The buzz about coffee and bees

Traditional techniques in sustainable farming can play a role in protecting pollinators from overwhelming declines

Having grown up in Hawai’i, I take pride in the fact that we are home to world-famous Kona coffee. Our own rich volcanic soil and trademark tropical weather are arguably the best things to have happened to the mighty coffee bean. 

But there’s another equally important ingredient to this magical elixir—bees. With visits from these helpful pollinators, coffee yields can increase by more than 50 percent. Coffee, like many other crops grown in the U.S., from avocado to cucumbers to alfalfa (used to feed livestock), owes a lot to the perennially hardworking bee.

That said, despite their major role and the bountiful array of bee-pollinated foods in our grocery stores, bees are dying at unsustainable rates. Habitat loss, climate change, disease and pesticides are threatening this important species.

Last year, U.S. beekeepers reported losing nearly 44 percent of their honey bee colonies, an alarming reduction when compared to historical drops of only 10 to 15 percent. What’s more, the summer loss rate in 2019 alone was the highest ever reported in this survey. Honey bee colonies reached their peak of 5.9 million colonies in 1947 and have since declined, reaching a low of 2.3 million colonies in 2008. Each of these colonies represents tens of thousands of bees. 

These numbers only capture part of the devastating picture. Native bees and butterflies that play critical roles as pollinators necessary for plant growth and seed production have also suffered from compounded threats to their survival. Since the spotlight often shines on their more famous honey bee cousins, wild bees are at greater risk of slipping out of view and spiraling into extinction without anyone really knowing. Once common in the Midwest, the native rusty-patched bumble bee has withdrawn from nearly 90 percent of its historic range and now holds endangered status.

A rusty patched bumble bee on a wild bergamot blossom. Photo by USFWS.

A key reason for this startling falloff: Pesticides are hitting bees hard.

Ironically, while our food supplies depend on bees, America’s farming practices have contributed to the loss of these essential insects. Simply put, agriculture in the U.S. has grown increasingly reliant on pesticides. Cultivating a single crop in an area, known as monoculture, has become a persistent norm, and this form of farming relies on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. With these chemical innovations, farmers have been able to immediately replenish nutrients in the soil, control weeds and eliminate bugs munching away at their crops. The effects of easy solutions to pests, however, begot its own problems.

The development of crops with genetically modified resistance to certain pesticides caused usage to soar. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, became the most widely used agriculture chemical in 2001 because genetically modified crops were created that were impervious to the toxin. One of the unintended consequences of this boom was that the pesticide, which has been found to alter bee gut bacteria, weakened bees’ ability to fend off disease. Additional evidence suggests that glyphosate may also negatively impact their navigation skills and foraging behavior. 

Adding to the problem, once weeds became resistant to glyphosate as a result of the chemical’s overuse, crops were re-engineered to be resistant to other pesticides. Dicamba was one of these pesticides, and it was applied broadly to resistant crops—with alarming results. Crops in adjacent fields and surrounding pollinator food sources died after dicamba was carried by the wind from its original application site. Beekeepers near fields where dicamba was applied reported that their hives were struggling to produce a fraction of what they previously yielded. The reason was dicamba had wiped out the bees’ food source.

Tragically, another class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, commonly known as neonics, are even more damaging to bees. This particular pesticide’s usage has surged in recent years. In fact, more than 50 percent of soybeans and 90 percent of corn planted in the U.S. are coated in neonics. The pesticide is absorbed by the plant, and becomes a part of the pollination cycle, showing up in both pollen and nectar. Even at sublethal levels of exposure to neonics, bees experience debilitating effects, ranging from compromised ability to communicate to decreased mobility. This leaves them vulnerable to attacks from other threats.

Over 90 percent of corn planted in the U.S. were from seeds treated with neonicotinoids.

While popular farming practices today rely heavily on these pesticides, sustainable agriculture methods hold the promise to change this. Time-tested methods like longer, diversified crop rotations are resurfacing as an alternative to monocropping. 

These rotation methods alternate three, four or more crops, some of which act as “helpers” to reinvigorate the soil and cut down the buildup of weeds and pests. In a long-running experiment, researchers have been able to achieve a near 90 percent reduction in herbicides from these longer rotations. 

I’ll dig into these sustainable farming solutions in future blog posts, as well as the policy changes needed to help farmers embrace simple-in-concept solutions such as diversifying their crops. For now, know that for the sake of healthy ecosystems and our coffee, Environment America is working to rethink food production techniques so that we can save bees, which are the world’s best pollinators.