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“Ahhh! It’s a Bee!” Whether spoken out of shock and awe or respect and admiration, everyone seems to have a passionate response to the humble little honey bee. Those with an allergy to the sting of the insect will never be able to rest easy when they see one.
Those with an interest in preserving the economy, eating well or continuing to survive on Planet Earth don’t have much choice about the proper way to respond. At the risk of being overly dramatic, the honey bee is in dire need of assistance from the human race and the fact that we are in a symbiotic relationship with the organism only increases the sense of urgency.
Consider that about a third of the food we eat receives an either direct or indirect benefit from honey bee pollination.¹ What that means is that, if the number of honey bees continues to decline at the rate it has been over the past 10 years, then about 30 percent of every crop produced on this planet would have to be pollinated by some other method—an uncertain prospect that would almost certainly prove to be more expensive.
This is supposing that an alternate, effective means of pollination exists, which is unfortunately not the case. The reality is that honey bees are facing a crisis, there is no viable solution, and natural pollination could eventually become a thing of the past.
At this point, the global economic value of the crops that depend on natural pollination is more than $582 billion, nothing to sneeze at! Even a small reduction in productivity off a number so large could mean thousands of jobs and millions of dollars lost over the long term. It is particularly alarming to note that many estimates indicate that nearly 75 percent of all of our crops would experience a sharp decline in productivity without insect pollination.²
The potential impact of shaving away nearly 75 percent of the value from $382 billion in crops would appear to be catastrophic. However, that number is an estimate for the value of the crops and not the natural process of pollination. Understanding that the process of pollination could likely be impossible to duplicate, there simply is not a way to accurately gauge what the absence of it would mean for our society and future generations. No number is big enough.
Ironically enough, the group of pollinators that appear to be suffering the most are managed honey bees. Though heavily dependent on managed bee colonies for natural pollination, industrial agriculture accounts for many of the factors contributing to the plight of the honey bee. This is due to the expansion of monocultures resulting from industrial agriculture, the widespread use of herbicides and pesticides, and destructive practices that reduce the ability of bees to nest.
Just Bee, River Bluffs and Progressive Farms – A Winning Combination
Luckily, three of Wilmington’s finest local businesses are working to help the bee and ensure that natural pollination is preserved for future generations. Amy Allen Cromartie, licensed beekeeper and founder of Just Bee, together with Burrows Smith, managing partner of the River Bluffs community, and Evan Folds of Progressive Farms, have joined forces to provide managed bee hives with a nontoxic environment that is rich in biodiversity.
By placing four managed honey bee hives on site at the organic farm owned by River Bluffs, Cromartie is taking a critical step forward in the mission to help the bees. Cromartie had been maintaining the hives and harvesting their honey for several years. “All of this started out for me when I took a beekeeping class at N.C. State, then it grew into a backyard hobby. We wanted to be able to give honey away to our friends and family to help them deal with their allergies,” says Cromartie, “but we love the taste of it, and the process of doing it got me interested in how to solve the bee problem.”
Recognizing a potential niche for her business, and a viable means of helping managed bee hives recover, Cromartie founded Just Bee in 2015. The company provides individuals and businesses with the design and placement of honey bee hives, as well as ongoing maintenance and bee removal services.
The organic farm is a research, demonstration, and testing facility for an innovative line of compost teas being made by Progressive Farms, LLC, which is owned by Folds. As a Community Supported Agriculture program, the goal at the farm is to grow clean, vibrant food that is free of any toxins and genetic modification practices. Compost tea, which is liquid concentrated compost, is known for eliminating or reducing the need for harmful pesticides and fertilizers.
Bill Warren, who works in a dual capacity as farm manager of River Bluffs Farm, LLC, and operations manager at Progressive Farms, notes that the compost tea has been essential to the farm’s success: “Having a testing facility such as this allows us to immediately see the results of our efforts, as well as engineer different types of compost teas to match different types of plants. Since using compost tea allows you to cut irrigation costs by up to 25 percent, and get 10 - 15 percent more out of any fertilizer you use, this is a very exciting time.”
The bee hives and the farm are located on 10 acres of land that is owned by River Bluffs, one of the Wilmington area’s most innovative, forward-thinking developments. Set alongside the banks of the Cape Fear River approximately 10 minutes outside of Wilmington, River Bluffs will feature an array of homes with classic southern architecture. When completed, this brand new gated community will include a marina with 141 boat slips, a river walk and an amenity center complete with a pool, tennis courts, a fitness center, children’s playground, general store, post office and cafe.
