Get ready to look for another certification logo on the food in front of you, one that tells you whether or not it’s been grown and produced in a pollinator-friendly way. The Bee Better Certification program from the Xerces Society and Oregon Tilth was announced on June 20, and is now open to participation by farmers across the country.
It’s easy to be cynical about all these little icons on our food. How much do they really tell us? They’re just a marketing ploy, right? Do I really need some official declaration that my broccoli is gluten-free?
Of course these labels are part of the marketing game, and there are going to be ridiculous extremes. But certification labels are a legitimate way for producers to connect with different segments of the consumer market and to increase sales. They can provide market-driven financial incentives for farmers and manufacturers to change their practices in what could be critically important ways. It’s the forces of capitalism being applied for noble ends.
And at their core, certification labels are intended to help us all understand our food better. A trusted way of getting to know the people who grow our food at a distance.
What makes the Bee Better certification an interesting standout among all these little logos is that its standards and requirements have been pulled directly from what the scientific evidence tells us about bee populations and their habitat.
This is not to say that other certification systems aren’t interested in what science has to say, or don’t have scientific evidence to back up their goals. (Many times, certification systems have driven researchers to look deeper into issues for evidence that may support or refute certain claims.) But Bee Better appears to be the only certification program that makes the direct link.
“We’re lucky there was so much science to base the standards on,” says Hillary Sardiñas, coordinator of the Bee Better program for the Xerces Society. She and her colleagues spent two years conferring with pollinator experts and reviewing the most relevant scientific literature. They searched for “trustworthy” research: studies and papers that provided high quality analysis, data and design. They pulled best practices from this research.
In areas where the science wasn’t definitely clear about certain health aspects of bee populations, the Xerces team applied the precautionary principle: proposing preventative steps and alternative practices to apparently harmful actions. “The standards reflect not only scientific understanding, but also areas where we have concerns about risks to pollinators,” said Sardiñas. “We took an approach that we thought would help support populations until such a time that the science could help direct us to more concrete actions.”
And in those cases where there simply was not enough evidence to support a proposed standard, the team put it aside. Take adjuvants, for example. (You know, adjuvants: Substances added to the spray tank, separate from the pesticide mixture, that help improve the performance of the pesticide. This includes substances that improve dispersal through the air, drift reduction, sticking to plants, penetrating plants, penetrating the soil or remaining stable in sunlight.)
“I’m very interested in finding the appropriate limitations on adjuvants to avoid harming bees but didn’t want to simply limit the few chemicals we know are bad actors when we don’t know the risk of the alternatives that will be used,” said Aimée Code, Pesticide Program Director for the Xerces Society. She wants to talk with farmers and others experts about whether limiting some adjuvants would limit the efficacy of the pesticides and thereby lead to greater use.
“I don’t want to move forward on a standard until we have a more clear picture of the effects of our decision,” said Code.
The goal is to continue updating the standards every three years, to make sure Bee Better remains on “the cutting edge” of what we collectively know about bees and their habitat, said Sardiñas.
Reading through the research behind each of the Bee Better standards is an interesting review of just how much our understanding about bees has evolved over the past decade; in some ways, it’s a blow-by-blow account of just how much trouble bees are in. It wasn’t that long ago that the world had a come-to-Jesus moment with bees: the sudden collapse of honey bee colonies in 2006. Forced to consider whether or not wild bees might be able to provide the same services to food production, bee experts and farmers suddenly realized, “Oh my God! We don’t actually know that much about wild bees!”
The result has been dramatically increased efforts to learn as much as we can about these little things that play such a critical role in keeping humans fed. These efforts have led to improved pubic awareness and understanding; to the protection of specific bees as endangered species; and now to a new certification system for incentivizing farming practices that protect our pollinator populations.
Given how important bees are to our future, it’s about time.
Here’s your easy access point to the science behind the Bee Better Standards. Read one study summary or read several. Or dive into the nitty-gritty details of the original research.
1. Pollinator Habitat
1.1 Habitat Minimums
1.2 Bloom [link]
1.3 Sourcing Plants and Seeds [link]
1.4 Nesting Features [link]
1.5 Tillage [link]
2. Pesticide Mitigation
2.1 Preventative Non-Pesticide Management [link]
2.2 Pesticide Application [link]
2.3 Minimizing Off-Site Movement of Pesticides [link]
2.4 Pesticide Use in Pollinator Habitat [link]
3. Managed Bumble Bees
3.1 Use of Commercial Bumble Bees [link]