Make every bite count

The connection between bees and food

by Gabrielle Message*

Every piece of food we eat can either embody gratitude towards bees for their efforts, or it can add another metaphorical weight to their backs, according to how it was produced. Decidedly the best way to give thanks to bees is by sourcing or growing food that uses a biological method.

This sums up the life-changing understanding I have gained in learning about the connections between bees, plants and soil with For The Love of Bees – a city bee collaboration.

A single bee colony needs a phenomenal number of flowers to remain healthy and produce a decent amount of honey for harvest – best guess is close to a billion flowers each year per colony. To keep up with the massive swell of hives around the country, the quantity and quality of flowers, as well as the environments in which these flowers grow require our urgent attention. In just the past five years, the beekeeping sector has grown from 260,000 hives across the country to over 800,000 hives. Surely, we must ensure that such a rapid rise in colonies is accompanied by a corresponding rise in diverse and safe food sources.

Bee food abundance and diversity is proven to be higher in organic fields where many crops are grown in reasonable proximity to each other. Such farms also provide healthy plants that don’t need to be sprayed with products that are dangerous to bees, ensuring they exist as safe havens of nectar and pollen sources for bees to forage from. Organic and biological practices also provide a holistic and regenerative framework for tending to biology in the soil. These beneficial microbes, including mycorrhizal fungi, help make nutrients bioavailable to plants and stimulate a plant’s immune responses, which increases their resilience. Their mutual relationship with the plant forms what is known as the biological engine, which quietly works away, powering the cycle of nutrients.

Bare with me while I explain how soil health and microbiology are critical to our bee populations survival.

Everyday plants photosynthesize and produce sugar, half of which they flush through their roots in the afternoon to feed the microbial communities hanging out around their root ball. These microbes then feast on this sugar, and the material passes through many microbial bodies – from bacteria to fungi, protozoa to nematodes, and eventually through the body of a worm. As it does, the by-product of their waste is turned into complex micronutrients which are all readily bioavailable to the plant to re-absorb.

Access to these complex micronutrients (i.e. minerals), as facilitated by the microbes, is critical to the plant being able to defend itself from pests. This is because they determine the quality of the sugar the plant is able to produce during the day. A plant with access to these bioavailable minerals will produce high quality sugar and be nutrient dense. Those without access to minerals will only be able to produce low quality sugar, which means they can be considered nutrient deficient.

Now here’s something that blew my mind: all these plants emit an ultraviolet light that the insect world can see. Nutrient deficient plants that are weak will emit a light that pulsates and nutrient dense plants will emit a light that is constantly on. These are signals to insects who are flying around looking for flashing plants because they know they have a sugar content low enough for them to consume. For example, when a caterpillar hatches on a cabbage with high sugar content and tries to consume it, the sugar in the leaf matter means it will ferment in its stomach and kill it.

This is the rub. Nutrient dense vegetables are not vulnerable to attack by pests because their sugar content is too high for them to consume. Nature is self-regulating in this way. To grow plants that do not flash, you must cultivate microbes that will make minerals from compost bioavailable to plants, and who will turn the free sugar excreted by the plants each afternoon into more complex micronutrients. Treating your microbial middlemen well is the key to a robust agricultural and horticultural system. It is also key to ensuring you don’t need to protect your plants with products that are indiscriminate killers of bees and other pollinators.

As a society, we seem to have forgotten how to recognise and work with the incredible dance that happens between these life forms. We have not quite realised just how vital it is to cultivate. Over billions of years, the natural world has developed an incredibly efficient system, and it appears we need only listen and support it. Right now, the place to start listening is at Griffiths Gardens, where For The Love of Bees is providing free weekly lessons every Thursday, amongst other workshops and biological adventures. There, myself and many other Auckland city-goers, are beginning to delight in the capabilities of the biological engine, as we experience what is possible when soil health is put into the forefront of our minds. After zooming into the tiniest details of nature, to bring the whole amazing system into focus, attendees are inspired into imagining what a completely biological city would look like. They can wonder and invent what part they may like to play in creating that reality. For me, I decided to design my university coursework around this ecological phenomena to explore it further for myself.

What I am learning is, if you treat soil well, it will treat both you and the bees well, as the whole ecosystem can flourish. Biological farming does this by returning organic matter to the soil, by using polyculture, microbial inoculations, and cover cropping, and by using no till or idle land practice, so to retain crucial communicatory fungal networks. In doing so, it supports the key regulating mechanisms of ecosystems, which sustain soil fertility and regulate pest populations.

