First observed in 2018, the United Nations designated May 20 as World Bee Day, meant to raise awareness of the importance of these tiny but important pollinators, the threats they face and the contributions they make to sustainable development. This year’s observance spotlights the vital role bees play in pollinating agricultural crops. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), three out of four crops producing food for human consumption depend, at least partly, on pollinators.
Why do bees matter so much in agriculture? Diversity of pollinator species is critical in ensuring food security. There is also a strong link with climate change, which is affecting both agriculture and the bees themselves:
Did you know our pollinators help minimize the impact of climate change on food security?
— Food and Agriculture Organization (@FAO) May 16, 2023
To better understand bees’ importance and impact, I interviewed Dorienne Rowan-Campbell, a former Jamaican journalist and development specialist turned organic coffee farmer, via email. With Jamaica being home to 69 species of bees, she is acutely aware of the impact pollinators, climate change, and human activities have on her crops.
Having spent much of her working life in journalism, both in Jamaica and Canada, Rowan-Campbell’s interest in international development led to her doing a 13-part series, “One World,” with TV Ontario. She later left the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) to head the Women and Development Programme at the Commonwealth Secretariat, and was its first woman director and adviser to the Commonwealth Secretary General.
Rowan-Campbell returned to Jamaica in 1987 and worked as a consultant on women, gender, policy, environment, and change management. Five years later, after her parents moved to Canada, she took over her father’s small, ruinate coffee farm and began the long road to establishing an organic farm. She is currently vice president of the Jamaica Coffee Growers Association where she represents the small producers, and uses the farm as a training location for interested farmers, particularly women and young people. She is also the only certified organic Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee producer, certified to NOP (US), EC, COR (Canada) and JAS (Japanese) standards.
Emma Lewis (EL): Tell me about your farm. What crops do you grow, and where?
Dorienne Rowan-Campbell (DRC): My farm is Rowan’s Royale. This year will be our 21st year of international organic certification. We are a small, woman-owned, family-managed farm perched 4,000 feet up in the Blue Mountains of West Portland, Jamaica, close to Silver Hill Gap. Our main crop is coffee, but as an organic farm, we grow ginger, turmeric, greens, bananas, plantains, root crops, lemons, mulberries … and we ensure that native grasses and bushes are preserved and wildflowers encouraged. The farm is highly shaded, although we are continually replacing trees that have been downed in hurricanes and storms.
EL: How do bees play a role on your farm, and how can you continue to attract them?
DRC: We have so many flowering bushes and trees and wildflowers that bees visit the farm. A study initiated for the Jamaica Coffee Growers Association in 2018 found three types of bees on the farm, not just honey bees. Each year during the coffee flowering season I have hives on the farm from a neighbouring farmer, who is a bee farmer but uses no chemicals in his practice. He tells me the quality of the honey from the bees on the farm is high as the bees have lots of food and [are in] no danger from chemicals. While he reaps the honey, I have large numbers of bees on the farm to help with pollination, particularly of the coffee. My farm manger now has one hive and is learning about beekeeping so next year he will have bees on the farm.
EL: In your experience, what is the significance of bee pollination for agriculture in Jamaica, and for your business in particular?
DRC: Bees are efficient pollinators. Although we have birds and other insects that do pollinate, bees are what we welcome most and for the most part, we have taken them for granted. Now that we see fewer bees around on our farms, our pollination is less effective. Without good pollination, you have less production [but] even without having a few hives on the farm, we get lots of bees coming in at flowering times. We see them and hear the hum in the air. We see them on pumpkin blossoms and varieties of squash and greens, as well as on the many trees we have that blossom and attract the bees.
EL: What are the threats to bee pollination in the region? How can these be addressed?
DRC: Major threats are the chemicals we apply on our farms, which kill bees. But our general farming practices also affect the bees: clear cutting, and drastic weeding involves much of the wildflowers, bushes and flowering trees, on which a wild bee population thrives. Increasing urbanisation is removing trees and bushes from our cities and towns and replacing grass-covered verges. ‘Upgraded’ highways take in swathes of land where bees used to be able to find pollen. Many of those trees and bushes are never replaced along the highways.
EL: What species of bees pollinate agricultural crops? While honey bees are common, many of the wild and solitary bee species are endangered. Which species have you seen?
DRC: I know we get wild and solitary bees on the farm, but I have no expert knowledge of exactly what they are. We just welcome them and leave as much food for them as possible, which is why they come.
EL: Climate change has seriously impacted a coffee-growing project you were working on in 2018, with its effects making the flowering period unpredictable. Prolonged droughts put coffee plants under stress, and longer-than-usual rainy seasons also cause problems. Can you tell me more about this project, and how the climate crisis continues to impact both agriculture and our bees?
DRC: Yes, the flowering periods are far less predictable. The initial work on the project meant that it was nigh impossible for the researchers to map out when to be in certain areas and how to get there when flowering started. The roads are poor, four-wheel drives were needed, and the funds simply could not cover the increasing transport costs. However, they found some areas with very few bees. Climate change also affects the quality of the flowering. Research in other countries has indicated that a rise in temperature causes deformities in the blossoms themselves, as well as fewer blossoms.
EL: Organic farming still seems to be something of a niche activity in the Caribbean. How do you see its role and value? Can it be expanded? Is greater government intervention necessary?
DRC: Agriculture in Jamaica is driven by the chemical companies. Note the offers of [webinar] training from two local companies almost every week. [One] even offered something on ‘organic production,’ but it was clear they were not knowledgeable about organic farming. They mostly read from the Jamaica Organic Agriculture Movement (JOAM) handbook and then promoted their ‘organic’ products.
If we are going to survive in agriculture and manage climate crises, we need to move to sustainable practices; organic practices are the foundation of these. People don’t need to get certified. They need to understand that — as the FAO points out — organically managed soils can adapt to flooding and drought. Several years ago, [after] extended drought and fires on coffee plantations, most farmers lost the seedlings they had planted out. My farm lost three — we are rain-fed and had no rain from the end of June into August.
Successive governments have said they espouse organic production, but there has been no policy developed, although this ‘work’ has been in process since 2004! Any action has been from NGOs and private sector farmers … but this is not sustainable. A JOAM team developed the standard for the Bureau of Standards of Jamaica (BSJ) and for the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). However, instead of encouraging its use, a hefty fee for a copy of the standard (approximately JMD 9,277 or USD 60) is charged by the BSJ. Also, no action is taken when products are labelled ‘organic’ without requisite third party verification. So farmers ask why should they pay for certification when the certification is not protected? The National Certification Body of Jamaica (NCBJ) now offers certification, but no one is sure of their rates and the process is drawn out.
The Jamaican government needs to establish a competent authority for organic agriculture, a policy and more training for the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA).
Organic farming practices are in keeping with the message of World Bee Day, which is that bees, and pollinators in general, need responsible agriculture that supports the role they play in nature and long-term sustainability.