Although honeybees are extremely adaptive insects, conventional honeybee colonies are such modified versions of their original state, that bee adaptation cannot move quickly enough. The compounding stressors of introduced chemicals, transport of hives, non-honey feedstock, and increased and more diverse pests and diseases, are proving to be too much. Pass the Honey has the opportunity to support the development of a supply system for comb honey and liquid honey that will reduce the instances of these stressors and create long lasting improvements to the vitality of honeybees, beekeepers, farmers and consumers.
Developing a supply system of producers who practice ecological and health-focused beekeeping will support the health and vitality of honeybees as well as beekeeping and agricultural practices that improve the natural environment while also increasing the economic viability of beekeepers and other farmers.
Honeybee health and honeycomb quality are closely tied to the land management practices of the landscape in which they forage. While there are many considerations to be made about land management practices, we’ve outlines a few key practices that serve as either limitations or opportunities below:
Land Uses in Forage Zone:
Honeybees can travel up to 13km to forage, which means that if the landscape selection is less than optimal, the area needed for consideration is 130,000 acres. If the landscape is ideal, honeybees can be limited to 8,000 acres of foraging land. This land should be free of major urban or suburban development, industry, and conventional agriculture. Honeybees can support the productivity and health of nearby organic farms, providing a positive externality to organic farmers.
Chemical-free Forage Zone:
The clearest land management practice that cannot occur in the forage area is the use of apitoxic chemicals. Honeycomb quality is directly tied to the constitution of the land where the bees forage. The honeycomb will consist of any substance that the honeybee returns from foraging. If pesticides, herbicides, or chemical fertilizers have been used on foraging land, then there is a strong likelihood that those chemicals will hyperaccumulate in the honeycomb. Even if the apiary adheres to chemical free practices, if the surrounding land management does not adhere to chemical free practices, the honey product will likely contain contaminants.
Biodiversity is a critical landscape characteristic but also a management aim. Managing for functional biodiversity means understanding the unique characteristics of each site and the potential variety of habitat niches for plant, animal, and pollinator species to incorporate this into management of the landscape. This may include practices like managing for a mosaic of successional stages, establishing locally appropriate and/or rare or endangered plant species, and managing the occurrence of locally opportunistic or invasive species.
No Conventional Beekeeping:
Locations where conventional beekeeping is occurring within the forage radius are likely to introduce maladapted genetics into the regenerative honey colonies and increase the likelihood of common pests that threaten bee colonies like the varroa mite, american foulbrood, and wax moth will be present.
Today, because of conventional agricultural production practices, Pass the Honey is targeting landscapes and landowning partners who are distanced from land used for agricultural production. However, our hope is that we begin to see a world where honeycomb production can be integrated with regenerative agriculture production to benefit keystone cropping systems such as chestnut, apple, citrus, cherry, blueberry, grape, almond, currant, persimmon, stone fruit, cranberry, or pomegranate to name a few.
To live in a world where agricultural production is not harmful to pollinators will take time, collaboration, and considerable effort. Pass the Honey is taking a step towards that future by collaborating with the Regenerative Apiculture Working Group to create a heuristic and iterative approach that incorporates the thinking of numerous experts and stakeholders. There are currently no existing standards for regenerative honeycomb production and we are running short on time to address critical issues like massive biodiversity loss and adapting our agricultural and food systems to new climate realities. This unprecedented effort is audacious but undeniably necessary.
Regenerative practices contribute to the genetic resilience of managed honeybee species through the support of regional breeding programs, increase landscape biodiversity with an emphasis on honeybee forage availability, and plantings for native pollinators specifically (early season flowering native shrubs and trees; pollen, nectar, and nesting resources from early spring until late fall) even if it doesn’t directly benefit honeybees.
Landowners and beekeepers need spaces outside of commercial transactions to discuss opportunities to increase benefits to each of their goals. Specifically targeting landowners using regenerative agriculture and/or land management practices should be a high priority with a later focus on connecting more experienced land managers with those interested in transitioning.
These relationships will enable greater opportunities for landowners to identify time certain management activities around the needs and timing of bee and beekeeper visits while ensuring the bees have adequate forage and chemical-free landscapes to meet their nutritional needs throughout the year. The broad goals for these networks would be to improve current conditions for pollinators in agricultural landscapes, to transform agricultural landscapes through the implementation of regenerative land management strategies, and to transform society’s relationship with nature.
We need passionate and knowledgeable beekeepers and conservationists to work together to co-create beekeeping and land management practices that benefit all pollinators. We know from the example of indigenous human settlements around the world that lived and produced food in collaboration with their native landscapes for millenia, this can be done. (find citation) The assumption that humans, our agricultural systems, and natural ecologies can have mutually beneficial relationships may feel distant and unrealistic, but it is imperative that we work in that direction.