A Beeline Away From Farms

Organic farming may help bees survive

04-01-2003 // Mark Cheater

THE LATEST BUZZ on commercial farming practices is not good. A new study shows that large, habitat-busting, pesticide-dousing farms in California’s Central Valley have far fewer native bees than organic farms with native vegetation nearby.

There are some 4,000 native bee species in the United States, including the familiar bumblebee. These creatures play a crucial but largely unheralded role in pollinating both commercial crops worth billions of dollars per year and wild plants. "This is a valuable service that we may actually be destroying through our own land management practices," says Claire Kremen, a scientist at Princeton University who led the study.

Most farmers now depend on colonies of European honeybees rented from commercial beekeepers to pollinate their fruit and vegetable crops. But these introduced honeybees have been devastated in recent years by parasites and diseases, making it more difficult and expensive for farmers to pollinate their crops. Kremen and her colleagues learned that organic farms near natural habitats typically don’t need to rent honeybees because native bees flourish in these areas.

Kremen’s study, says Stanford University ecologist Gretchen Daily, "shows how risky many current farming practices are and how conservation investments in habitat for pollinators could help insure farmers and society against economic losses."

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