Are People Worried About the Wrong Bees?

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Honey bees worldwide continue to suffer from pesticides and colony collapse disorder, and biologists and economists worry that declines in honey bee populations endanger the global food system.

However, recent studies point out that native bees and other insects actually pollinate many of the world’s crops, not honey bees. Habitat loss, pesticides, new diseases and competition with invasive species, including European honey bees, threaten native bees and other pollinators.

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Are people worrying about the wrong bees?

Flowers pollinated by native insects developed into fruits and grains, a process known as fruit set, at twice the rate of crop flowers visited by honey bees, according to a study published in Science earlier this year. Fruit set increased after native insect pollination in all 41 crops studied, whereas only 14 percent increased fruit set after honey bee visitation.

PLOS ONE recently published research on how pesticides spread from crops to local wildflowers. The research also noted that, although farmers pay beekeepers for pollination of their crops, many of the hired honey bees were actually wandering off into the weeds and wildflowers to collect pollen. Only almonds and apples received significant attention from the bees.

Considering the benefit of native pollinators to the world’s crops, protecting America’s agricultural system may require stewardship of those insects.

However, large-scale farms often have few refuges for native pollinators. The insects thrive when a diverse array of plants provide shelter and nesting locations. Vast fields of a single crop don’t make ideal homes for helpful bugs. Farmers can use hedgerows, fallow fields and vegetated windbreaks to provide habitat for native pollinators. Farmers finances could also benefit since native pollinators work for free, unlike hired honey bees.

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At home, Americans can help pollinators by planting native wildflowers from seed or from organic plant starters. This ensures the plants and flowers are not already contaminated with pesticides when purchased.

IMAGE: Augochlora pura, a native American bee (John Baker, Wikimedia Commons)

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