Bees are a lifeline for farms producing the world’s fruits, vegetables, nuts and other nutrient-rich foods. Bees pollinate billions of dollars’ worth of crops and play an essential role in our food supply. Pollinators are responsible for one in every three bites of food we eat and contribute more than $15 billion to our nation's crop values each year.
But these days, we don’t see as many bees. That’s because they are dying at an increasing rate, making the future of our food security uncertain. Their plight is hardly a secret, and increasingly concerned citizens are responding with meaningful solutions.
Collaborations between farmers and USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to create better landscapes for bees and other pollinators have been going on for several years. The recently launched Bee Better Certification program funded through the NRCS Conservation Innovations Grant program has gained interest from big names in retail.
The Bee Better Certification program certifies the use of pollinator-friendly conservation practices on farms. After the farmer is Bee Better certified, they can use the Bee Better seal on their product packaging, giving consumers the option to support farms that are supporting bees.
So far, the Bee Better standards have been adopted on nearly 20,000 acres of land, and products with the Bee Better label are being used by major retailers including Haagen-Dazs. The ice cream company committed to adopting Bee Better standards for their entire almond supply, adding nearly a half dozen Bee Better Certified ice cream flavors to their menu.
Many of the West Coast’s blueberry and cherry packer giants have also joined the ranks, including CalGiant, Rainier Fruit and Homegrown Organic, and are marketing Bee Better fruit in national grocery chains and club stores.
Other farms are joining Bee Better, including Villicus Farms, a 10,000-acre organic grain operation in northern Montana and many wine grape vineyards in Washington, Oregon and California. Beyond the U.S., South American farms and produce companies supplying the domestic market with fresh fruit during the winter, have also expressed interest in the Bee Better standards.
Development of the Bee Better Certification Program
Bee Better Certified was developed and launched in 2017 as a pilot program on 13 farms by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and the nonprofit organic food and farming advocate Oregon Tilth. The program focuses on integrating flower-rich habitat on farms to provide food and nesting sites for native bees, honeybees and other pollinators, while reducing pesticide use.
The partnership brought together a group of food industry representatives, farmers, certification experts and conservationists using the model of other sustainable food certification systems.
The certification is based on a set of science-based standards for pollinator conservation on farms. These include targeted benchmarks for how much wild pollinator habitat a farm should have to sustain, systems and practices to reduce pesticide impacts on bees and guidance for reducing pathogen transmission from managed bees to wild bees.
The Xerces team manages the Bee Better Certification standards and provides technical support to farmers to help them get certified. Oregon Tilth performs the certification, including reviewing applications and conducting farm inspections.
The Bee Better Certification program now serves as a model for developing other pollinator certification programs and has spawned a new partnership between the Xerces team and solar energy producers, wind farms, powerline transmission companies, and other investors interested in exploring Bee Better Certified energy development.
The Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) program, works with partners and agricultural producers to accelerate technology transfer and the adoption of promising innovations to address some of the nation's most pressing natural resource concerns.
For more information about the CIG program, visit the CIG website.
Jocelyn Benjamin is a public affairs specialist with USDA in Washington, D.C.