A Sweet Partnership: The Relationship Between Bees and Regenerative Agriculture at Heifer Ranch

By Jennifer Smith

May 16, 2023

Last Updated: May 18, 2023

Bees are a key part of the ecosystem at the Heifer Ranch Center for Regenerative Agriculture – and beyond.

The sound of buzzing bees is music to the farmers' ears at the Heifer Ranch Center for Regenerative Agriculture in Perryville, and not just because of the honey they produce.

"Bees mean there is life in our ecosystem," said Donna Kilpatrick, Director of Regeneration at the Ranch. "Honey is a bonus."

Bees play a crucial role in the success of regenerative agriculture at Heifer Ranch. Regenerative agriculture is a climate-smart approach to farming that prioritizes subtle, holistic methods to restore the land. It involves nurturing the soil and increasing biodiversity.

A thriving bee population, along with the presence of birds, wildlife, and fungi, provides a glimpse into the overall health and resilience of the land, indicating the presence of healthy soil, diverse plant life and a lack of harmful chemicals and pollutants.

Honeybees pollinate white flowers
Bees land on flowers at the Heifer Ranch Center for Regenerative Agriculture. Photo by Jennifer Smith/Heifer USA.

Bees and Regenerative Agriculture at Heifer Ranch

Biodiversity is a must. When there are different kinds of species living together, they interact and connect, making nature more stable, particularly in processes like pollination.

“At the Ranch, we rely on both native bees and a carefully managed honeybee apiary,” said Sarah Bakker, Heifer USA’s horticulturist. “While you do not need both native and non-native bees for pollination, it can be effective to ensure that crops and cover crops are being pollinated properly.”

Having many different types of bees can help keep everything in balance, especially when there are changes in the environment. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. notes that diverse pollinators are one of the best ways to minimize risks due to climatic change; a diversity of pollinators ensures that there are effective pollinators not just for current conditions, but for future conditions as well.

Here are four ways bees contribute to the regenerative work at Heifer Ranch:

  1. Pollination: Bees contribute to livestock production through pollination of forage plants such as clover and alfalfa. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 75% of the world's flowering plants and about 35% of the world’s food crops depend on animal pollinators to reproduce.
  2. Soil health: When bees visit flowers, they spread pollen and nectar, which can help improve soil microbial activity and nutrient cycling. This helps to make the soil healthier and more fertile.
  3. Seed production: Many crops require cross-pollination to produce viable seeds. By cross-pollinating plants, bees can create hybrids that may have better resistance to pests, diseases, and other environmental stressors, leading to more sustainable and regenerative farming practices, as well as better food security.
  4. Ecosystem services: Bees support biodiversity by pollinating plants that provide habitat and food for other wildlife. They also help improve water quality by pollinating plants that filter and clean water.
A beekeeper holds up bees in honeycomb at Heifer Ranch
Bees and honeycomb at the Heifer Ranch Center for Regenerative Agriculture. Photo by Logan Scroggins/Heifer USA.

How Regenerative Agriculture Helps Bees

It's clear that bees support soil health and biodiversity at Heifer Ranch. In turn, regenerative farming practices benefit the bees, supporting their health and boosting their population.

Here are four ways regenerative agriculture helps bees:

  1. Increased biodiversity: In regenerative agriculture, farmers plant a variety of crops, including native plants. Heifer Ranch plants some cover crops, but mostly relies on holistic planned grazing methods to increase soil health, which helps increase plant diversity. This gives bees year-round food options and helps protect their natural habitat.
  2. Improved soil health: Heifer Ranch farmers make the soil healthier by implementing regenerative agriculture practices like cover cropping and reduced tillage. This way of farming grows better plants and creates a favorable environment for soil organisms that help bees stay healthy.
  3. Holistic planned grazing: The Ranch’s careful management of grazing patterns gives plants time to regrow and diversify, which gives bees and other pollinators plenty of places to live and find food. A recent Montana State University study found that rangelands practicing rest-rotation grazing produced better habitats for native pollinators than pastures with no livestock grazing.
  4. Habitat restoration: Regenerative farming can include restoring and creating pollinator habitats. Heifer Ranch plants cover crops like clover, buckwheat, millet, and flower plants like sunn hemp. These crops offer bees a place to live, find food, and stay safe.

A World Without Bees

We need to care for the bees because losing them means severe consequences for our plants, food, and wallets. A world without bees means less food, higher prices, and ecological chaos – not a pretty picture. And here's a sobering fact: our American Bumblebee population has taken a nosedive, plummeting by a staggering 90% in just two decades. Donna puts it bluntly: "We have to have bees for pollination. Without bees, we die."

A pollinator-friendly garden sign
The pollinator-friendly garden at Heifer Ranch. One way to help bees is to plant wildflowers. Photo by Heifer USA.

How You Can Help Bees

What can one person do to help the bees? Sarah has a suggestion: plant wildflowers and let them grow. "Creating areas of native wildflowers that are allowed to flourish all year without interference from mowing equipment is one of the best ways to encourage healthy bee populations in and around your farm or yard." You could participate in No Mow May, and skip mowing your lawn for a month, or cut back on how often you cut your grass. Studies have shown that cutting back on mowing – even just from one week to every other week  – can have a positive impact on native ground-dwelling bee populations.

Here are some more steps you can take to help the bees:

By creating bee-friendly havens, renewing the soil, and embracing biodiversity, regenerative agriculture gives bee populations the boost they need. The bees, in turn, support the regeneration of the ranch ecosystems and biodiversity through pollination, nutrient cycling, and enabling seed production, making the partnership between Heifer Ranch and bees a sweet collaboration.

Heifer Ranch practices regenerative farming and trains U.S. farmers in its climate-smart methods. The ranch has five honeybee hives and many more wild bee colonies on its 1,200 acres in Perryville, Arkansas. Heifer Ranch Center for Regenerative Agriculture is a project of Heifer USA and an accredited Savory Hub.