One aspect of River Bluffs that sets it apart is its focus on environmental sustainability and low impact construction processes. All of the homes are built with the latest advancements in energy efficient materials and practices, with a minimal use of paved roads, driveways and retention ponds. Recognizing the importance of Wilmington’s natural beauty, River Bluffs has made every possible effort to preserve mature trees, natural vegetation and green spaces.
As a facet of its commitment to the environment and sustainability, the development set up a certified Organic Farm on the property. “Having the bee hives placed here was sort of a no brainer,” explains Burrows Smith, “since they will make a substantial, positive impact on our ability to grow many different types of organically-produced fruits and vegetables. The fact that Amy does all the maintenance with the bees only adds to the appeal.”
With their partnership, and River Bluffs on their side, Folds and Cromartie are hoping to assist in providing a feasible solution for the multifaceted dilemma facing the bees. Each believes that, aside from the fact that helping the bees seems to be the right thing to do, preserving natural pollination and protecting honey bees will result in a stronger economy and a wider variety of healthy foods to eat, as well as a more robust, complex ecosystem.
Organic Farming Benefits Everyone
It’s not just the tree huggers. Ecological farming systems that foster biodiversity as well as avoid the use of chemicals and pesticides can provide a substantial benefit to pollinator communities, both managed and wild.² This is partially because ecological farming systems offer a safe haven where bees can thrive and reproduce, but it is also because increasing habitat diversity can provide additional flower resources for pollinators.
Even for those with more of an interest in a healthy bottom line than stopping to smell the roses, the plight of the bee should not be ignored. After all, who could underestimate the economic value of flowers after shopping for a dozen roses on Valentine’s Day?
As if on cue, each April the azalea bushes around town seem to awake from their slumber and burst forth in a showy flair, firmly announcing the arrival of spring. Perhaps the azaleas have a shared recognition that the economic impact of the Azalea Festival is a major factor affecting Wilmington’s economy. Local and visitor spending at the festival topped $48 million, according to a 2011 study conducted by the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
This is not even taking into account the aesthetic value of flowers, which is impossible to measure. The unfortunate reality is that most wild flowers would disappear without bees or some other form of pollination.
Of course, there will always be people out there who would prefer to sit down and eat a bowl of ice cream or a New York Strip than a plate of fruits and vegetables. It may seem counterintuitive, but the problems impacting the honey bee should be a cause of alarm for this group as well. The reason is that many of the crops used as feedstuff in the production of meat and dairy products would experience a sharp decline if insect pollinators were to disappear.
There are only 2.5 million professionally managed bee hives in the United States today, compared to 5 million in the 1940s. Between 2006 and 2011, the annual losses affecting managed honey bee colonies averaged around 33 percent.¹
In spite of the dire situation plaguing the bees, Cromartie remains optimistic: “There are a variety of problems facing the bees, but I have a lot of faith in the people of Wilmington to recognize that there is a need and come together to help form a practical, effective solution. After all, there is a bee hive on the seal of our city. This increases my confidence and makes me hopeful that the rest of the nation will see our example and be inspired by it.”
The strength of Cromartie’s point is reinforced by the fact that Wilmington was named the 10th city in the nation to earn the Bee City USA designation. The Bee City USA program endorses a set of commitments for creating sustainable habitats for pollinators that are vital to feeding the planet. Once a city, town or community lives up to these commitments, they can apply to become certified as an affiliate of Bee City USA.
The placing of managed bee hives at River Bluffs Farms is a great first step, but solving the dilemma facing honey bees will require tenacity, creativity and a strong outpouring of community support. To get involved with the Community Supported Agriculture project or learn more about compost tea, visit www.FarmProgressive.com.
To have a managed bee hive placed at your home or place of business, contact Amy Cromartie at 910-470-1196, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about the River Bluffs community, email email@example.com, call 910-623-5015, or visit www.RiverBluffsLiving.com.
¹ United States Department of Agriculture website. Honey Bee Health and Colony Collapse Disorder. http://www.ars.usda.gov/News/docs.htm?docid=15572#public.
²Greenpeace Research Laboratories Technical Report. Bees in Decline: A review of factors that put pollinators and agriculture in Europe at risk. http://sos-bees.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/BeesInDecline.pdf.