Bees Essential for Biodiesel

Pollinators are vital to agriculture yet are often taken for granted. The number of pollinators has been steadily declining, a dismal prospect that could have unexpected consequences for oilseed crop production and bioenergy as a whole.
By Anduin Kirkbride McElroy | November 13, 2008
High vegetable oil prices over the past year have reportedly driven most biodiesel producers to using yellow grease, animal tallow or palm oil as feedstocks, but vegetable oil remains an important and often preferred feedstock. The viability of oilseed crops is as important to the biodiesel industry as is the viability of an end-user market, which is why it's in the industry's interest to start paying closer attention to the health of pollinators.

As bees, moths, butterflies, beetles, bats and birds move about feeding on nectar and pollen, they are ensuring the reproduction of almost 90 percent of all flowering plants, according to the Pollinator Partnership, a nonprofit advocacy group based in California. Pollinators help start the food chain; they are part of the food supply and they pollinate food for the wildlife higher up in the food chain. Without their actions, 75 percent of the plants humans consume as food, fiber, spice or medicine could not reproduce.

Pollinators' monetary value to agriculture is estimated at $20 billion annually in the United States, according to the Pollinator Partnership. For many specialty crops such as almonds growers must rent one or two hives of honeybees per acre during the blooming season. In fact, half of the U.S. honeybee population is imported to California's Central Valley just to pollinate almonds.

Some commodity crops are wind-pollinated, like corn and soybeans, but most other oilseeds are dependent on pollinators. More than half of the world's diet of fats and oils comes from oilseed crops, many of which are pollinated by animals, including cotton, palm oil, canola (rapeseed) and sunflowers. Though pollinators are not required for soybeans to produce, they are required for hybrid seed production.

Oilseed crop fields make good summer cafeterias for honeybees. Beekeepers will often set up hives in a nearby shelterbelt or unplowed plot to feed their bees. It's no coincidence that North Dakota leads the nation in honey production and, according to North Dakota State University entomologist Janet Knodel, produces 92 percent of the canola in the United States.

Bees can dramatically increase yield. In an experiment Knodel conducted last year, she found that the presence of honeybees and other pollinators increased yield by 1.8 to 3.6 bushels per acre over the control crop's yield. Of course, honeybees are not the only pollinators. The Pollinator Partnership estimates that 30 percent of pollination needs are met by native pollinators. The Xerces Society, an invertebrate conservation group, reports that in the absence of rented honey bees, canola growers in Alberta, Canada, make more money from their fields if 30 percent of the land is left in natural habitat, rather than planting it all. "This natural habitat supports populations of native bees close to fields and increases bee visits and seed set in adjacent crops," reads a Xerces Society publication. It continues, "Wild native bees improve the pollination efficiency of honeybees in hybrid sunflower seed crops by causing the honeybees to move between male and female rows more often. The only fields that had 100 percent seed set were those with both abundant native bees and honeybees."

Of course, oilseed crops are good for the bees, too. "Canola is a great pollen and nectar plant for bees," says University of Minnesota entomologist Marla Spivak. "It is quite attractive to bees; the more canola the better. But bees also need a variety of pollen sources to obtain all of their amino acid requirements. In addition to canola, bees need clover, alfalfa and other legumes. Bees do not need [Conservation Reserve Program] land replaced by corn or switchgrass for biofuel. Corn pollen is only fiber for bees; it has very low protein content and is not good for them. Grasses are also wind pollinated, like corn, and bees do not collect pollen from grasses."

Pollinators in Danger
Unfortunately, the number of pollinators-including both native and honeybees-is steadily declining in the United States and around the world. According to the Pollinator Partnership, the United States has lost more than 50 percent of its managed honeybee colonies during the past 10 years. The phenomenon of honeybee die off, called Colony Collapse Disorder, came into mainstream consciousness last year. In a survey this year, the American Apiary Association found that the die off was greater this year than last year, according to Tom Van Arsdall, director of public affairs for the Pollinator Partnership. "It's steadily increased over the past four years," he says. "The overall loss rate is about 35 percent. In most of society, we don't have everything in one basket. In pollination, the real workhorse is the honeybee. If pollination services go down, then we don't have good backup."

