Sarah’s (aka the Bee Girl) fascination with bees started at a young age, thanks to a beekeeper keeping hives on her aunt’s small farm; little did she know it would turn into a deep affinity for bees and bee health. Her childhood fascination for bees has turned into a nonprofit organization dedicated to altering our perspective and interactions with bees while addressing big picture issues. Her deep passion for bees grew after starting college at the University of Montana and volunteering with the honey bee program. Two mentors greatly influenced her and showed her that her love for bees could turn into so much more, that there is this deep and fascinating complexity to the life and the relationships that exist within it. But it didn’t stop there. Sarah began to see the complexities and impact on honey bee health caused by outside influences.
Then came Bee Girl, a non-profit with a mission dedicated to inspire and empower communities to conserve bees and their habitat. Over the last five years Sarah has seen a transition in the public perception of bees. When Sarah started the Bee Girl organization, conversations were filled with the threat of bees. People’s perceptions were that bees are nasty little insects solely out to sting them. But this has changed and people and communities are starting to embrace the amazing creatures that they really are. People are starting to open their eyes to the importance of bees for our environment and food system, but also the magic inherit to them. It is so important that the perception around honey bees is changing because it is part of a larger systematic shift that needs to happen. As Sarah put it, “there is a need for a paradigm shift in the way we eat food.”
What most consumers might not know is that there is a great amount of effort that goes into pollinating our food system. Beekeepers truck their bees from crop to crop throughout the country. Sarah describes it as, “this constant migration of nomadic beekeepers, they are providing the pollination service that ultimately ends up being one out of every three bites on our plate.” Often times commercial beekeepers are portrayed as not caring about their bees, as just another part of the flawed industrial system. Sarah rather sees them as the unsung heroes. Just like any other farmer, they care deeply about these little creatures and work extremely hard to make sure that our food is pollinated and their bees are healthy. But this paradigm shift can’t just stop with the food that we eat but must expand to agricultural practices as a whole. Sarah sees divestment from ethanol as essential to sustaining our pollinators and our food system. Much of our natural prairies have been transitioned to cornfields for the sole purpose of growing corn for ethanol. This represents millions of acres of habitat loss not only for bees and other pollinators but also amphibians, songbirds, and other wildlife. This also has an impact on bee health of which one might not naturally think.
The Midwestern states are home to 5 of the 10 top honey-producing states. Beekeepers bring their bees to this region for a sort of vacation after a long pollinating season, allowing them to refresh in the natural prairies and wild lands filled with wildflowers. The loss of these lands devastatingly impacts honey bees’ ability to remain healthy and to successfully pollinate our food. It is a reminder that bees are not all that different from us, after a season of hard work, they need rest. Protecting pollinator health goes beyond planting flowers and requires that we look at the big picture and systems, and then readdress those systems. It is essential that we protect and conserve the land not just for bees but for so many species. Part of this is putting an end to destructive practices such as clearing land for ethanol, something that is input intensive and takes away resources from food crops. This crop could be replaced with grass-fed beef, oil seed crops, or other high-value commodities that are beneficial to the farmer, bees, human health, and the surrounding eco and economic ecosystems. The more we all learn about the importance of bees and their relationship to our environment, the greater understanding we have of the key ecosystem services that they provide, and the importance of protecting them and their native habitats.
Interested in pollinator health but not ready to start your own hive? In Sarah’s own words, here are three ways to help protect bees: Beekeeping is not easy; you can’t just throw a hive in your backyard. Beekeeping is hard and really complicated, but also amazing and rewarding. Being a beekeeper means taking care of a whole herd of tiny of animals. You can’t just leave them there to fend for themselves. They need love, water, food, and medicine when they are sick. If you are interested in starting a hive make sure to find a community of beekeepers who can mentor you through the process. How you can help the bees:
- Plant flowers: That is something that everyone can do and it is fun and positive and a way to feed bees and connect to your front porch, your backyard, or your school or community. You can plant flowers on any scale; it can be a handful of seeds in a pot outside your window or acres upon acres you plant on a golf course or ranch.
- Educate Yourself: I encourage people to think beyond organic. If you see the organic symbol on a package at the store it might be managed in a way that’s good for bees but it might not. There are still pesticides that are used in organic agriculture. Just because it is organic doesn’t mean it is pesticide-free. I think one of the most important things you can do is vote with your fork, but make it an educated vote. Choose your food that has been grown sustainably. Shake the hand that feeds you. Go to the farmers market and ask farmers what they do for bee health. Sometimes just opening that conversation can inspire them to be a little bit more bee-friendly. Also, understanding how to value our food, I don’t know how we got on the track that food needed to be cheap. There is just this weird across-the-board social norm in this country that food has to be cheap. Food shouldn’t be cheap. There are people behind that food, people who are working really hard to make the most delicious and nutritious food possible. There are so many people behind those bites of food that you are eating; expecting to pay 99 cents for a hamburger is ludicrous. We need to start valuing our food better.
- Support pasture-raised anything and everything: The more pasture-raised poultry, pork, and beef that we have out there the less corn feed that is needed leading to divestment from corn and habitat destruction. It also leads to more green space out there. Green space is good because you can usually interplant it with flowers that are great for bees, and nutricous for other livestock, as well. Green space is also good because it sequesters carbon which is important because climate change hurts bees.