Pollination Services Keep Farms & Beekeepers Afloat, but for How Long?

Imagine you’re an apple farmer. Your orchard will suffer if your trees don’t see enough pollinator action. So, you contact a local beekeeper and rent their hives for the bloom cycle. 

Your crop gets pollinated. The bees get a feast of nectar at their doorstep. The beekeeper gets paid. 

Pollination services sound like a viable and sustainable way to bolster production. What could go wrong?

As it turns out, bees die off in alarming numbers when they’re carted from farm to farm and exposed to chemicals and stressors. The link between colony collapse disorder and pollination services has become common knowledge in beekeeping and agriculture circles. 

Pollination services result in far-reaching consequences on the purity of honey, pollinator health, and our food systems in general. 

The path forward seems simple: Stop hiring bees for pollination

If only it were that easy. 

How Pollination Services Became Standard

The challenges of halting bee pollination services are multi-layered, but they largely fall into two categories:

  • With honey fraud and consumer expectations pushing honey to rock-bottom price points, beekeepers rely on income from the rent-a-hive model. 
  • Farms growing almonds, apples, blueberries, and other fruits and vegetables rely on commercial hives—there simply aren’t enough wild bees to pollinate their crops.

Beekeepers need the income. Farmers need the service because they need the income. We all need the food the farmers produce. There’s a clear match between supply and demand.

But the supply and demand model is only sustainable when the commodity being exchanged can survive the exchange.

Why Pollination Services are Bad News For Bees

To be clear, pollination alone doesn’t harm bees. However, exposure to pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and insecticides used on farms does. 

Some widely used agricultural chemicals have been deemed “bee-friendly,” even though the scientific literature indicates they pose a serious risk to hive health.(1) As a result of exposure to these chemicals, beekeepers in the US lost 40% of their colonies between 2018-2019.(2) Those chemicals then end up contaminating the honey and honeycomb the bees produce.(3)

This isn’t to say that farmers have bad intentions. The “bee-friendly” label persists on agriculture products, and it leads to confusion for farmers. They may not realize they’re poisoning the pollinators they rely on. 

What About Organic Farming?

If agricultural chemicals harm bees, couldn’t the beekeepers only rent their hives to organic farms? Theoretically, yes. But there are a few reasons why this isn’t a silver-bullet solution.

Firstly, a very small percentage of farms use organic methods. For example, less than 1% of almond acreage in the US is organic.(4) The competition among beekeepers would quickly become fierce.

Second, bees have a forage zone of up to six miles. Drop a pin in the center of a farm on a map, tie a string to it, and draw a line out six miles. Then trace that line in a circle around the farm. That’s how much land you need to ensure is free from agricultural chemicals and other toxins that can be harmful to bees.

And let’s not forget that organic farms are certified organic by the USDA. The USDA allows farmers to use some organic pesticides that can be detrimental to the health of bees and other insects.(5)

On top of that, bees have evolved to forage on diverse landscapes. Monoculture farming, or single-crop farms like apple orchards and almond orchards don’t provide the biodiversity bees need.(6)

Like pollination services, exclusively pollinating organic farms sounds great in theory, but doesn’t work out in practice.

The Dollars & Sense of Bee Pollination Services

If you keep your finger on the pulse of the pollination services market, you might have heard that beekeepers can charge up to $200 per hive depending on the crop.(7) When farmers have significant acreage to pollinate, that can quickly rise to thousands of dollars. 

For the farmers, not pollinating can cost far more. 

Chew on this: Pollination does more than increase crop productivity. It helps the fruit or vegetable grow into an attractive, market-ready shape, improve consistency, and overall quality. Even in a world where ugly produce has a market, crop production and predictability are essential to farmers and the current food supply model.

Instability is not an option for farmers, especially those catering to a fast-growing market like almonds. 

In an interview on the Marketplace Podcast, journalist Annette McGivney elaborates on the far-reaching impact of pollination services on almond farms.(7) “The almond industry has grown so substantially that 70% of all commercialized bees are now being used to pollinate almonds,” she said.

This means most commercial beekeepers in the US work with (read: depend on) the almond industry—and the almond industry relies on them.

Can Pollination Services Ever Work?

The downsides of pollination-as-a-service are clear. The solutions are not. Research on pollinators and apiculture is notoriously inconclusive, offering few tangible guidelines for how we can live symbiotically with pollinators. 

What we know is this: 

  • The current model for pollination services is not sustainable.
  • Native pollinator populations would not sustain farms and our food supply.
  • Going into cancel culture mode on bee pollination services would be catastrophic for beekeepers across the country and our food system. 
  • To date, nobody has a good solution.

The diplomatic conclusion here would be “more research is needed.” As a honeycomb company that exists in service of bees and beekeepers, we see it as our duty to contribute to solving this big, complicated problem. 

Through our Regenerative Honeycomb Initiative, Pass the Honey aims to restore or enhance seven million acres for pollinator research and habitat restoration by 2035. Working with landowners, research partners, and apiculturists, we expect to bring research findings to the table that will help pollinators, beekeepers, and the world recover from the current issues we face related to pollinators. 

Can pollination services ever work? If so, what does that model look like? We don’t know yet, but we intend to find out. 

You can support the Regenerative Honeycomb Initiative by purchasing Pass the Honey’s snacking honey, a raw honeycomb snack produced by third-generation beekeepers using regenerative methods. 

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