Bees, Ecology, and Coffee Production

Introduction

general Warfield's cup of specialty grade coffee with pollinating bee on cup

In the lush green expanses of tropical regions, a remarkable interaction occurs. This dance of nature involves some of our planet's smallest and most industrious creatures: bees. Beyond their role in honey production, bees play a pivotal role in pollinating plants, including coffee. This ecological service, known as pollination, is crucial to the survival of many plant species, and by extension, the animals and humans who rely on them.

Impact of Bees on Coffee Production:

When it comes to coffee crops, a major commodity for many tropical nations, bees are indispensable. They enhance the crop yield and quality by facilitating cross-pollination. Recent studies suggest that bee-friendly coffee farms show a notable increase in coffee bean quality and yield. In fact, some of these farms practice sustainable coffee farming techniques to encourage bees [19].

Ecology's Role in Nurturing Bees and Coffee:

Ecology teaches us that everything in nature is interconnected. For coffee producers, understanding their local ecosystem, including its bee population dynamics, can have major economic implications. A thriving bee community suggests a healthy ecosystem, which in turn supports superior coffee crops like General Warfield’s Coffee crops.

Bee-Supportive Practices in Coffee Farming:

Many coffee producers are now recognizing the value of these tiny pollinators. Adopting organic coffee farming methods, such as avoiding pesticides and creating habitats for bees, not only supports the bee population, but also promotes a richer, cleaner, and more aromatic cup of coffee, such as  General Warfield’s Coffee. These practices have also shown to increase the resilience of coffee plants to climate change, creating a win-win for both nature and producers.

Coffee Consumption and Ecology: The Bigger Picture:

As consumers, we also play a role. By choosing coffee brands that support sustainable farming practices, and prioritize bee conservation, we can make a tangible difference. Each cup of coffee we sip has a backstory involving rainforests, bees, and hardworking farmers. Recognizing this, we have the power to contribute to the conservation of bees, the betterment of the environment, and the livelihood of farmers.

“One crisp morning, while downing a savory cup of coffee, a curious bee, seemingly drawn to my coffee's aroma, hovered nearby. To me it was a moment of reflection, emphasizing the deep link binding us, the bees, and my beloved brew. This is what prompted me to think about the dynamic relationship between the busy bee and my cup of coffee. This was the sole catalyst into researching with my husband what I had not known before: the importance of honeybees in my morning cup of joe.”

                                               - Onome W.

The Global Love Affair with Coffee

woman enjoying cup of coffee


Diving into our global coffee consumption reveals in the United States alone, Americans consume roughly 2 or more cups of coffee per day, which is equivalent to approximately 400 million cups daily [112]. These staggering numbers don't merely tell us about our addiction to caffeine, but hint at an ancient relationship orchestrated by nature's tiny agents: honeybees. To understand this relationship, we first must focus on two major coffee species.

A Historical Perspective of Coffee Plants

Tracing back to Ethiopia's wild landscapes, where coffee is said to have originated, our ancestors might have observed bees fluttering between coffee blossoms. This deep-rooted relationship between bees and coffee continues to shape the world of coffee as we know it today [2]. Let’s first dive into the two main species of coffee we most often consume to gain a perspective on the influence honeybees play on our daily cup of joy.

Arabica vs. Robusta: Understanding the Two Main Coffee Species

Arabica vs Robusta
*click image above to learn more about Arabica vs Robusta beans

While many coffee aficionados have surely come across terms like "Arabica" and "Robusta" on their coffee packaging, not everyone knows the distinct differences between these two primary species.

Arabica (Coffea arabica):

This species accounts for roughly 70% of the world's coffee production [11]. Known for its sweet, soft taste and higher acidity, often associated with notes of sugar, fruit, berries, and other favorable attributes. Arabica beans are generally considered superior in flavor quality. Their higher acidity frequently gives the coffee a wine-like taste, accompanied by an aroma of fresh fruits. From a botanical perspective, Arabica plants have a higher density of chromosomes, making them more complex in their genetic makeup. However, they require very specific growing conditions, including cooler temperatures and higher elevations. This makes them more susceptible to pests and diseases.

