The USDA attributes the pollination of 15 billion worth of crops in the U.S. annually to honeybees. This insect alone contributes between 1.2 and 5.4 billion dollars in agricultural productivity by pollinating 80 percent of all flowering plants, including more than 130 fruits, nuts, and vegetables. 

By Christine MacIntyre 

I’ve not always been fond of bees, especially during the summer when more than a fair share finds its way into my house. Standing at my kitchen sink, I stare outside at the flowers and wonder why the bees wouldn’t rather be out there. I’m convinced they want to terrorize me. But, as I get older and more health conscientious, I’m learning to appreciate the honeybee more than ever. Admittedly, I am a former bee swatter and squasher. Now, though, I’m finding peace with them, and I believe we are indebted to them for their services.

I met Justin Fairchild, the Kilted Farmer’s owner, and founder, while researching potential articles for the local newspaper where I frequently contribute. I needed to find someone with grit, someone who was doing something big. I landed on his website and was immediately intrigued. “Local suppliers, local goods, all delivered,” it read. Given the scarcity of foods and reduced chain store hours during Covid, I needed to know what the Kilted Farmer would deliver to me. My initial interview with Fairchild gave me a snapshot of his mission to support local businesses and suppliers. He let me tour his homestead, including his cottage kitchen where culinary magic happens, his barnyard, and, of course, his beehives.

Soon after that, I placed my first order for delivery. Hand-churned butter, homemade roasted pepper noodles, baked bread, farm-fresh eggs, and a jar of local organic honey. Fairchild arrived at my home donning an authentic kilt and a warm smile as he passed off my goods. I was so excited about my purchase that I used it all within just 24 hours.

That initial interaction between the Kilted Farmer and me sparked a friendship. I knew I’d stumbled across something extra special and that it was more than just the mouthwatering food. No, Fairchild gifted me something greater – knowledge. This is a man who wears a kilt  in honor of community. “To me the kilt stands for people coming together under common cause. Anyone can wear a kilt and become a kilted farmer. Just to stand for something more than themselves. To stand for each other,” Fairchild says.

The Kilted Farmer was born out of his desire to treat all people equally. He linked arms with others struggling, including local bakers, artists, artisans, and family farmers, and provided consumers a convenient route from farm to table. He believes in keeping honey within the community, simultaneously growing the community’s prosperity and wellness. His work as an apiarist shed light on the honeybee, a creature I’d previously ignored or killed. My new perspective, thanks to Fairchild, led me to explore the honeybee more in-depth and the species’ contributions to our world.

While studies, research, and evaluations occur in universities and laboratories at state and national levels, the local beekeeper has much to offer. Fairchild, who also founded the Community Apiary Project Hive Adoption, is making strides in his community that will assist in the balance of ecosystems and food systems while raising awareness and educating his community about honeybee importance. He’s dedicated his life to environmental awareness and preservation and insists on justice for the honeybee. “They help provide [a high percentage] of our food supply, and we take away 60 to 80 percent of theirs,” he says. Indeed, it doesn’t seem logical. “We’re just wiping out species that are here to help us.”

In my home state of Michigan, pollinators account for up to half of the state’s agriculture. Without honey bees, Michiganders won’t exist. I wouldn’t live. The balance of ecosystems and food systems is crucial. Under the urban farming ordinance, Fairchild introduced an initiative in his community to allow local people to own their apiaries on their properties. He says his goal is county-wide sanctuaries and conservatories – “My goal is to have areas every three to five miles to make sure there is maximum pollination because a hive covers about a three-to-five-mile radius.”

Given the time and attention honeybees require, not everyone can have an apiary. The Adopt-A-Hive program allows people to “come out to the apiaries, visit their bees, learn about beekeeping, take classes on pollinators, extract their own honey, and each adopter will get half their year’s honey supply from their hive,” says Fairchild. His program aims to create a bee-friendly environment by educating people on pollinator-friendly habits. He says he hopes his plan creates a buzz on a national scale. “There is a struggle throughout the U.S.”

The push to facilitate change within the city legislature expands beyond Fairchild. Michigan State University’s entomology program is a leader in the field; their extension has worked with cities and towns to change policies to allow residents to keep hives in yards. In addition, the Michigan Pollination Initiative, the American Beekeeping Federation, and other national initiatives provide ample resources, education, programs, publications, and support relating to beekeeping. These resources inform the public on how to get involved, make impactful and sustainable change, and engage in the conversation effectively.

Apiaries provide careful management of the indispensable species so American agriculture can flourish. Honeybees contribute nearly $20 billion to the value of U.S. crop production, yet, these hardworking pollinators aren’t native to the U.S. While there are thousands of different species of native pollinators, crops’ yield and quality would suffer without the pollination of managed honeybees. Beyond deliciously satisfying honey, bees are integral to the health of American agriculture, particularly in the Midwest.