The news gets worse. The backup that does exist-native bees-is also facing decline, and there's even less known about those causes, says Knodel, who is part of the newly formed Native Pollinators in Agriculture Project. "There's a lot of research with honeybees, but we're also seeing a decline with native bees," she says. "That's what we're focusing on with this project."

Van Arsdall agrees that native bees get taken for granted. "Native bees are providing a lot of free pollinator services," he says. "I know a cucumber producer who said he has to rent twice as many hives now as he used to because native bees aren't there any more."

The issue is quickly getting the attention of specialty crop producers. "The cost for pollination services has risen faster than the price of energy in the past three years," Van Arsdall says. "A couple of years ago, it cost $35 to rent one hive; next year they are predicting it to cost over $200 per hive. It used to be that a crop producer who needed honeybees would say it's a beekeeper problem. They're not saying that anymore. They have a lot at stake in it. They want to know how much it will cost, and if they can get them. If they don't get bees, they get no crop. If you shut off pollination services, it's like shutting off the rain."

The cause of CCD is still a mystery. A number of factors have been hypothesized, including pesticides, stress, monoculture, parasites and others, but no solid answer has been found yet. The Pollinator Partnership says there are multiple threats to honeybees, including mites, misuse of pesticides and degradation and depletion of habitat. "Our farm and ranch lands that support pollinators are disappearing at the alarming rate of 3,000 acres a day," states a publication by the Pollinator Partnership. "As landscapes are converted from wild to managed lands, many pollinators' habitats may be destroyed or fragmented. Habitats that remain are often in isolated patches, degraded by invasive plant species or other biological or man-made influences. These changes can lead to the loss of wildflowers used by pollinators for foraging, nesting and/or egg-laying."

Spivak, the University of Minnesota entomologist, agrees. "The major threats to pollinators are land use-there are not enough flowers out there for them to feed on, and we have destroyed many of the native bees' nesting sites with our agricultural practices and urban sprawl-and often the pollinators, visit is contaminated with insecticides," she says.
Habitat is an issue where the interests of bioenergy and pollinators may not align. High crop prices and increased demand-both credited in part to biofuels-are inspiring many farmers to let their CRP contracts expire. Many biofuel advocates have lobbied for CRP acres to be released for crop production, while wildlife groups have been active in opposing such legislation. In the end, the Farm Bill did lower the cap on the total number of acres allowed in the CRP program from 39.2 million acres to 32 million acres, but it did not remove the penalty for early withdrawal.

Van Arsdall argues that decreased CRP acreage doesn't have to be a bad outcome for pollinators, as wildlife habitat and crops don't have to be mutually exclusive. "Farmers are farming a lot smarter," he says. "It doesn't have to be crop production or conservation. It's in the interest of the producer and other stakeholders to be both. If we're interested in developing and increasing feedstocks, can we work together to see what we can do so we're not zeroing out habitat at the same time?"

Bioenergy crops don't have to be a threat to pollinators. Biodiesel industry groups can either fight conservation efforts or be a stakeholder group to work towards common ground. In fact, the biodiesel industry and its feedstock suppliers can be part of a movement to support, improve and expand pollinator habitat. "I believe it's in the renewable energy industry's interest to take a hard look at dialoguing with the pollinators and wildlife habitat community in general," Van Arsdall says.

Because most biodiesel feedstocks depend on pollinators, biodiesel advocates may have more incentive than other renewable energy groups to work with conservation groups to find solutions. While researchers are trying to figure out why bees are dying, Van Arsdall says there are actions that can be taken now. "Habitat is one of the critical components, and we do have the science for that," he says. Initial actions are funding and enforcing conservation measures included in the Farm Bill, which were passed with overwhelming support. "Once you get the Farm Bill enacted, then the work begins," Van Arsdall says. "What's next is not just funding and implementing Farm Bill conservation programs, but trying to insert conservation into whatever is happening on the landscape." To encourage habitat improvements, the Pollinator Partnership has several resources on its Web site, including zip code accessible "Ecoregional Planting Guides for Pollinators" at www.pollinator.org.


Anduin Kirkbride McElroy is a Biodiesel Magazine freelance writer. Reach her at anduin.mcelroy@und.nodak.edu.
 
 
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