America’s bees have been in a population nosedive.
The cause has never been terribly clear: disease, malnutrition, pesticide exposure? We’re not sure. But a recent study suggests we do know one thing that helps bees to survive: rangelands.
It appears that rangelands help foster bee populations for several reasons. Certain grasses and reeds that grow on grazing land, plus cavities in the undisturbed ground and trees that inhabit grasslands, provide useful nesting areas for bees. Certain grassland plants, shrubs and trees bloom multiple times a year, giving bees ready sustenance. And grasses grazed frequently allow certain blossoming plants to survive, which would otherwise be choked out by grasses the grazing animals love to chew down.
But our by-far-most-popular grazing animal, the cow, is now primarily raised in feedlots. Rather than foster an environment that sustains bees, they’re cooped up in confined spaces and fed corn grown hundreds of miles away. A lost opportunity that’s no doubt doing little to help bee populations recover.
But why should we care?
Because bees aren’t just for honey. They’re pollinators, and even in today’s super-industrialized food economy, we still rely on animal pollinators for a third of our food by bulk. Lose bees, and we lose many of our traditional foods as well. Up to 90 percent of plant foods that contains Vitamin A and C are pollinated solely by bees.
So we’re not just talking about trivialities, or about a warm spot in our hearts for these storied but fearsome insects. We’re talking about much of our food.
Of course, the problem with our bee population appears to stem from more than simply a lack of availability of grazing lands. But the connection between grazing land and a vast portion of our agricultural production is a good one to recognize. And maintaining, or expanding, these rangelands may have benefits well beyond the grasslands themselves.