Saturday, February 22, 2014

Don't Underestimate the Native Pollinators

Honey bee and several native bees on flowers of fruit trees
© Beatriz Moisset
 The concern for honey bees has exploded in recent years. A day doesn't go by without a new article on the media or comments on numerous nature blogs. Some are agonized cries of help with words such as: Save the bees to save our food supply! Honey bees are going extinct, we are next! Almost completely lost in the shuffle are native pollinators, namely the 4,000 species of bees in the US.

Most of the public is unaware that native pollinators could supply a substantial amount of crop pollination. In many instances one or another native bee or an entire cadre of them results in more efficient pollination than that of honey bees. Here are a few examples:

In an apple orchard, 250 orchard mason bees can do as much as 15,000 to 20,000 honey bees. Squash bees are early risers and are likely to do more pollination of pumpkins and squash than the late arrivals—honey bees and bumble bees. The Southeastern blueberry bee, Habropoda laboriosa, is capable of pollinating $20 worth of blueberries in her lifetime. Many native bees work in wetter or colder weather than honey bees. The alkali bee and the non-native alfalfa leaf cutter bee pollinate a higher percentage of visited flowers than honey bees do. Some small orchards and vegetable fields get most of their pollination done by native bees.

Many native bees practice buzz pollination,
needed by tomatoes and other crops
© Beatriz Moisset
All and all according to some studies, native bees provide $3 billion worth of pollination to agriculture, while honey bees' contribution is valued at $15-18 billion. If we put native bees to work, we could reverse these proportions. Perhaps the best way out of the so-called honey bee crisis is to find the way to take better advantage of the other bees. How difficult would that be?
A hundred years ago native bees played an important role on crop pollination. As far back as seventy or eighty years, several authors noticed that bumble bee and solitary bee populations were dropping. This loss was most noticeable in larger farms where sometimes fruit or vegetable yield suffered by the absence of pollinators. Nobody seemed terribly concerned as long as the honey bee could be brought into service. Some observers knew that native bees were more efficient in many cases, but felt that the ease with which honey bees can be managed compensated for this drawback.

Some native bees are just as efficient as honey bees
at pollinating fruit trees
© Beatriz Moisset
Intensive farming grew as did the need for pesticides, and beehives started to be transported long distances and in large numbers to do their duty. It was the birth of the pollination industry involving beekeeping practices far removed from what would be considered natural. It shouldn't surprise us that such an unsustainable system is causing troubles for honey bees.

Can we bring native pollinators back after they continued to lose ground for the past century? Are there enough left around to take over the task of pollinating our crops? Even without statistics, we can be sure that only a tiny fraction of the previous populations remains. Perhaps, some species are precariously hanging on the verge of extinction or have already disappeared.

Dead solitary bee © Beatriz Moisset
No species takes the road to extinction willingly. Every creature, large or small, fights tooth and nail, or mandible and tarsal claw as the case may be, to stay alive and procreate. A few years ago, an entomologist found a miner bee's nest in a flower pot in his backyard. Another bee expert encountered a rare species of bee, regarded close to extinction, in the very heart of Washington DC, in a butterfly garden at the Washington Mall. With remarkable tenacity, these little survivors had managed to find just enough resources and shelter to raise their families in the middle of the concrete jungle.

We should not give up hope. Native pollinator populations can be brought back to the levels of yesteryear; perhaps then they can resume pollinating the crops that feed us.

Pollinators. © Beatriz Moisset.
Update, April, 2014. I followed some published reports when I said "native bees provide $3 billion worth of pollination to agriculture, while honey bees' contribution is valued at $15-18 billion." However this may be shortchanging native pollinators. Perhaps they do a lot more. A publication by Claire Kremen states that in California  native pollinators are responsible for $2.4 billions and honey bees for $3.9 billions. In other words, in that state native pollinators are responsible for almost 40% of all agricultural pollination. I will keep searching the truth.

List of articles

Beginners Guide to Pollinators and Other Flower Visitors

© Beatriz Moisset. 2014 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Alfalfa Pollination

What is the most important insect-pollinated crop? Not a fruit or a vegetable but alfalfa. Yes, alfalfa, not because we consume large amounts of their sprouts, but because cattle needs this food. Thus: no alfalfa, no beef or milk.

This crop was first introduced in California during the gold rush. Alfalfa farming grew from there at a steady pace to what it is today, the third largest crop, after corn and soy bean. A few species of bumble bees and solitary bees took a look at this exotic flower, found it to their liking and proceeded to pollinate it. It wasn't a big leap; this plant's blossoms resemble those of other members of the pea or bean family. The native pollinators were familiar with bean flowers and adapted easily to the new arrival.

Alfalfa blossom. H. © Zel. Wikicommons
Peas, beans, alfalfa, clover and several other plants have butterfly-like (papilionaceous) flowers. The lower petals form an enclosure, shaped like the keel of a boat. This structure holds the sexual parts, the anthers and pistil. When an insect lands on the flower, a trigger mechanism makes it snap open or trip the flower. This is how pollination is accomplished.

Honey bees were not present in California when the earliest fields of alfalfa were cultivated. The first beehive arrived in 1853, just one solitary hive; a few others had died in transit. It took many years for the honey bee populations to build up to significant levels. This didn't matter because the wild bees did an excellent job.

New Zealand wasn't so lucky when it started growing alfalfa to feed the recently introduced cattle. The few native pollinators were stumped by the new flower. They lacked the necessary equipment and dismissed the strange blossoms. Year after year, hay grew luxuriantly, but no seeds. Alfalfa growers resorted to importing a few species of bumble bees from Europe to cut down the expenses of having to buy seed every year. Thus, industrious bumble bees saved the day in that country.

Scotch broom, a papilionaceous flower, being tripped. © Beatriz Moisset
 Honey bees detest the rough treatment alfalfa flowers subject them to and soon learn a trick of their own. They enter the flower from the side and help themselves to nectar without tripping its mechanism. Only na├»ve, youthful ones pollinate flowers. Despite the honey bees' poor performance, most alfalfa farmers resort to them because of the convenience in using a managed species.

In addition to the honey bee, two other species of alfalfa pollinators are managed to some extent and used commercially. They are the Japanese alfalfa leafcutter bee and the native alkali bee.

The populations of native bees have been severely reduced in the last one hundred years largely because of intensive agriculture. Restoring their numbers and putting them to work in alfalfa fields would be an arduous task but a worthy one. Some farmers find that, when they include flowering and nesting site places in their fields or orchards, the health of the crop improves and the need for pesticides diminishes. Thus, alfalfa pollination could be done entirely and more efficiently by native bees. This form of agriculture would be more sustainable than the present methods.

List of articles
Bring Back the Native Pollinators
Will We all Die if Honey Bees Disappear?
Growing Insects: Farmers Can Help to Bring Back Pollinators
Organic Farming for Bees

© Beatriz Moisset. 2014