In addition to bees, varieties of pollinators include more than 200,000 species of insects, including butterflies, moths, bees, flies, beetles, wasps, and ants, and more than a thousand vertebrates, such as birds, bats, and small mammals. The Pollinator Partnership is a nonprofit organization promoting the health of pollinators through conservation, education, and research. Their initiatives include the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign, National Pollinator Week, and the Ecoregional Planting Guides. Their work protecting pollinators and their habitats across North America continues a complex conversation from diverse populations. As a result, governments, corporations, universities, and others realize that the honeybee and other pollinators are critical to food and ecosystems.

According to Pollinator Partnership, honeybees provide one of every three bites of food we eat. While 1/3 of the food in the U.S. is contingent on honeybee pollination, all food is affected either directly by pollinating the fruits and vegetables we eat or indirectly by pollinating the food for the animals we consume. In addition to their contribution to the food on American’s plates, pollinators also sustain ecosystems and produce natural resources by helping plants reproduce – plants that yield fruits and vegetables, oils, fibers, and raw materials, clean the air, stabilize soils, protect from severe weather, and support other wildlife. The problem extends beyond the world of honeybees; instead, it encompasses all pollinator species.

However, the USDA attributes the pollination of 15 billion worth of crops in the U.S. annually to honeybees. This insect alone contributes between 1.2 and 5.4 billion dollars in agricultural productivity by pollinating 80 percent of all flowering plants, including more than 130 fruits, nuts, and vegetables. In addition, these social and hardworking insects produce six hive products, including honey, pollen, royal jelly, beeswax, propolis, and venom – each of which humans collect and use for nutritional and medicinal purposes. The Food and Drug Administration names beeswax as the most well-known and economically important hive product, second to honey. Economically, beeswax contributes to candle making, artists’ materials, leather and wood polishes, and cosmetics. In addition, “The pharmaceutical industry uses the substance as a binding agent, time-release mechanism, and drug carrier,” according to the FDA’s website.

Crop pollination is the most critical agricultural service honeybees provide. The FDA estimates this benefit to be between ten and twenty times the total value of honey and beeswax. Moreover, the honeybee isn’t native to the Western Hemisphere, but neither are most of the crops known in the U.S. According to the FDA, “both the crops and the bees evolved together in other areas of the globe and were brought here by European settlers.” Today, more than ninety commercially produced crops rely on bee pollination. In addition to crops such as apples, strawberries, and cotton, honeybees pollinate alfalfa seeds, an ingredient in beef and dairy feed. Berries, avocados, almonds, and onions are just a few more of the long list of pollinator-reliant crops. However, as it did me, it might surprise you that honeybees don’t pollinate corn, tomatoes, green beans, and green peppers.

According to the USDA, honeybee colonies have decreased from 5 million in the 1940s to 2.5 million today. Despite efforts to slow the worrying pace of die-offs, university and research laboratory findings of the Bee Informed Partnership indicate that the decline of honeybee colonies accelerated over the last decade. Dr. Moneen Jones, Director of the Midwest Master Beekeeper Program, says, “These losses cannot continue for the sustainability of our beekeeping industry in addition to tree and row crops that depend on pollination by bees for their successful yields.”

Sustainable and ethical practices focusing on disease management, reduction of pesticide exposure, and promotion of the health of all pollinators are the primary components of apiculture. Apiaries that make a positive difference advocate for ample foliage growth, especially the native plants, and flowers providing the most considerable amount of nectar and pollen for pollinators. In addition, apiarists – commercial, sideliners, and backyard hobbyists- can contribute to the economy through proper beekeeping practices and management and by utilizing quality beekeeping practices that align with the goal of continuation of crop pollination as the preservation of pollinators in general.

Apiaries exist to mitigate the risks known to the honeybee, receiving guidance from initiatives such as the National Pollinator Health Task Force and the Managed Pollinator Protection Plan. Since much of the decline in pollinators results from the misuse of chemicals, disease, climate change, and poor nutrition due to the loss of forage lands, collaboration among these partnerships is essential to ensure the efficacy and effectiveness of apiarists’ efforts.

If an individual intends to save honeybees, there are more effective ways to do so than to set up backyard hives. The amateur beekeeper who merely wants honey or thinks they are saving the honeybee is not doing the species a service. According to Meghan Milbrath, Department of Entomology at Michigan State University, “In terms of sustainability, in the best-case scenario, keeping honeybees has no impact on the environment; in the worst case scenario, having honeybees can actually be negative because there can be food competition and disease transmission.”

“The curious individual puts a hive in their backyard without extensive knowledge of beekeeping and honeybees; the bees don’t receive sufficient care, so the colony ends up dying. A lot of people come into [the hobby] with good intentions but can have a negative effect.” However, knowledgeable apiarists have the potential to help sustain crop pollination. Milbrath posits that apiary benefits are contingent on knowledge and education in the high standards of ethical beekeeping practices. “Honeybees require a steep learning curve – most people who go out and get a hive to end up with really high rates of death in their bees, losing them within the first couple of years. They require a lot more care and money than people think.”

