Bees play an important role in the fertilization of plants, including food crops. For a plant to bear fruit or form seeds, the (male) pollen must first make its way to the (female) pistil of the flower. Some types of plants, such as red beet and spinach, are pollinated by the wind. Others, such as lettuce, are self-pollinating. But many of the plants that are essential for our food supply rely on insects for pollination.
Honey bees: pollination champions
Nature provides plenty of pollinators, including bumblebees and solitary wild bees. But honey bees are pollination champions. They can be so effective because they can be used purposefully and in large numbers. Each hive that a beekeeper places in a field contains a colony of some 20,000 to 40,000 pollinators. Not surprisingly, fruit growers and growers of some fruit vegetables and open field crops work closely with professional beekeepers.
Bejo’s core business makes us uniquely aware of the importance of bees: without pollination, there would be no seeds. We grow seeds in greenhouses and on fields all over the world, so we have tens of thousands of honey bee colonies working for us. “At Bejo we have our own beekeepers and are active in bee research. That way we can gain more experience with beekeeping and a greater understanding of bees and pollination,” says Youri Draaijer, Coordinator of international seed production research at Bejo. “With our research we hope to find out more about the typical characteristics of bee colonies and bee types, including foraging zeal, or the willingness to collect nectar, and tendency to swarm, or leave the hive. But the main focus of our research is bee health.”
Research and selection to improve bee health
Worldwide, there is an urgent need for more expertise and new developments in this area. This is partly because healthy bees are the best pollinators, and partly because in the past century bee populations have been declining due to bee mortality. The decline in numbers has various causes. One of the biggest problems for the western honey bee is the varroa mite, a parasite that infests hives and weakens or kills bees. Bees can also die of exhaustion in colonies that work too hard, a situation known as winter loss. Pesticides are also mentioned as a possible cause of population decline.
Feeding and selection
In our research we look for ways to use food and better beekeeping techniques to develop stronger bee colonies. We are also making progress in selecting bees with the desired characteristics to start new colonies. Our core activity is the selection and breeding of plants in order to achieve better varieties. We have the same goal with bees. We breed bee colonies and seek to develop types that perform well and thrive.
Unique position in international beekeeping community
A large part of our research is concentrated at Bejo France, which works closely with the apiaries of Bejo in the Netherlands. In addition there are programs operating in other countries where we grow our seeds.
In New Zealand Bejo works with Midlands, a large seed production specialist and an important Bejo partner. For seed production alone, Midlands uses some 3,500 active hives. In Australia we are setting up our own apiaries. In this region the limited availability of bees is a challenge. In Australia and New Zealand there is greater competition for bee colonies, because high market prices are paid for certain pure honey types from specific plants and trees, such as manuka and leatherwood. We also have concrete plans to start our own apiaries in the United States, along with a research program. In the US Bejo currently works only with external professional apiaries.
With its worldwide activities Bejo occupies a unique position in the international beekeeping world. This allows us to create a valuable ‘cross-pollination’ in more than one sense. We work with businesses, universities and research institutions, exchanging knowledge and experience from various parts of the world. Within Bejo, research is coordinated in our own international Bee Group, with former director Ger Beemsterboer as driving force.
Safeguarding pollination, now and in the future
For Bejo, investing in apiculture is in the company’s own interest. "We need healthy bee colonies to safeguard natural pollination on our production fields, now and in the future,” says John-Pieter Schipper, CEO of Bejo. On the other hand, he adds, Bejo also invests in bees out of a sense of social commitment: “The key role that bees play reminds us that food production depends on nature and the environment. That confirms us in the vision that we, as a family business, have of sustainability.”
Bejo values a healthy environment and sustainable use of natural resources. With that in mind, we work to discover the best ways to use natural pollination and to improve the health of our bees.