Commercial crop pollination and bee health

By Andy Welch

Commercial crop pollination is essential to the human food supply chain, and honeybees are brilliant at it. However, modern, unsustainable farming methods are seriously affecting bee health. Solutions are available; they just need to be implemented.

Why do honeybees make ideal commercial crop pollinators?

The lives of honeybees are pretty straightforward, with summers spent mainly collecting nectar and pollen to make honey and bee bread and most of the winter spent inside the hive living off their food stores. And while individual honeybees typically only live long enough to experience a few weeks of this cycle, the colony continuously adapts to the changing weather and food supply throughout the year. The colony not only changes in size, with much larger colonies in summer, but the workforce’s makeup also changes during the year, with more drones, foragers and scouts in summer and primarily bees dedicated to heating the hive in winter.

Beehives are often described as a super-organism. While each contributor bee makes relatively simple decisions, these combine to form an intelligent hive mind capable of making fast decisions and solving complex problems. This group-think and dependence on each other also make honeybees ideal for commercial crop pollination, as entire honeybee colonies can be transported to provide targeted pollination where they are most needed.

The risks to bee health

The ancient Egyptians first used this idea, using the Nile to transport beehives between their crops. It has become a multi-million dollar industry, with some crops in the USA entirely dependent on commercial bees for pollination. California, for example, has very few native bees but produces around 82% of the world’s almonds, so this requires the help of billions of commercial bees, who are transported yearly to California for the pollination season; This is not only vital for the production of healthy almond crops but also provides valuable extra income to beekeepers. Renting their bees for the pollination season can help beekeepers make up for the profits from the sales of honey, which are often eroded by cheap imports and fake honey.

But even with billions of dollars depending on honeybees, they still face multiple risks.

Transporting bees into new environments, where sometimes the only food available for miles is a single crop and where pesticides are constantly used, stresses the bees. And with over 70% of all the commercial bees in the USA arriving in one place for the almonds season and then returning home, the bees are at far greater risk of catching and spreading diseases and parasites; This has resulted in commercial honeybees dying in more significant numbers than ever.

It also impacts native bees, who lose their natural habitats to commercial farm crops but compete for food with commercial bees.

So while commercial pollination provides an essential part of our food supply chain, it also creates a potential long-term risk to bee health.

So how could things be improved?

Possible solutions include tighter regulations on the use of pesticides, mandating large mono-crop farms to include more diverse habitats, and mandating better food labelling to force food producers to act more sustainably and allow consumers to make more informed choices regarding the sustainability of the food they buy.

In the meantime, cutting-edge agri-tech organisations like BeeHero, BeeWise and Apic are working alongside leading academic institutions like The University of Reading to continue the essential scientific research into the pollination process to provide a better understanding of the delicate natural balance between crops, native habitats and pollinators.


Andy Welch is a data and analytics specialist, who provides technology and data science support to The World Bee Project. This includes helping to manage the World Hive Network data sets as well as providing analytics support for The World Bee Project's global research projects