In 2008, Michael Pollan famously wrote the words, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” in his book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. Whole Foods investors were very pleased with this. But, as it turns out, so must the bees have been. There might not be a more suitable last name for a person that advocated for a diversified food chain than a man by the last name of Pollan. As it turns out, a diversified human diet could very well be a magic panacea that could save the bees and, thus, save the human race along with them. As we have come to learn in the last few decades of losing the creatures that allow us to grow the food that we eat on an everyday basis, monocultures=bad.
A tour of the Greenacres Foundation farm in Indian Hill, Ohio allowed me to get a more interactive experience on the effect of monocultures (or lack thereof) on bees. What they do it Greenacres is a more traditional and, perhaps, quaint form of agriculture. As a farm that focuses more on education than selling food (although they do that as well), they have the unique opportunity to show people how food can be grown in a sustainable way. They do so by using techniques as old as agriculture itself, such as resting fields and growing a diverse variety of crops. Resting fields is the act of allowing a field to be overrun by native plants every few years to replenish nutrients vital to good crop yield. Growing a diverse variety of crops helps offset the possibility of losing the entire farm’s yield to pests or disease by only growing a limited quantity of crops that can be targeted by a specific pest or disease, essentially hedging their bets. In this way, a farm can reduce its use of pesticides and other chemicals that can harm bees. So, not only can a farm increase its average yield by diversifying, but they can also help bees survive and, thus, increase the crop yields of future years via natural pollination.
What’s funny about bees is the way that they have become livestock, more like dogs than wolves. What this has led to is the decreasing biodiversity of bees. What we know as a bee is typically the European honeybee (Apis mellifera). As the name implies, these bees are not native to the United States (or much of the rest of the world). They were brought to North America for their honey and for pollination. Due to their social nature and the assistance of human beings, Apis mellifera was able to outcompete native solitary bee populations, threatening their very existence. What this has resulted in is an essential monoculture of honeybees. How ironic. What we’ve discovered about monocultures being susceptible to pests in diseases holds true to honeybees as well, funnily enough. That is a problem that Justina Block, who we met at Greenacres is trying to solve with her company, Osmia Bee Company. The first word, Osmia comes from the genus name for Osmia lignaria, or the blue mason orchard bee. This native bee is solitary and does not produce honey, however it is a prolific pollinator and can pollinate as much as 100 times more than an average honeybee. By providing nesting spots to these bees, as well as a handful of other species, Osmia Bee Company’s customers help diversify the bee population in North America, producing a similar result to the crop farm part of Greenacres.