floral availability for bees. But supporters of conventional farming invariably bring up the “how will we feed the world” argument, suggesting that alternative agriculture is pie-in-the-sky feel good nonsense, and totally impractical to feed the 7 billion and growing human global population.
Until recently there hasn’t been any way to counter the claims of conventional agriculture, except to balance the feed-the-world argument with the benefits of diminished environmental impacts from alternative agriculture, especially organic farming. And the negative environmental impacts of conventional agriculture are concerning, including damage to soil, water and air quality, biodiversity and human health.
But finally a few studies have amalgamated research from many sources that indicate organic agriculture not only leaves a softer environmental footprint, but also stands up well in productivity and profit when compared to high-input, single crop conventional farming.
Organic agriculture has been the most intensively studied, and a 2015 publication by Lauren Ponisio from the University of California at Berkeley and colleagues analyzed 1071 organic vs. conventional yield comparisons from 115 studies. Organic farming was only slightly lower, averaging 10 – 20% less yield, although organic farms that used multi-cropping and crop rotation systems showed differences less than 10%.
What’s most important to realize about this result is that high productivity in organic farming has come almost exclusively from innovative growers, without the benefit of the vast research empires and extensive subsidy payments from government that have supported conventional growers. As the authors point out, “appropriate investment in agroecological research to improve organic management systems could greatly reduce or eliminate the yield gap for some crops or regions.”
But productivity is only one measure of farming success; when profit and income are factored in, organic agriculture has proven superior to conventional systems. Two authors from Washington State University, David Crowder and John Reganold, examined 55 crops over 5 continents, and found that organic farming was 22 – 35% more profitable for growers, due to the higher premiums received for organic food. Further, the authors pointed out that their study didn’t factor in environmental benefits and enhanced ecosystem services associated with organic farming, which further tilts the ledger in favor of organic.
But we don’t require pure organic farming to see improvements in agricultural practices; some simple changes in conventional farming that reduce but don’t eliminate pesticide and synthetic fertilizer use are worth pursuing. A study in Iowa by Adam Davis and colleagues compared the typical conventional crop rotation of maize and soybeans with a four-crop rotation of maize, soybeans, small grains and red clover. They found that yields were equal or greater in the four-crop system, with lower fertilizer and pesticide inputs as well as dramatic improvements in environmental measures such as freshwater toxicity from runoff.
They concluded the “results of our study indicate that more diverse cropping systems can use small amounts of synthetic agrichemical inputs as powerful tools with which to tune, rather than drive, agroecosystem performance, while meeting or exceeding the performance of less diverse systems.”
What might be done to drive agriculture towards organic, or at least in the direction of sustainable farming that reduces pesticide and fertilizer use and increases crop diversity? Certainly the marketplace is one force for change. If consumers demand more organic and sustainable food production, farmers will respond. In fact, they have; organic food sales currently make up about 4% of the U.S. market, and organic production is experiencing continued strong expansion of about 15% annually.
However, it is government that has the capacity to exert the strongest and most rapid levers for change, through setting agricultural policy and by directing payments away from the overly subsidized conventional growers and towards the sustainable and organic modes of food production. Their excuse for inaction in the past has been the “feed-the- world” rationale, but given these recent studies, that argument no longer holds water.
Bees would certainly benefit from enlightened farming practices, but improvements in environmental integrity and our own human health also argue strongly for government intervention in what has become an agricultural system driven too much by corporate profit rather than good farming practices.
There are elections coming up in both Canada and the United States. There is one irrefutable way to influence government to act: vote. I encourage anyone for whom bees are important, as well as those of us who care about where our food comes from and how farming integrates into ecosystem function, to make agricultural reform a key issue.
A vote for organic and sustainable options will not only save the bees, but will provide the kind of agriculture that benefits us all, growers and consumers alike.
For more information about the studies cited above, see:
Ponisio LC, M’Gonigle LK, Mace KC, Palomino J, de Valpine P, Kremen C. 2015. Diversification practices reduce organic to conventional yield gap. Proc. R. Soc. B 282:20141396 http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2014.1396
Crowder, DW and Reganold, JP 2015. Financial competitiveness of organic agriculture on a global scale. PNAS, June 16, 112: 7611–7616, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1423674112
Davis AS, Hill JD, Chase CA, Johanns AM, Liebman M (2012) Increasing Cropping System Diversity Balances Productivity, Profitability and Environmental Health. PLoS ONE 7(10): e47149. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0047149