  • The Honeybee’s Role: Interestingly, Arabica coffee plants are the only self-pollinating species of coffee plant. They are also more fragrant, which can attract a variety of pollinators, including honeybees. However, even in self-pollinating plants, external agents can still enhance the reproductive process. When honeybees visit Arabica flowers, they may still facilitate an increase in coffee fruit harvest, leading to more genetic diversity and potentially increasing the plant's resilience against diseases and pests in the long run.

Robusta (Coffea canephora):

Accounting for the remaining 30% chunk of global coffee production, Robusta beans are typically used in instant coffees and espresso blends and are often described as having a stronger, more bitter taste compared to Arabica beans, with a grain-like overtone and nutty aftertaste. They contain more caffeine, which, while being a natural insect repellent, contributes to the coffee’s bitter flavor. Robusta plants are hardier and can withstand warmer temperatures and low altitudes. Moreover, they're less susceptible to pests and diseases than their Arabica counterparts.

  • The Honeybee’s Role: Unlike Arabica, Robusta coffee plants are self-sterile, or cross-pollinators, and need bees, wind, and other insects to reproduce. Honeybees can ensure these plants have a higher fruit yield and aid in cross-pollination with other coffee plants in the vicinity, leading to a much richer genetic pool and fruit yield.

Understanding the nuances between these two coffee species, and appreciating the role honeybees play, can enhance our respect for that morning brew and the intricate processes that bring it to our mugs. Honeybees don’t just make honey; they contribute to a vast array of beneficial processes including coffee pollination and coffee cherry yields.

What Vital Role do Honeybees Play in Coffee Production?

Honeybee pollinating coffee plant

As mentioned above, honeybees go far beyond honey production. They are nature's most efficient pollinators, playing a crucial role in ensuring coffee cherries mature [3]. With current environmental threats like deforestation and climate change, these pollinators are at risk, which could, in turn, disrupt our coffee supply [13]. This is without even mentioning their countless other contributions to a healthy global ecosystem.

It's essential to highlight here that while coffee can be wind-pollinated, the presence of bees significantly improves the yield and quality. Recent studies have shown that coffee plants visited by bees can see a yield improvement of up to 40-50% [21]. This is because honeybees not only help with pollination, but also enhance the genetic diversity of the crops, leading to robust plants.

The Symbiotic Dance

The relationship between coffee plants and bees is mutually beneficial. Coffee blossoms offer bees nectar, their primary food source. In return, bees play a significant role in coffee pollination, improving the yield and quality of coffee beans. For coffee farms that attract bees, they can anticipate an increase in yield by up to 25% [4].

The Basic Science Behind the Connection

the basic science behind coffee and bees and pollination

1. Pollination Mechanics: The intricate process of pollen transfer by bees is pivotal for coffee plants to produce cherries [5]. By foraging for food, honeybees typically seek nectar and pollen. Nectar provides them with energy in the form of carbohydrates, while pollen is a source of proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals.

2. Pollen Collection: As a bee collects nectar, pollen grains from the flower’s male reproductive part (anther) attach to the bee’s body, particularly on the “hairy” parts of its legs and abdomen (messy little things!). Consequently, they have specialized structures on their hind legs called “pollen baskets” or They use their legs to pack pollen into these pockets.

3. Transfer to Other Flowers: Once the honeybee moves to another plant (of the same species), the pollen grain attached to its body are transferred to the female reproductive part (stigma) of the new flower.

3. Fertilization: If the transferred pollen grains are compatible with the new flower, they will travel down the style and fertilize the ovules in the ovary ultimately leading to the development of seeds and, in many plants, fruit (think coffee cherries).

.

What is the Effect of this Process on Coffee?

Arabica bean showing bean quality and diversity
  • Bean Quality: Considering the process of bee pollination previously covered, it's not just about the quantity. Pollinated cherries tend to produce uniformly sized beans due to the bee’s ability to transfer pollen precisely and efficiently to an equal number of plant ovules which consequently precipitates the plants’ ability to allocate its resources {nutrients and sugar) evenly between seeds. Ultimately, this leads to a superior flavor profile and higher quality bean [4].

Perhaps The Greatest Impact of Bee Pollination…

  • Genetic Diversity: More advanced research has also unveiled how bees select and contribute to the genetic diversification of coffee plants, signposting a future rich in innovative coffee breeding methods [14]. They are truly a magnificent and essential part of nature, our survival, and of course, our coffee!

Taste Dynamics

But how do all these interactions between bees and coffee plants impact what we taste in our cup?

