Now food can be certified “better for bees”

And there’s plenty of science to back it up.

By MATT KELLY

Get ready for a new label to join the collection of labels that now cover our food. The Bee Better Certification (a collaboration between the Xerces Society and Oregon Tilth) is intended to help consumers reliably identify which foods have been grown and produced in pollinator-friendly ways. It’s the culmination of a decade of declining bee populations and increasing knowledge about what keeps bees healthy.

It’s also an attempt (like so many certifications) to leverage the forces of capitalism for good by providing farmers and food producers the financial incentive to change their practices. Or better still, rewarding the growers and producers who are already doing right by bees. The essential pollinator issue of our time is this: We need bees to help grow our food, but how we grow our food can have seriously negative impacts on the health of these same bees. The Bee Better standards were created by the Xerces Society to provide clear, specific guidance for growers on how they can be a part of the solution. Oregon Tilth (with over 30 years of experience certifying sustainable farming practices) is the organization that determines whether or not interested farms meet these standards. And when they do, those farms can place the Bee Better label on their products to differentiate themselves with consumers and (in theory) get a higher price for their efforts.

However, Bee Better is not the first or only bee icon you’ll see in the grocery aisles.

The Bee Friendlier logo on Cascadian Farm products from General Mills is similar in purpose to Bee Better: both seek to improve pollinator habitat. But unlike Bee Better, Bee Friendlier is not a certification. It’s a brand-specific initiative to raise awareness among consumers about pollinator issues. It’s a program to raise money to support the expansion of pollinator habitat and bee research. Every Bee Friendlier logo has a unique code associated with it, and for each code entered at the Bee Friendlier website, Cascadian Farm donates 25 cents to either the Xerces Society or the University of Minnesota Bee Lab.

Then there’s the True Source Certification you’ll only see on honey and products made with honey. This certification addresses a very different problem: “honey laundering”. Back in 2001, the U.S. Commerce Department determined that honey from China was being sold in the U.S. at less than fair-market value and consequently imposed duties of up to 220 percent on the imported Chinese honey. Of course, the Chinese suppliers found ways around these tariffs by shipping their product through exporters in other countries (like Indonesia and Malaysia) and by misidentifying their product as different types of sweeteners.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement began investing allegations about the continued honey laundering and, in 2009, arrested the executive of a company in China who pleaded guilty to conspiring to bring 15 shipping containers of illegal product into the U.S. through the Philippines. This was not an isolated incident: As recently as 2016, ICE seized 60 tons of illegally imported Chinese honey entering the U.S. The True Source Honey initiative estimates that $100 million a year is lost in uncollected duties. More importantly, illegally dumped honey undermines U.S. honey producers. And some illegal honey has been found cut with high fructose corn syrup or tainted with a powerful antibiotic that should not be in food. The True Source Certification is meant to give consumers confidence that the honey they’re eating is of the highest quality, has been ethically sourced, and has passed through the supply chain — from hive to table — in full accordance with United States law.

So when it comes to the bee labels you might see in the grocery store, each has its own role to play. They’re partners on the packaging, not competitors. However, an important difference with the Bee Better Certification is that it’s neither brand nor product specific. In fact, the Bee Better seal of approval could eventually be found on food like bread or wine — products that do not directly rely on pollinators at all.

Wait, what?

Yes, that’s right. The Bee Better Certification standards are focused on farming practices that nurture bees, not on the actual crops being grown. Could a wheat farmer or a grape grower meet the various standards for habitat, blooming acreage, pesticide application and so on? Could they be as much a part of the solution to declining bee populations as apple and almond growers? Absolutely.

During the two years it took to develop the standards, the Xerces Society team worked with farmers all across the country to ensure that the standards made sense under real-world conditions. They worked with farms big and small, conventional and organic, growing a wide range of food products that included fruit, vegetables, nuts, grains, and even livestock. (In January, Sran Family Orchards, the world’s largest grower of organic almonds, became Bee Better’s first actual certified grower.)

better bee MAP

Also during those two years, the team poured through the body of scientific literature on bees and pollinators that has grown tremendously since colony collapse disorder was first recognized in 2006. They gathered together only “trustworthy” research: studies and papers that were based on sufficient samples sizes, were replicable (or had replicated previous research), applied appropriate statistical analysis, and compared apples-to-apples when assessing historical and current trends. The team pulled best practices from this research and crafted their standards around them.

For example, take a look at the requirements for minimum habitat. The Bee Better standards require farmers to have at least five percent of their total acreage in pollinator habitat; to have at least one percent in permanent pollinator habitat; and to locate this habitat on, adjacent to, or within one mile of the certified crop fields. That’s because the research is pretty clear on a few things:

  • Mature, native habitat increases the abundance and diversity of bees.
  • The real benefit of wildflowers to bee health is having them blooming and available as food all year long.
  • The closer fields are to this kind of habitat, the more the crops themselves will benefit from the abundance and diversity of the bees found there.

(If you’re the kind of person who likes to confirm these sorts of things, take a look at the Bee Better standards for yourself; all the scientific references are included and most of the studies can be found with the help of Google.)

But in some cases there wasn’t enough evidence or research to support a standard that the Xerces team thought should be part of certification. So they set the standard aside and didn’t include it. A perfect example of this decision involved adjuvants. (You know, adjuvants: substances added to a spray tank, separate from the pesticide mixture, that help improve the performance of the pesticide with things like dispersing through the air, sticking to plants or remaining stable in sunlight.) The folks at Xerces are obviously interested in finding appropriate limitations to adjuvants that can harm bees. But they don’t want to limit the few chemicals known to be bad actors when they don’t know what risks possible alternatives could pose.

Overall, the goal is to make sure Bee Better remains on the cutting edge of what we know about bees. The Xerces Society plans to continually update the standards as new research becomes available and as more feedback comes in from the farmers they work with.