Today we are talking about a different kind of buzz, the bee. At first glance, a bee and self-pollinating plant may not seem like a net positive pair but the bee is proving increasingly vital to the survival of small farm coffee growers.
THE FACTS: Before jumping into what bee colonies mean to coffee farms, we need to briefly recap what a coffee plant is and how its growing conditions are changing in a warming world. The coffee tree, also known as the caffea tree, is an ancient, self-pollinating tropical evergreen shrub. For a few weeks each year, the caffea tree produces delicate white flowers that wilt away to reveal a growing coffee cherry. Inside of cherry is two seeds which we know as coffee beans. Being self-pollinators, the coffee tree does not need bees to flower and produce a coffee cherry but when cross-pollination does occur, the coffee tree’s yield is higher and the cherry flavor is more complex.
THE STATS: Research from numerous studies beginning in the 1970s consistently find that cross-pollination increases coffee tree yields by 10% to 50% depending on the coffee variety and bee. Coupling this data with what we know about the potentially devastating effects of global warming on both the coffee industry and bees, creating bee-friendly coffee habits could be the key to sustaining both. According to a 2017 Smithsonian Institute study1, Central America’s arabica coffee-growing regions could (worst case scenario!) shrink by 88% by 2050. Bees, which increase crop yield by a minimum of 10%, could be the small crop farmer’s ticket to survival. In addition to increasing crop yield, bees also transport bugs, microbes, and other vital species that help coffee trees and their canopies remain healthy and naturally pest-free. The one snag in the bee / bean romance is that it takes a complete ecosystem to preserve this delicate balance.
THE FUTURE: Arabica coffee trees only bloom once, at most twice, per year and only for a few weeks per bloom. While highly nutritious for the bee while in bloom, the coffee tree provides no nutrition for the bee most of the year. To sustain these vital bee colonies, coffee must be grown in its native habitat, surrounded by the indigenous flora and fauna needed to sustain the bee population year-round. Thankfully, much of the world’s best coffee is already grown in untouched, old-growth forests making bee imports a viable solution. Imported bees? Yes! Many high-grown, sustainable, eco-conscious farms, including Gold Mountain Coffee Growers, import bees to bolster coffee yields and to aid native conservation. For farms that cannot afford to import bees, conserving the existing population is essential. As coffee-growing areas shrink due to global warming, higher yields on smaller crops may mean the difference between subsistence and living wages for small crop growers.
To learn more about bee conservation, visit The World Bee Project.
1Coffee and bees: New model of climate change effects
Tropical agriculture: The value of bees to the coffee harvest
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