Happy cows—the images of which have been popularized by clever marketing—depend on their ability to wander free in the pasture. Ethically produced burgers, steaks and cheeses are available only if these cows graze on alfalfa grass. And the alfalfa can't sprout without the help of honeybees.
"Our life would be much less rich [without bees]," says Debbie Roos, Chatham County agent with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension. "Bees are responsible for pollinating every third bite of food we eat. Even beef and dairy are indirectly related to bee pollinations, because cows depend on alfalfa."
In North Carolina, honeybees are vital to the agricultural economy. It is the state's official insect. Brought to our region by European settlers in the 1600s, they thrive on crops such as cucumbers, apples, blueberries and melons, which account for $100 million in annual revenue for the state.
Last week, Chatham County Marketplace celebrated National Pollinator Week. Roos has planted a pollinator garden on a small patch of grass in front of the cooperative grocery in Pittsboro. Pollinator associations worldwide celebrated by hosting garden events and announcing "Save the Bees" on email blasts.
Roos offers tours of the garden, made possible by an anonymous donor who wanted to see a thriving bee habitat for the region. With the help of Chatham County beekeepers and garden volunteers, purple coneflower and sneezeweed mix with tall herbs and low-lying brush. "[Bees] have to have a habitat for reproduction, nesting, egg-laying," Roos said. "So when they're not pollinating your blueberries, they need other things to forage on to reproduce. You never want a period when something's not blooming."
Beekeeping is becoming more popular, even among hobbyists. While farmers intermingle hives among their crops, people are raising them on urban rooftops or in back yards. These small hives are critically important as researchers continue to search for the cause of annual honeybee die-offs due to colony collapse disorder (CCD).
Mites, fungi, viruses and pesticides are thought to contribute to CCD, but scientists have not pinpointed a cause. "They leave the hive every day and they're out of your control," Roos says. "They go out up to three miles a day and forage. They can go off and get pesticides, or they may come over to my yard. That's why it's important that everybody do their part because it's a real community effort."
According to USDA surveys of 5,543 beekeepers nationwide, winter losses from managed honeybee colonies in 2011–2012 totaled 22 percent, less than in previous years. In 2010–2011, the reported losses were 30 percent, similar to survey results since 2006.
Agriculture officials speculate the warm winter—the fourth-warmest since temperature data has been collected—may have contributed to the hives' survival because they are less stressed.
Roos says cut-flower crops help attract pollinators, as do basil, lettuce and arugula. Cover crops that are allowed to bolt—growing quickly from a leaf stage to flowers or seeds—are equally important, she says. "We've had farmers come through our beekeeping school and, while this is just anecdotal, they'll say, 'Our yield has just doubled since I've been keeping bees.' They didn't even know they had a yield problem."
Aside from CCD, which became a problem in North Carolina in the early 2000s, other factors affect the health of bees. The first lesson is to keep the queen happy. "It's a niche industry within a niche industry, where there are beekeepers that are selling queens to other beekeepers," says extension apiculturist David Tarpy. "Queens are the sole source of genetics within the colony, so it's a very powerful tool to address bee resistance and other factors."
Tarpy leads a genetics project at N.C. State that has succeeded in starting a small community of micro-breeders among 400 newly trained beekeepers throughout the state.
"Genetics are a very powerful tool at a beekeeper's exposure. By giving farmers and beekeepers those tools, it really goes a long way in sustaining the health of the honeybee population," Tarpy said.
Connie Jones, a gardener and part-time beekeeper in Chatham County, compares beekeeping to livestock management. "It's a very hands-on practice," she says of keeping her hives. "These are animals, with personalities of their own. The bee inspectors have been tremendous in helping me one-on-one with what's going on in my hive, and with putting on classes to help us understand bee nutrition, which is really crucial. This is, for better or worse, still a mono-cropping state. Big farms are mono-crop farms, and they're killing our bees. They need diverse crops just like you and I do."
Jones says that fewer young people are keeping bees, and resources such as those in Chatham County "provide that expertise that we used to get from the old man down the road. As that wisdom is exponentially going away, and as new pests and chemicals have been introduced, a lot of old techniques don't work anymore.
"Bees are crucial," she says. "If we continue to lose bees, you and I are going to starve to death. It's as simple as that. This is the weak link in our food chain."
This article appeared in print with the headline "A taste of honey."