Could hemp be saving the bees and, by extension, the planet?
Globally, bees have been dying at unprecedented rates; recent research shows hemp can help save them and, by extension, the natural world, and the global economy.
In four regions of Brazil, an estimated 500 million bees died in 3 months, and mass bee deaths have been reported in British Columbia, South Africa, Mexico, and Turkey. As the reports indicate, declining bee populations aren’t restricted to any one part of the globe—it’s happening everywhere.
The main causes for the declining numbers include industrial agriculture, parasites, pathogens, and pesticides, as well as climate change. Also contributing to the decline is the loss of biodiversity and habitat. Bees rely on an incalculable number of pollination options.
Neonicotinoids are the insecticides that worry scientists the most. Shown to disrupt bees’ navigation and memory, many crop seeds are coated with neonicotinoids.
Besides the impacts of the adverse effects of mono-crop industrial agriculture, pesticides, and insecticides, pollen and nectar resource availability are affected by periods of scarcity at various times throughout the year.
Urbanization is another factor in bee losses, primarily due to loss of habitat. As humans encroach on the natural ecosystems and environment, the bees lose traditional food resources.
Passage of the 2018 Farm Bill legalized commercial production of hemp and hemp products at the federal level. Currently, 40-plus states have passed laws that will revive this versatile crop in the United States. By doing so, states have created an opportunity to combat bee losses, even though their actions may be a case of unintended consequences.
Bees are the world’s primary pollinators.
It’s not just the European honeybees that we see in beekeepers’ hives. Though they are the most well-known, they make up only 2% of the world’s bee population. Wild bees make up the remainder, and they are also experiencing an unprecedented die-off. There are nearly 20,000 known species of bees in 7 specific family classifications.
Honeybees, bumblebees, and stingless bees are known for their highly organized social colonies. But they make up only 2% of the world’s bee population.
The other 98% are solitary bees. Solitary bees may congregate in large groups, but they don’t have a high level of social structure as seen in colonizing bees. They live solitary lives and gather their own pollen and nectar. The females lay and tend their own eggs, such as with the mason bee.
Global agriculture relies on crop pollination, and bees are the largest group of pollinators. Not only do bees actively work to pollinate our food, but they also pollinate the food relied on by other insects, birds, and bats. Without bees, food production becomes severely challenged, requiring expensive and time-consuming manual pollination.
Bees also pollinate clover and alfalfa, which are fed to cattle, continuing the implications for the meat and dairy industries and our food can. The connection continues on to manufactured food products.
Also, bees have a role in pollinating non-food crops, such as cotton and flax. Beeswax, a byproduct of honeybees, is used in home cleaning, healthcare, and beauty products.
Hemp, bees, and agriculture.
Industrial hemp was one of the earliest crops spun for fiber. Today, the plant and its seeds are used for: paper, textiles, food, animal feed, biodegradable plastics, and biofuel, among other uses.
A recent study conducted in Colorado focused on hemp’s contribution to bees. Even though hemp is wind-pollinated, it flowers at a time when there’s a scarcity of pollinator-friendly crops in northern Colorado. Because of the abundance of pollen, bees love hemp stands.
Researchers collected nearly 2,000 bees from 23 genera (genus pl.). Almost 80% of the bees came from 3 genera: Apis mellifera (European honeybee), 38%; Melissodes bimaculate (two-spotted longhorn bee), 25%; and Peponapis pruinosa (pruinose squash bee), at 16%. While hemp doesn’t produce nectar, the pollen-rich flowers make hemp ecologically valuable as a crop.
A second study correlated hemp plant heights with bee population diversity. Researchers found a strong link between taller plant height and bee species diversity.
A study, published in the journal Environmental Entomology, recently report evidence of increased bee diversity and population after they studied bee populations on 11 farms in New York’s Finger Lakes region.
The European honeybee and bumblebees (Bombus impatiens) accounted for 90% of the bees netted on the flowering hemp. Again, the late-season flowering provided bees in the area with a pollen-rich resource during an otherwise seasonal scarcity.
The study’s authors observed that hemp can potentially provide a critical nutritional resource for bees during times when other floral resources are scarce. In turn, a crop that sustains bees can help support pollination for other crops in the area.
An older study in Mississippi (1983) was among the first to observe the link between bees and hemp. As with later studies, bees were collecting hemp pollen from crops at the University of Mississippi.
Bees, the economy and the creation of hemp-related jobs.
Industrial hemp is a sustainable crop that could lead to job creation. Demand for workers is expected to double by 2022. The hemp industry will require more than agricultural workers: accountants, attorneys, freight handlers, and specialized insurance experts. In 2018, the revival of the hemp industry chalked up $1.1 billion in revenues.
Hemp cultivation and cost-effectiveness
Ideally, hemp’s optimal growing conditions are a mild climate and good soil drainage. However, it’s a hardy plant, tolerant of a less than perfect growing environment.
Economic benefits of hemp include:
- Sustainability, hemp cultivation is particularly important for soil health.
- Provides a low-cost fuel
- Uses less water per kilo of crop (For example, a kilo of cotton requires 5,000 gallons of water to grow, compared to 700 gallons for a kilo of hemp.)
- Hemp paper is more durable than the 20-pound paper commonly used in printers
- Cheaper substitute for soy products
- Annual hemp crops are densely planted, allowing a higher yield per acre, up to 20 plants per square foot.
The impact of hemp on the consumer economy
Because of the many applications for hemp, as mentioned above, the hemp industry can produce consumer products that are more sustainable alternatives. The crop’s potential influence on the consumer economy could have a positive effect on the U.S. GDP.
Planting industrial hemp can help mitigate the bee death epidemic, as well as address the world’s sustainability issues and revitalize economies. As an emerging market, hemp cultivation has excellent potential as an answer to the myriad problems of climate change.
While it seems a stretch to suggest that hemp production is the only answer to the world’s problems with bee deaths, climate change, and economic woes, it’s certainly a step in the right direction.