1. Chemical Nuances: As described above, bees influence the chemical composition of coffee cherries through greatly improved and enhanced pollination that otherwise humans would struggle to do on a wide, cost-effective scale. Pollinated cherries undergo unique chemical transformations that result in richer flavors and without bees our coffee wouldn’t be the same [6].

2. Personal Experiences: Many coffee drinkers have consistently commented on a superior flavor profile for bee-pollinated beans. The nuanced notes and richer aroma can be a game-changer for the discerning palate.

Case Studies: Progressive Coffee Farms

Around the world, coffee growers are slowly waking up to the importance of bees. By adopting bee-friendly practices, they've not only seen improvements in yields, but also in bean quality [7]. For example, farms in Colombia have observed an upswing in their bee populations and correlatively, healthier harvests [15]. These success stories illuminate the path for sustainable farming.

Coffee, Bees, and Our Environment

A focus on the interconnected narratives of coffee and bees offers insights into our environment's future.

1. Shade-grown coffee: Encouraging the growth of shade-loving coffee varieties enhances biodiversity. This shaded environment is a refuge for many species, including bees [16].

2. Pesticides - A Double-Edged Sword: Though they protect crops, pesticides can harm bees [9]. Choosing eco-friendly alternatives, such as organic farming and specialty grade coffees can transform agriculture and the health of bee populations for the better.

3. Deforestation and Habitat Loss: Deforestation clears forests for agriculture or urbanization, directly threatening coffee and bees. Forests provide bees with essential resources like nectar and pollen. Plus, shade-grown coffee, cultivated under tree canopies, is of superior quality. When these forests are lost, so are habitats vital for bees and optimal conditions for coffee cultivation [17].

4. Climate Change: Rising global temperatures, a consequence of climate change, pose a serious threat to coffee cultivation. As temperatures increase, the conditions needed for coffee growth are altered, jeopardizing the crop's quality and quantity. Similarly, extreme weather events can disrupt bee populations, affecting pollination and, subsequently, coffee yields [18].

    .

Embracing a Deeper Connection

Beyond the looming threats of deforestation and climate change, honeybees face a plethora of challenges ranging from diseases to changing landscapes. Understanding these hardships not only highlights their significance but also illustrates their resilience — reminiscent of the coffee plant's survival journey, which they so deeply influence. In recognizing the symbiotic relationship between bees and coffee, we glimpse the intricate balance of our ecosystem. By choosing sustainably grown coffee, we initiate a ripple effect that benefits the environment and its diverse species.

Honeybees, crucial not only for honey production, underpin many ecological processes, including coffee pollination. Their role in maintaining the ecosystem's balance is profound, reminding us of the interconnectedness of all living things. It is vital to recognize and cherish the pivotal role bees play, understanding they are as essential as any other creature, us included.

What Can You Do to Empower Your Own Garden?

Making a difference starts in our backyards:

Practice Description
Diverse Planting By planting a variety of flowers, we ensure bees have consistent nectar sources throughout the year.
Natural Over Chemical Opting out of harmful pesticides and choosing organic alternatives can be a small yet profoundly impactful step [10].
Pollinator Friendly Set up birdhouses, bee hotels, and butterfly habitats to encourage beneficial pollinators and wildlife to visit and reside in your garden.

Table 1. What you can do

The need for sustainable coffee farming, interwoven with bee conservation, is more pressing than ever.

Sustainable Farming practices

Forward-thinking research, tech innovations, and global collaboration aim to preserve this timeless bond.

By understanding the role bees play in our daily brew, we can make informed decisions as both producers and consumers, supporting practices that ensure our morning cup remains consistent, and the familiar buzz of bees remains in our garden.

A Call to Savor and Save

As our journey through the verdant coffee groves, punctuated by the hum of industrious bees, draws to a close, let's not forget our role in this grand narrative. Each morning, as the aromatic embrace of coffee envelops you, take a moment to ponder: How can I ensure that this story continues? Perhaps it's by supporting sustainable coffee brands, such as General Warfield's Coffee, or maybe it's by fostering a bee-friendly garden. Let your daily cup not just be a testament to nature's beauty but also a pledge to protect it. Remember, every sip counts—as does every step we take in preserving our shared destiny with these tiny guardians of flavor.

