Bees play a critical role in our food supply chain, and there's much we can do to help them survive. Bees play a critical role in our food supply chain, and there's much we can do to help them survive. Bees play a critical role in our food supply chain, and there's much we can do to help them survive. (Photo: Pongnathee Kluaythong / Shutterstock)

What do avocados and almonds have to do with bees?

Our resident chef explores colony collapse disorder and what we can all do to help the problem.

When you think of what bees produce, you probably think of honey. But bees also indirectly produce one-third of the common fruits and vegetables we eat, via pollination.

Take avocados, for example. Wouldn’t a world without avocados seem like a strange place? Think of all the luscious guacamole and salads that silky-textured avocados make. Avocado trees depend 100% on bee pollination to produce fruit.

The problem is, bees are getting scarce. Imagine a day when you look for almonds in every grocery store and supermarket, and there aren’t any. Or cherries, or celery or coffee. A world without coffee – hard to imagine.

The list of bee-dependent foods goes on, topping 100 common species that we eat and often take for granted. Could it be that these foods will be endangered species?

Because of honeybee deaths, we could be headed in that direction.

The major cause of massive bee deaths, known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), is a tiny mite. Like fleas, the mites attach themselves to bees. They suck bees’ vital fluids, infecting them with deadly viruses at the same time. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, beekeepers have lost about $2 billion in dead beehives since 2006.

There are other factors for CCD. “With construction going up in formerly deserted lots and fields, there aren’t enough flowering plants to feed all the bees anymore," Israeli beekeeper Tzvi Noy explains.

Citrus orchards and eucalyptus trees are also falling victim to urbanization, so bees are losing even more foraging grounds. Pesticides that drift with the wind also kill bees. Noy says that with all these factors combined, he lost 20-25% of his hives this past year.

Professor Sharoni Shafir, the director of the Bee Research Center at Hebrew University, told me to think about almonds. "Eighty percent of the world's almonds are grown in California. There are huge areas of almond orchards there. All those trees must be honeybee-pollinated. When they bloom in early spring, most American bee colonies are shipped to California for pollinating. Almond farmers used to pay about $40 per rented hive. With bees so scarce, they’re now paying $150.” This might make the price of almonds skyrocket out of most people’s reach.

So what can you do to help the bees? "Plant flowers wherever there's dirt. The bees need them," advises Bill Lewis, president of the California Beekeepers Association.

And support organic agriculture. “By demanding organic produce, consumers are helping the bees,” says Shafir. You’ll also see masses of rosemary bushes, another bee-friendly plant, along highways and in public gardens. Bees like the flowers of culinary herbs like sage, lavender, mint, thyme and basil – even garlic and onions. Ever had onion honey? I have.

Plant plenty of the same variety where possible, rather than a few different kinds of herbs, because bees prefer to wander and settle down and wander again over large areas.

Like us, bees need to drink. “People spray puddles and other natural water sources against mosquitoes and flies,” says Noy. “Bees drink from those places and die. You should be glad when you see bees drinking from a dripping outdoor faucet or garden hose. You’re helping them survive.”

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