Bees play an important role in agriculture, but they do more than provide people with their delicious golden honey. These small behind-the-scenes pollinators are quite literally responsible for keeping the population alive.
“One in every three bites we take is the result of insect crop pollination,” says Mike Studer, state apiarist for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA). “Without pollinators to move the pollen from the anther of one flower to the stigma of another, there would be little or no fruit set.”
While there are a variety of insects capable of contributing to pollination, honeybees are the only ones that can be moved around the country in the numbers needed to pollinate the country’s vast food sources.
“We need a minimum of 84,362 honeybee colonies to pollinate the crops, fields and forests of Tennessee,” Studer says. “And in order to provide the ideal level of pollination for the entire state, we need 421,810 honeybee colonies.”
The numbers are staggering, especially when there were only 8,069 registered colonies in Tennessee in 2008. Fortunately, numbers increased to more than 37,000 as of 2019, but there’s still a long road ahead as Tennessee winters have seen an average loss of 48.6% since 2008.
“Most industries would collapse and fail with that kind of annual loss,” Studer says. “But beekeepers are a stubborn group and refuse to give up.”
When managed, honeybee colonies, in conjunction with healthy populations of native bees, have been shown to produce higher quality and higher quantities of crops. Honeybee pollination contributes approximately $20 billion of added value to crops in the United States annually, and an estimated $500 million in the state of Tennessee alone.
Well-Traveled Tennessee Bees
Jeff Otto and his wife, Laura Kimball, started beekeeping as a hobby in 2003. Today, they run TruBee Honey in Eagleville, where they’ve opened a small farm shop and do all their own honey extraction and bottling.
“We currently have about 400 hives and are expanding yearly with help from TDA’s TAEP [Tennessee Agricultural Enhancement Program] grant program,” Otto says.
For many years, Otto used his honeybees for pollination on organic vegetable and fruit farms in Middle Tennessee, before shifting gears to honey production. In addition to growing the honey business, TruBee Honey is also expanding pollination efforts.
Although Otto’s bees spend a portion of their time in Tennessee, they also make their way across the country, pollinating other crops.
Some of the bees go down to Florida in September to feast on late fall Brazilian pepper plants. In late January, the bees make a three-day trip to California to work on almond orchards through mid- to late March. Once their job is done, the bees return home to Tennessee for local pollination and honey production.
See more: Helping Tennessee Beehives Thrive
Moving the bees around throughout the year has multiple benefits, like providing additional revenue for beekeepers and keeping hives healthy during long and cold winter months.
“Unpredictable weather patterns in late winter and early spring in Tennessee can be hard on honeybee colonies,” Otto says. “If they stayed here over the winter, they would dwindle in size due to the cold temperatures and lack of forage.”
Choose Local Honey
One of the best ways to support local farmers and beekeepers is to purchase local honey. In many cases, you can talk to the beekeeper or visit their farm to confirm the source and know precisely what you’re consuming.
“Our farm is open to the public so you can see some of the bees that make our honey foraging the wildflowers we plant for them,” Otto says. “We also offer tours to help educate the public on the importance of honeybees and native pollinators and things people can do and plant to help sustain the populations.”