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 


  1. I guess a desire to know what native pollinators I can provide a little "nursery space" for, here among the highly pesticide treated crop fields, is what is motivating me to try to identify all of the insects that I can find and photograph on our 10 acres. I've been excited to see how many different kinds of bees, flies, and wasps I've been able to notice - and photograph - so far.

    And, along with that passion on my part, thank you so much for the work you do with I notice your comments identifying different specimens as I search through the photos, trying to find the best match for what I'm observing. That site is an incredible aid to me as I learn and then try to share what I'm learning with others in the area.

  2. I enjoyed this post.

    I have a nice variety of native plants in our small corner lot, and feel privileged to have an assortment of bees and wasps as well as butterflies visit the blooms. I want to do a better job identifying the bees here, too. I love how they let me get close to them to take photos.