Friday, May 31, 2013

One Bite out of Three before Columbus

Bumble bee on pumpkin flower © Beatriz Moisset. 2013
Only recently we have opened our eyes to the importance of pollinators in food production. The interest keeps growing almost daily. We often hear it expressed as "we owe one bite out of three to pollinators."

As I mentioned in the previous post, many assume that the honey bee is responsible for all that pollination. Not so! We must remember that the domesticated bee was brought to this continent in the 1600s by European colonists. It was introduced to California even later, in the 1850s. Who did all the pollination before? Was it as necessary then as it is now?

I suspected that the "one bite out of three" was just as valid before the introduction of the honey bee as it is now. I decided to learn about the pollinators that did all the work in pre-Columbian days. First, I searched for information on Native Americans' food plants and then studied how these plants were pollinated. You can immerse yourself on Daniel Moerman's list of 1,500 plants (Native American Ethnobotany Database) or read a shorter list of plants used by peoples of the North East. I will limit myself to painting a picture with an extremely broad brush starting with the most important food sources.

Beans were one of the Three Sisters that Native Americans cultivated © Beatriz Moisset. 2013

In large part of North America the native peoples cultivated the so called Three Sisters: corn, squash and beans. Corn is wind pollinated. But the other two need the help of bees. The squash bee and a variety of solitary bees and bumble bees pollinate the so called vine crops: pumpkins, squash and other gourds. Beans, all varieties of them, also need the help of native bees and bumble bees to produce a crop.
Bumble bee on sunflower © Beatriz Moisset. 2013
Sunflower, another staple of Native Americans, is also bee pollinated and so are blueberries and cranberries and nearly all other berries. Chestnuts, abundant in pre-Columbian times, were a significant part of the diet all along Eastern North America. Unfortunately, the American chestnut has gone almost extinct in the last century, so we don't know much about its pollinators. But the European and the Chinese chestnuts are pollinated by bees. We can be quite confident that it was the same with American chestnuts.
Studying the pollinators of camas lilies in Oregon © Beatriz Moisset. 2013
In the West, the tubers of camas lilies were of great importance to local tribes. Their delicate blue flowers attract a number of insects, many of which serve as pollinators.
Common milkweed was eaten by Native Americans after removing the toxins
© Beatriz Moisset. 2013
Among all the other plants listed on the references given above, I have picked just a few examples of those that require insect pollination: mints, milkweeds, passion flowers, spring beauties and prickly pears.

In South America, all the members of the tomato and potato family are insect pollinated. Figs, cashew nuts, cacao and a number of tropical fruits also require the services of pollinators, not just insects but even hummingbirds and bats.

Of course, Native Americans ate animals in addition to plants. Some of this food also depended indirectly on pollinators. I will limit myself to one example, that iconic bird that represents one of the early interactions between European colonists and natives: the turkey. It feeds, in part, on insect-pollinated berries, crabapples, seeds, roots and nuts.
Wild turkeys © Beatriz Moisset. 2013
Pre-Columbian diets depended on pollinators just as much as present day diets. Native pollinators continued to do a good job when farms and orchards were small. However, in recent times, the Old World domestic bee has become the most important pollinator of American crops because of the development of modern agricultural methods. The role of the native pollinators could be restored by creating the right conditions for them, such as providing nesting sites and reducing pesticides, near crop fields. The Pollination Conservation Resource Center of the Xerces Society and the PollinatorPartnership among other organizations are committed to these goals. You can find valuable resources in their respective websites.


  1. I have been amazed and extremely pleased at the number of native bees that I have found at work in my garden. Do you know of a good reference to their identification?

  2. Bugguide is by far the most useful resource, not only because of the photos and information but also for the great help if you submit images to ID request:
    But, beware, there are a few non-native bees besides Apis mellifera. It helps to consult this article about non-native arthropods: Scroll down to the families Apidae, Andrenidae, Colletidae, Halictidae and Megachilidae.
    If you just want some generalities about bees, you can consult my booklet published by the USDA and downloadable as a PDF document:

  3. Thanks for explaining this. Had no idea honeybees were a much an import as my forebears.

    I have bumblebees in my yard. Love to watch them do their thing. They are safe from pesticides as we keep a green yard.