By Jeanne Janson, NFU Intern

The answer to rapidly declining pollinator populations and the climate crisis may lie in an unexpected place: climate-friendly cow pastures.

As climate change, disease, predators, and other factors decimate hives around the country, beekeepers are looking to pastureland managed with regenerative agricultural practices for a more sustainable future for their bees. The idea is straight forward: if farmers and ranchers seed grazing land with a mix of plants that are nutritious for livestock and pollinators, they can provide food to both at the same time.

To be sure, commercial beekeepers tend to work with specialty crop producers, not cattle ranchers. But both bees and livestock need open spaces and a mix of plants to thrive, and there is growing evidence that the same forage can provide a nutritious diet for each.

“As I toured pastures and visited ranches I noticed that there was a definitive lack of floral diversity for bees,” said Sarah Red-Laird, beekeeper and president of Northwest Farmers Union. Sarah is the founder of the Bee Girl organization, which is working on developing an inexpensive flower-rich pasture seed mix that would be mutually beneficial for livestock and bees. “It’s not coming from a place of purposefulness. It’s coming from a place of just not knowing. It’s not a cattle rancher’s job to know what types of flowers support a multitude of bee species.”

Managed honeybees are facing a grim future. In 2018, beekeepers in the U.S. lost 40.7 percent of their colonies, largely due to factors that have been exacerbated by climate change. This presents a serious problem for the food supply: three-fourths of the fruits and seeds we consume depend on pollinators for production, yield and quality.

Each hive is a well-balanced system: inside, bees build wax comb, make honey, and raise their young. For each hive to thrive, the bees need to keep the center of the hive around 91 degrees and have ample access to nectar, pollen, and water. However, due to changing weather patterns caused by climate change, flowers are blooming at an average of a half-day earlier each year. All told, some plant species are now beginning their growing season up to a month earlier compared to 45 years ago.

“We had plants that really shouldn’t be blooming until the beginning of June blooming in April, and there just weren’t the bees,” Sarah said, adding that most are still hibernating at that point in the year. “They weren’t up and at ‘em enough to be able to utilize those flowers and the native bees that I usually see on those flowers in June hadn’t emerged yet, so they totally missed out.”

This isn’t the only challenge wrought by climate change. Pressures and pesticide use are expected to worsen, both of which can be toxic to bees and other pollinators. At the same time, wildfires, droughts, floods, and other extreme weather events are predicted to occur with greater frequency and severity, which will potentially affect air quality, destroy flowering plants, and diminish water supplies.

To be sure, the health of honeybee hives is often a harbinger for the health of the land, air, water, and environment. “Honeybees are kind of the canary in the coal mine,” said Julia McGuire, vice president of Iowa Farmers Union and founder of Bee Laws.

With every sector of agriculture feeling the effects of climate change, finding ways to come together and collaborate will be crucial to make the food system as resilient and sustainable as possible. By prioritizing soil health and minimizing inputs through crop and livestock management, regenerative agriculture is increasingly gaining attention as a way to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change. Incorporating managed beekeeping into this system, proponents say, will combat problems pollinators face related to climate change and food availability while increasing biodiversity and restoring habitat on rangeland.

While some farmers who are using regenerative practices are starting to see the return of pollinators to their land, more work needs to be done on plant mixes that are optimal for both cattle and bees.

That’s what Sarah is trying to figure out. Buckwheat, for example, would provide high levels of protein for livestock and has abundant nectar and nutrient-rich pollen for the bees. If the crop is added to seed mixes across U.S. rangeland, bees and other pollinators would have better access to food, livestock would benefit from the nutrients, and plant biodiversity would flourish. Sarah views this as a “win-win-win” solution for farmers and ranchers, bees and beekeepers and the environment.

“If bees have more food to eat and healthier food to eat the diseases the Vorroa Mites vector aren’t as big of a deal,” Sarah said. “If bees have flowers nearby and plenty of places to go to get floral resources, then when the wildfires startup they don’t have to fly as far and it’s not as hard on them. If a bee is healthy and has a good diet, they have that much more of an ability to survive.”

Currently regenerative bee pastures are still in the research and development phase, but the next step is to create and implement educational programming to bring this solution to farmers and ranchers. You can follow the project’s progress on Instagram or Facebook.

Sarah is optimistic that the conversations the project will start with livestock producers and ranchers is just the beginning for beekeepers to find new opportunities working with other parts of agriculture.

“I was getting really frustrated going to beekeeping conferences and I felt like we were never reaching out to farmers and we were never talking to anybody else in agriculture except for ourselves,” said Sarah. “I felt like a large part of the issue here is just the lack of communication and reaching into other parts of agriculture to see where we could be more collaborative.”

For more information on policy efforts related to climate change and agriculture, check out NFU’s climate resource center here. 

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