The Problem: Monoculture Farming
How does industrial monoculture farming impact bees?
Monoculture is the practise of farming a single variety of product in a paddock at a time. On an industrial scale, large allotments of land are required to be cleared for farming and the intensive practises used on the land result in soil degradation among other environmental stressors. These simplified landscapes reduce local and regional biodiversity, which is impacting our bees.
How does this process impact bees?
Let’s start at the beginning, the land cover before monoculture farming. Floral resources are abundant and diverse, meaning if one species encounters pest or disease, bees can rely on the other surrounding resources to provide nutrients. The diversity of plants also means access to both pollen and nectar. Bees use pollen as a protein and fat source in their diet, whereas nectar is their carbohydrate source and what they store as honey to eat in the winter months and feed their young. This is true for both native and European honeybees who both require diverse diets to stay happy and healthy. Native bees may require specific native food sources available in undisturbed natural landscapes. Bees also use these undisturbed lands as their home. Wild European honeybees will often scout out tree and log hollows to build their hive and native bees, who are generally solitary, will use the soil or small holes in woody vines as their nest.
Then, incomes intensive agriculture. The land is cleared of vegetation and topographical features to make the most out of the land surface area. Instantly, bees living in that area lose their homes, diverse sources of food, and in cases where large regions are converted, their corridors and networks to other surrounding areas and neighboring colonies (this final process is known as habitat fragmentation).
As the process continues, food sources may become available to pollinators such as with almond or avocado orchids. This is a good thing, right? Unfortunately, the lack of diversity in food sources means they probably aren’t accessing diverse nutrients. For example, almond trees provide a lot of pollen but very low levels of nectar, meaning commercial hives that pollinate almond crops usually require sugar syrup supplementation. These commercial hives are needed in monoculture pollination because the area has been saturated past its natural capacity to use local pollinators to effectively pollinate the crop.
The next certainty with monoculture industrial farming is the use of chemical insecticides, herbicides and fertilisers to counteract the lack of diversity and strain on the soil’s resources. These chemical controls, such as neonicotinoids and glysophate have the capacity to weaken and kill bees. To avoid spraying season, commercial colonies are often transported between different areas to pollinate the overload of crops. Native bees and local honeybees are left to endure the chemical killers. During this transportation, bees are weakened, making them more susceptible to disease. When multiple colonies come together from different areas they mix, with a potential to spread disease that was once contained to a single location to across the country.
Is there a viable alternative?
The good thing is, alternatives exist that can sustain food systems whilst also upholding bee wellbeing. Permaculture is the practice of designing farms using ecosystem principals, where crop diversity and species interconnection help protect the farm from pest and disease. Permaculture farming involves multiple crop varieties planted in a field at the same time, providing honeybees a diverse range of food sources again. Many permaculturalists include native species and non-crop vegetation cover to improve the resilience of the farm whilst providing a food and habitat source for native bees. The ecosystem principal means that chemical fertilisers, insecticides and pesticides can be avoided, meaning bees can stay in their homes year-round. This often means the nutritional value of the food is also improved for human consumption, meaning happy healthy consumers. These small-scale farms allow for the local production of food, reducing food miles and supporting local families.
What can you do to support bee friendly agricultural practices?
Shop local, seasonal and organic. Get to know the people behind your food and what practices your money goes to support. Farm gates and farmers’ markets are an excellent way to source these products and can provide a fun morning activity with the family or friends. Alternatively, grow your own organic food in your backyard!
Educate your friends. Talking to people about the consequences of their food choices can be difficult, but one conversation at a time you can slowly shed some light. Have them visit this website or watch one of the suggested documentaries on the plight of bees. If you need an even more gradual approach with your loved ones, we recommend watching the movie The Biggest Little Farm. It’s a heart-warming story filled with ups and downs which shows just how beautiful our world could be if we embrace local diverse farming. Honestly, we recommend watching it either way because it’s just that good!
Goulson, D., Nicholls, E., Botias, C. & Rotheray, E.L., 2015, ‘Bee declines driven by combined stress from parasites, pesticides and lack of flowers’, Science, Vol. 347, Iss. 6229, pp. unknown. Available here
Adhikari, S., Burkle, L., O’Neill, K., Weaver, D., Delphia, C. & Mendalled, F., 2019, ‘Dryland Organic Farming Partially Offsets Negative Effects of Highly Simplified Agricultural Landscapes on Forbs, Bees, and Bee–Flower Networks’, Environmental Entomology, Vol. 48, no. 4, pp. 826-835. Available here
St. Clair, A., Zhang, G., Dolezal, A., O’Neal, M. & Toth, A., 2020, ‘Diversified Farming in a Monoculture Landscape: Effects on Honey Bee Health and Wild Bee Communities’, Pollinator Ecology and Management, Vol. 49, Iss. 3, pp.753–764. Available here