A functional ecosystem maintains a balance between species that live together. Organic and biological farming keep pest problems at bay by cultivating a complex and resilient living ecosystem. By factoring in the whole biological ecosystem into decision-making, a balanced food web can develop, where pathogenic species are less likely to appear. This means growers are not implored to reach for pesticides, insecticides and fungicides, which pose a great threat to bee populations, microbes and other pollinators.

Researchers at Otago University recently discovered that bee’s experience severe learning and memory deficits after consuming very minute doses of chlorpyrifos. This is a pesticide that is widely sprayed on New Zealand fruit and vegetables, and has a wide-reaching spray drift, as traces have been found far from where it has been applied.

Of the many systemic pesticides used, the most dangerous is the neonicotinoid-class insecticides, which have been heavily protested around the world. The damage caused by neonicotinoids is harmful to pollinators, plants, microbial life and the soil they come in contact with. Once disseminated, these chemicals have as much as a 20-year life span in our soil away from UV light and inevitably leach into our waterways, affecting aquatic life.

Clover seed for example, which is sown on thousands of acres of pastures across New Zealand every year as part of the dairy industry, is regularly treated in systemic pesticides. These coatings on the seeds are designed to kill insects, preventing them from eating weak seedlings which are grown in environments devoid of microbes. Biological treatments of seeds instead coat the seeds in microbes so that the seedlings start their life cycle in direct contract with the microbiology that gives them the greatest chance of being pest resistant.

Systemic pesticides placed onto seeds as protection move into the tissue, nectar and pollen of the plant, and even pass on into the next generation of seeds produced by the plant. Contact can kill or disorientate bees, preventing them from finding their way back to the hive, and it can also slowly accumulate in the hive as they transport residues home. As the coatings wash off into the soil they begin to harm the microbial communities where the plant is growing, exacerbating the original problem of having weak soils that can only grow weak vulnerable plants.

It takes the biology 30 years to repair itself after conventional horticultural practices have been used. The aim of adding microbes and the foods they need to the soil is to speed this repair process up so it happens in under three – which is why biological and biodynamic systems are referred to as regenerative. Biological systems have proven results and its facilitators, who help growers make this transition, tell inspiring stories of growers increasing profit margins in year one and two. For example, a grower who completed the NTS Certificate in Sustainable Agriculture Course initiated a microbial soil therapy programme and a personal prescription blend for mineral balancing. She later reported 47% yield increase, a $70,000 saving in chemicals, and a Grade 1 packout of 96% (a regional record). This means very few of her items were graded as seconds. Building her microbial workforce gave her what she described as a newfound freedom from fear during stress periods (rain for example), and her staff were noticeably happier, in not having to use chemicals. Most important of all she found that working with nature fired her up – and she fell in love with farming again.

There are many ways to begin working with biology. Permaculture, biodynamic, biological and biointensive systems all have the microbial and insect world at the centre of their concern. There are experts up and down the country willing to help people and growers make the transition. Lead artist and vision holder of For the Love of Bees, Sarah Smuts-Kennedy, is a great advocate of them all. Her personal blend of gardening combines what she considers to be the best of them all and this is what she practices at her own demonstration teaching garden 45 minutes north of Auckland called Maunga Kereru, and it is what she is committed to sharing at Griffith Gardens in the centre of the city.

Over the past four months that I have been collaborating with For the Love of Bees I have come to more deeply realise that the food we choose to buy has incredibly powerful ramifications. To bring food into your body that was grown in such a way that did zero harm brings a special kind of peace. I love that there is a way to eat that shows your gratitude towards nature, and to honour it. In seeing this, it has inspired me to expand our home garden and begin growing my own biological food. For The Love of Bees has ignited an insatiable appetite in me to understand how the natural world works so that I can work within its natural rhythms and not against them.

*written in collaboration with Sarah Smuts-Kennedy, Dirk Peterson and Daniel Shuurman from Biologix

There is a role for everyone in this building biological movement – come collaborate and help us make the transition together! Make every bite count.
Check out their website www.fortheloveofbees.co.nz and Facebook for upcoming events and Instagram for daily inspiration @fortheloveofbeesnz