The A, B, Cs of Food Production: Almonds, Bees, and Cooperation Back »

Bees & U.S. Crop Production

According to 2015 UN estimations by 2050 the U.S. will have a population of 402 million, 25% greater than today. In order to feed this population and sustain the country’s economy through commodities’ exports, agricultural output needs to increase by a similar amount by that year. These figures are projections based on current population and food production dynamics. One critical component of this equation is going to be the presence of enough pollinator activity. Pollinators are crucial to maintain global food production and a healthy ecosystem.

According to the U.S. Geological Services in 2016 North and South Dakota, supported more than 40 percent of United States commercial honeybee colonies. Pasture and grasslands, together with other popular crops such as alfalfa, sunflower, and canola are excellent pollen sources for bees.

Importance of Pollinators

The map in Figure 1 shows the importance of pollinators to agricultural crops by region. In South Dakota it ranges between 25-49 percent of the value of agricultural production. According to a 2012 Cornell study in 2010 crops pollinated by honeybees and other insects contributed $29 billion to U.S. farm income. This study analyzed the economic impact of honeybees and other pollinators for 58 crops such as almonds, apples, blueberries, cherries, oranges and squash which depend directly (to produce fruit) on pollinators, as well as those indirectly (to generate seeds) dependent on insects, such as alfalfa, sugar beets, asparagus, broccoli, carrots and onions.

Figure 1. Importance of Pollinators to U.S. Agricultural Crops: Value of Agricultural Production (2007) Courtesy: Wojcik (2016)

Sharing Resources

The top three states in honey production are North Dakota, California, and South Dakota, in that order. If bees thrive mostly in the northern Great Plains environment, why is California among the top two honey producers? The reason is simple, most commercial South Dakota honeybee colonies active in the state during the spring through early fall, are then shipped as soon as it cools-off to California (and elsewhere in the U.S.). There they provide pollination services for crops such as almonds, melons, apples and cherries. According to the USGS report these pollination services constitute an industry valued at $15 billion. Climate and soil are greatly responsible for this coastal state output per acre, however this would be impaired without the Dakota’s contribution to pollination.

Let’s just use the example of almonds. California has 800,000 acres of almond orchards that require 1.6 million honeybee colonies for pollination. As a result of the “bee colony collapse disorder” almond growers have been relying on bringing bees from other states; one of the primary states contributing colonies is South Dakota. According to “Project Apis” Chairman, Dr. Gordon Wardell, former extension apiculturist for the State of Maryland, nearly 60 percent of the colonies that are used in California during the winter come from South Dakota.

Figure 2. Crops pollinated by bees in the United States.
Courtesy: Dakotafire Media

In Summary

In summary, South Dakota grasslands are an indirect contributor to global food security. Sustainability of this ecosystem will greatly contribute to U.S. food production while at the same time increase honey production.

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