Be Pro-Bee: Buy Shade Grown Coffee

Bzzz. Bzzzzzzzz. Bz.


Is that the sound of your caffeine buzz, or is it the hum of the millions of happy native bees you’re helping to house when you choose shade-grown coffee beans over conventional?

Actually, it may be both. No secret that choosing shade-grown coffee (planted under rainforest canopy, as farmers have done for ages) over conventional (planted on deforested land, a modern technique developed to maximize production) is one of the easiest ways to fight the good fight against deforestation – a leading cause of climate change. But now scientists from the University of Michigan and UC Berkeley say there’s another reason shade-grown beans should be your best part of waking up: bees.

A farm that shade-grows supports native bee populations, which in turn connect (through pollination) that farm to other fragmented bits of precious tropical forest that haven’t yet been cleared. That means that each shade-coffee farm has an impact far beyond the enrichment of its own acres; it supports the entire network of shade-growing farms and untouched forest in the region, a sort of organism in itself.

For a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the Michigan and Berkeley scientists looked at farms that shade-grow in the highlands of southern Chiapas, Mexico, where tropical forests have been heavily cleared. The few forested areas that remain there are – as in many coffee-growing areas – dispersed and disconnected. Shalene Jha of Berkeley calls the resulting patchwork the “shade-coffee landscape mosaic."

And native bees are playing an integral role in gluing it all together, connecting shade-coffee farms to remnant forest to shade-coffee farms, promoting gene flow and genetic diversity.

Christopher Dick of U Michigan says: "A concern in tropical agriculture areas is that increasingly fragmented landscapes isolate native plant populations, eventually leading to lower genetic diversity. But this study shows that specialized native bees help enhance the fecundity and the genetic diversity of remnant native trees, which could serve as reservoirs for future forest regeneration."

That’s a lot of feel-good to stir into your morning cup of joe. And happily, more and more caffeine addicts seem to be going shade-side. Anecdotally, I’ll say that when I blogged on shade-growing this past Valentines’ Day, I still had to ask my local Starbucks baristas to dig around in their stock closet each time I wanted to buy a bag of their fair-trade, shade-grown blend to brew at home. Lately, they usually have tons of the eco-blend prominently on display and ready for purchase.

I'll drink to that.

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