Since honeybees are vegetarians, they derive their carbohydrates and protein from nectar and pollen. These are essential for energy, hive growth, and development. The availability of nectar- and pollen-bearing blossoms implicates the size of a honeybee colony – between 10,000 to 100,000 bees. Without proper foliage, bees don’t have access to adequate nutrition, which means American dinner plates also suffer.

“Grow, don’t mow” is a motto that inspires landowners to permit and promote diverse native foliage growth. Green, perfectly manicured grass lawns are the stereotypical standard for American lawns; however, that grass is next to useless in providing nutrients to the soil. It may be aesthetically pleasing to some, but it fails to give the diverse nutrition required for pollinators. “When you have grass lawns on a state-wide or nation-wide scale, the effects on the honeybee, on pollinators, are detrimental,’ says Greg Cronk, owner of the Michigan-based Jackson County Beekeeping & Pollinator Planting Club.

Commercial beekeepers, generally those with more than 500 hives, are migratory, moving all around the country depending on the season. For example, in February, beekeepers from around the country migrate their colonies to California, where there are more than 800,000 acres of almonds in the Central Valley that are honeybee dependent. “About two million colonies go out to California for almond pollination,” says Milbrath. Then, many apiarists, especially in the Midwest, migrate their hives south to Texas, Georgia, or Florida to build up their colonies again after almond bloom, then bring them up north for blueberries, cherries, cranberries, and apples. During the summer, apiarists move their colonies to their yards to make honey or use them for pumpkins and vine crops such as pickles. Then, in the fall, they move south again.

The responsibilities of apiarists are multiple, as there are stringent rules and regulations that apiarists must follow, including gaining the proper licensing and permits to move hives across state lines. In addition, the U.S. promulgates codes specific to honey bees, which regulate the importation of honey bees and honey bee semen into and throughout the country, which allows the limitation and prevention of diseases and parasites and the introduction of genetically undesirable germplasm and undesirable species or subspecies of honeybees. Violations of these codes include consequences such as fines and imprisonment.

In addition, individual states provide legislation regarding honeybees. For example, many states, such as Kentucky, have established a beekeeping fund administered by their respective agriculture departments to help improve, promote, protect, and support the beekeeping industry. Similarly, Illinois employs a Bees and Apiaries program to assist beekeepers with managing and safeguarding colonies. “Under the Illinois Bees and Apiaries Act, the Illinois Department of Agriculture inspects honeybee colonies as a service to the beekeeping industry,” according to the IDOA website. Such inspections throughout each state determine the general health of honeybee colonies. Some states charge a fee for this service, while others are free.

Apiarists commit to prioritizing honeybees over other pollinators. This duty of care requires apiarists to control swarming impulses, as swarming results in losing up to half of the colony, ensuring colonies have prolific young queens, and ensuring they are disease-free. The craft differs from the typical hobby one can pick up only on weekends or in a limited amount of spare time. The dedication and often strenuous work required is continuous. Additionally, responsible apiarists invest in proper housing and equipment for honeybee management. While small numbers of colonies may be kept in rural and suburban areas, the only places deemed appropriate are those with accessible and plentiful forage.

From the local beekeeper to the sizeable commercial outfit, apiarists assist in agricultural production. Since managed honey bee colonies are the primary pollinators in the U.S. for crop pollination, the USDA posits that the responsibility falls on all humans. Confronting the diverse challenges presented to the bee community requires a mix of solutions. Former Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue declared June 19-25 as “National Pollinator Week” to help call attention to the unique culture of honeybees.

Apiaries are most beneficial when they aim to reconcile wild pollinator conservation with responsible and sustainable beekeeping practices. The priority is placed on restoring native habitats in support of all bees, both managed and wild, and pollinators, in general, optimize outcomes by providing nutrition for honeybees and preserving native wildlife, forage, and pollinators. Apiculture does not directly nurture wildlife conservation; instead, the collaborative efforts of enthusiasts, experts, educators, and lawmakers make the distinction. However, apiaries are integral to agriculture and the economy. In addition, they are a necessary component of human life, given the honeybees’ inability to survive as feral species on a non-native continent.

In support of the honeybee, I now welcome them into my life. My yard bears more flowering plants, and I’ve stopped spraying mists of bee killer around my house. After all, they aren’t nearly as harmful to me as humans are to them. Finally, I can’t imagine going a lifetime without my favorite foods or believing that I’m contributing to the demise of such a prolific creature.

Christine MacIntyre is a Michigan-based freelance writer and photographer. When she isn’t pounding the pavement in search of overlooked and untold stories, you can find her kayaking, camping, or reading. She also loves attending her two kids’ many sporting events and band/choir concerts.