Why Beekeepers Are ‘The Forgotten Farmer’, And What You Can Do to Help Them This Earth Month

What do you think of when you hear the word “farmer”? Dairies, poultry operations, or harvested crops may come to mind. You may not think about beekeepers, but perhaps you should.

Pollinators, primarily bees, are essential to the production of about a third of our world’s food crops. That includes a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, almonds, and even coffee. This pollination is largely made possible by beekeepers, whose colonies are transported from farm to farm as their services are needed.

This makes beekeepers “the forgotten farmer”, says Andrew Wagner, east coast manager from Mann Lake Bee and Ag Supply, the largest global supply house for honey bees. Mann Lake has partnered with GreaterGood and Greater Good Charities to provide food to honey bees following disasters.

PHOTO: GREATER GOOD CHARITIES

Wagner says, “We don’t talk about [beekeepers] enough. We don’t talk about these people that are trucking around tens of thousands of insects that sting us, in the hope that you will have the blueberries on the table that you have for breakfast every morning, the steak that you marinate, but that cow fed on something that the bees had to pollinate.”

These pollination routes can be substantial and often require commercial beekeepers to spend long stretches away from their families, or they require those families to spend large chunks of their time together on the road. This is necessary, though, to ensure the production of so much of the food we eat. Just as an example, Wagner says 80% of the annual consumption of almonds in the U.S. is due to honey bee pollination, and this calls for more than 2 million colonies to descend upon California each year.

Those who carry out this essential work are faced with substantial bee loss, however. With parasites like the varroa mite, pesticides, lack of forage, and climate change, there are ongoing threats to honey bee survival. It’s normal for beekeepers to lose 30-40% of their colonies every year. In fact, we’re coming off of the second-deadliest season on record for honey bees, with 48% of managed U.S. colonies lost in 2022-2023.

PHOTO: GREATER GOOD CHARITIES

Wagner says, “If you think about how critical honey bees are to our food chain, if cattle farmers were losing 30% of their cows every year, it’d be all over the news… There would be a complete focus of research and efforts to fix that… Honey bees have not until recently gotten into their echelon.”


HELP SAVE THE BEE


He believes that may be because when people think about the food bees produce, honey is the main thing that comes to mind. While the average honey consumption has risen substantially in the past 30 years, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, the average American still consumes fewer than two pounds per year.

On the flip side, the USDA notes that pollinators are responsible for the production of 35% of the foods that we eat. That includes more than 130 types of fruits and vegetables – like apples, berries, melons, squash, pumpkins, and cucumbers – and even the beverages you order at your local coffee shop. This means that bees are putting a lot more on your table than just a bit of honey each year. However, that may not always register with people, at least not to the extent that people associate cattle, poultry, and fish producers with the food on our tables.

Wagner explains, “Most of those we eat directly. We don’t eat bees, right? Like, we eat cattle, right? We drink milk. We eat eggs. When you think about ‘What do we eat that the bee directly makes similar to those?’, that would be honey, and honey is not high on the spectrum. The problem is that we as a country and as a general public, we view them primarily as a bug that gives us honey, right? And really, it’s a bug that’s feeding our world.”

PHOTO: GREATER GOOD CHARITIES

This significance to our food production, along with the annual losses of bees each year, means that any extra stress on them has big implications. That’s one of the reasons we’ve teamed up with Mann Lake when beekeepers need help following a natural disaster. We work together to ensure the surviving bees have the food they need to keep going… to keep going so that, they in turn, can ensure we also have the food we need.

With your support, we’ve jumped to action in this way during events like Hurricane Ian and flooding in California. While keepers may have lost many of their colonies due to impacts from these sorts of storms, emergency feed allows them to keep their remaining bees going, which can ultimately help them build back the number that they’ve lost. Federal government aid can take time to arrive, so an early response can start them on the road to recovery, particularly when bees may not be the first thing that comes to mind after a disaster.

Wagner says, “There is something to be said in a time of crisis, especially in agriculture, that Greater Good Charities turned their focus to beekeepers. It’s just that the beekeepers really don’t get that first look and the attention brought on to them in a positive way… It allows for not only the bees to kind of recover and rebound, but also those beekeepers, as well, to get their bearings under them from us working with them.”

BEE FEED CONTAINER. PHOTO: GREATER GOOD CHARITIES

He explains that often, the beekeepers may have issues with their own homes and may take a few days to access their land to see what’s survived. When they’ve already got personal issues like that to address, getting help with their work can provide extra relief. This can be hard to come by, too, with specific feed requirements needed for bees, which is worsened if a storm wipes out natural food. Many businesses are closed in the aftermath of a disaster, as well.

A substantial number of the nation’s commercial bee colonies are in Florida, so aid in such situations was especially important during the catastrophic impacts of September 2022’s Hurricane Ian.


HELP SAVE THE BEE


Wagner says, “It can’t be understated that was critical. I mean, I know beekeepers today, two years later, who are still in business and they credit a lot of the work and the relief work that had been given to them in the months of late September and October – and to some of the work that Greater Good Charities has done for them – to be in the position they are: Two years later, still with their business and still with their bees.”

It may not even be natural disasters that lead to a lack of supplies. The war in Ukraine has wiped out resources and natural foliage for many Ukrainian beekeepers, who we’ve also been able to help by sending over emergency feed.

WAREHOUSE OF BEE FEED CONTAINERS. PHOTO: GREATER GOOD CHARITIES

While disastrous events, human-made and natural, tend to bring out the need for aid, Wagner says it’s important to shift our mindset to always remember the importance of honey bees.

He explains, “The idea is really that the public has got to understand the list of foods that bees are responsible for, and it’s more than having them in times of disaster. It’s really about being conscious of what it is that they do for us…

“[Greater Good Charities’ focus of] People, pets, planet: Bees fall in all three. They really do. They are people’s pets, and they help feed what a lot of us consider to be not just pets but extensions of our families, right, whether it be our cats or dogs. They make the planet and they affect people. They’re feeding us, so they fit in all three categories, and that’s why it’s really important. And it’s amazing the work that Greater Good Charities is doing to highlight really the importance of the honey bee and how it relates to us, mankind.”

If you’d like to join up with us in our fight to help the honey bee, click below!

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