Oct 24, 2011 • By

The real buzz about honeybees

Most of us don’t give much thought to bees – until their characteristic “bzzzzzzz” overtakes our favorite outdoor activities.

But startling declines in the nation’s bee populations suggest that we should start paying more attention to these fragile four-winged creatures given their vital, yet often overlooked, role in the pollination of many important agricultural crops.

At General Mills, company scientists are lending their expertise in seeds, soil and plants to establish bee-friendly habitats that will enable these critical pollinators to thrive.

The Buzz

While many people associate bees with the production of honey, Tom Rabaey, a senior scientist at General Mills’ agricultural research center in Le Sueur, Mn., says their contribution to the food chain goes far beyond the hive.

“Honeybees are one of the most economical and efficient pollinators of crops, says Tom. “Honeybees, along with wild bees, have many important functions as pollinators. They help stimulate growth, maintain a fruit’s symmetry and maximize the size of crops by harvest time.”

Each year, honeybees pollinate more than 100 U.S. agricultural crops, valued at nearly $15 billion dollars. It is estimated that one of our every three bites of food we consume in the U.S. has been pollinated by honeybees.

Tom says alfalfa, onions, cherries, pears, cranberries, blueberries, asparagus, melon and squash are just a few examples of crops that depend on bees to move pollen between flowers. Almonds, for example, are 100 percent reliant on bees for pollination.

Disappearing Bees

In 2006, beekeepers across the nation started to notice a disturbing trend.

“Bees were vanishing – by the thousands,” says Tom. “Some beekeepers have lost up to 90 percent of their hives.”

Although U.S. bee populations had been on the decline for 60 years, hives were now failing at an unprecedented rate.

Researchers coined the unexplained phenomenon Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). In hives affected by CCD, adult bees abandon the hive. Only the queen bee and a developing brood of younger bees remain. Without the worker bees, hives cannot sustain themselves and will eventually die.

Tom says that pinpointing a single cause for CCD has proven difficult. Instead researchers believe it maybe a complex network of factors including mites, viruses, poor nutrition, pesticide use, environmental stresses and loss of natural pollinator habitats.

And that is where General Mills is stepping up to help.

Bee Haven

Thanks to a grant from General Mills’ agricultural research department and our Small Planet Foods division, bees will soon have a home alongside the valley of the Jolly Green Giant in southern Minnesota.

This fall, General Mills’ agricultural research farm in Le Sueur dedicated a two-acre site to serve as a sanctuary for bees. Tom and his team of agronomists planted native grasses and native flowering herbaceous plants specifically designed to attract wild bees, as well as managed bee colonies that will be brought to the site.

Tom explains – in this video clip – what makes an ideal bee habitat:

A similar habitat will be established on the Paynesville, Mn, farm of General Mills’ Director of Sustainable Sourcing, Steve Peterson.

Jennifer Barnes, marketing manager for Small Planet Foods, recognizes the importance of partnering with retail customers and other key stakeholders to further the advancement of research, education and communication about bees and the impact of colony collapse disorder. “We believe that increased levels of passionate companies talking and working on this important issue will yield a better solution, faster,” says Jennifer

The pollinator habitats will provide bees with access to suitable nesting grounds and abundant sources of pollen and nectar that are essential to their survival.

The sites are expected to be fully established and ready for populating next summer or fall.

Tom and his team hope to expand the development of habitat sites to other General Mills’ locations. “Our goal is to not only increase – but sustain –the population of bees to a level that will enable continued, consistent pollination across many diverse food crops,” he says.