Concluding Thoughts

Coffee cultivation relies heavily on bees for pollination, with both facing threats from deforestation and climate change. As we continue to understand the intricate relationship between these species, it's imperative to adopt sustainable practices. By doing so, we not only secure our favorite morning brew, but also play a part in preserving diverse ecosystems and the stability of our planet. The next time you enjoy a cup of General Warfield's Coffee, take a moment to appreciate the tiny buzzers that played a part in their journey to your cup.

 

Try our Pollinated & Sustainable Specialty Grade Coffee Options Today by Clicking the Image Below:

 Link to our Specialty Grade Coffees

References:

    1. National Coffee Association. (2021). Coffee Drinking Trends. [Website](https://www.ncausa.org/Industry-Resources/Market-Research)
    1. Davis, A. P., Govaerts, R., Bridson, D. M., & Stoffelen, P. (2006). An annotated taxonomic conspectus of the genus Coffea (Rubiaceae). Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 152(4), 465-512.
    1. Klein, A. M., Steffan‐Dewenter, I., & Tscharntke, T. (2003). Bee pollination and fruit set of Coffea arabica and C. canephora (Rubiaceae). American Journal of Botany, 90(1), 153-157.
    1. Ricketts, T. H. (2004). Tropical forest fragments enhance pollinator activity in nearby coffee crops. Conservation Biology, 18(5), 1262-1271.
    1. World Coffee Research. (2021). Breeding Coffee for the Future. [Website](https://worldcoffeeresearch.org/)
    1. Jha, S., & Vandermeer, J. H. (2010). Impacts of coffee agroforestry management on tropical bee communities. Biological Conservation, 143(6), 1423-1431.
    1. Philpott, S. M., Arendt, W. J., Armbrecht, I., Bichier, P., Diestch, T. V., & Gordon, C. (2008). Biodiversity loss in Latin American coffee landscapes: review of the evidence on ants, birds, and trees. Conservation Biology, 22(5), 1093-1105.
    1. Jaramillo, J., Chabi‐Olaye, A., Kamonjo, C., Jaramillo, A., Vega, F. E., Poehling, H. M., & Borgemeister, C. (2010). Thermal tolerance of the coffee berry borer Hypothenemus hampei: predictions of climate change impact on a tropical insect pest. PLoS One, 5(8), e12010.
    1. Bees face many challenges – and climate change is ratcheting up the pressure. (2022). [Website] (https://theconversation.com/bees-face-many-challenges-and-climate-change-is-ratcheting-up-the-pressure-190296)
    1. The Bee Conservancy. (2023). 10 Ways to Save the Bees [Website](https://thebeeconservancy.org/10-ways-to-bees/)
    1. National Coffee Association. (2023). What Is Coffee. [Website](https://www.ncausa.org/About-Coffee/What-is-Coffee)
    1. News Direct. (2023). 79% Of Americans Drink 2+ Cups of Coffee Per Day, Survey Finds [Website](https://newsdirect.com/news/79-of-americans-drink-2-cups-of-coffee-per-day-survey-finds-620695205).
    1. Willmer, P. G., & Finlayson, K. (2014). Big bees do a better job: intraspecific size variation influences pollination effectiveness. Journal of Pollination Ecology, 14(16).
    1. De Marco Jr, P., & Coelho, F. M. (2004). Services performed by the ecosystem: forest remnants influence agricultural cultures’ pollination and production. Biodiversity and Conservation, 13(7), 1245-1255.
    1. Perfecto, I., & Vandermeer, J. (2015). Coffee agroecology: A new approach to understanding agricultural biodiversity, ecosystem services and sustainable development. Routledge.
    1. Rice, R. A. (2011). Shade grown coffee: Conservation and biodiversity. Encyclopedia of Biodiversity.
    1. Rice, R. A. (2011). Shade grown coffee: its implications for conservation. Nature & Resources, 37(1), 20-25.
    1. Bunn, C., Läderach, P., Ovalle Rivera, O., & Kirschke, D. (2015). A bitter cup: climate change profile of global production of Arabica and Robusta coffee. Climatic Change, 129(1-2), 89-101.
    1. Klein, A. M., Steffan‐Dewenter, I., & Tscharntke, T. (2003). Fruit set of highland coffee increases with the diversity of pollinating bees. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences, 270(1518), 955-961.

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