One third of our food needs to be pollinated by insects. Honey bees are responsible for most of it. With 4,000 species of bees in North America plus numerous other pollinators of different stripes, how did we manage to become so dependent on just a single species? We know how important it is to diversify our portfolio, our diet, and our crops and gardens. So, what were we thinking?
We hear constant bad news about the situation of the honey bee. Their populations have been dwindling for the past fifty years. They took a sharper dip in the 1980s with the introduction of the varroa mite and a second sharp drop in the past few years with what came to be known as Colony Collapse Disorder. What would happen if all honey bees were to disappear from North America? Is it true that fruits and vegetables would disappear from supermarkets? Is it possible that we would all be dead in a few years?
Let us remember that there were no honey bees in this continent a few hundred years ago. Native Americans ate a healthy diet which included squash and beans, sunflower seeds, chestnuts and a variety of berries, all of them pollinated by native bees. More recently, small farms and vegetable gardens still could obtain enough pollination services without managed bee hives.
Present day farming or agribusiness, with its enormous monoculture fields, requires managed pollinators: hives with large numbers of workers that can be trucked long distances and moved from crop to crop as the seasons progress.
If all honey bees disappeared, it would be catastrophic for agriculture, as we know it, and we would certainly suffer grievously, but we would survive. Nevertheless, over time, other pollinators could, and would, take over all the tasks that the Jack-of-all-trades performs today. This would require profound changes in agriculture to meet these pollinators’ needs such as nesting habitat, diversity of crops, protection from pesticides and more. Fortunately, several groups of pollination experts are already exploring this issue and coming with alternatives.
The flowers of almonds, apples and cherries, as well as those of native crab apples and wild cherries are enthusiastically visited by native and non-native bees alike. The alfalfa leaf cutter bee and the alkali bee do a better job than honey bees at pollinating alfalfa. Wild bees are far superior to honey bees at pollinating the native blueberries and cranberries. Nonetheless, beehives are used for the pollination of these crops because honey bees compensate in numbers what they lack in finesse.
Would we all die if honey bees disappeared overnight? The answer is an emphatic no. Would the environment benefit from the changes imposed in agriculture? My guess is yes. What is yours?
Do native plant gardens, nature centers or wildflower preserves need honey bees? No, they do not. Native plants and local ecosystems need native pollinators. Bring them all, the shiny metallic ones, the fuzzy fat bumble bees, the leaf cutters, and the long horned ones, the ground nesters and those that prefer hollow tubes. Bring in the generalists and also the specialists, like the azalea bee, the spring beauty Andrena, the trout lily Andrena, the blueberry bee and the squash bee. We want the ones that are active briefly in early spring or in the summer and fall, and also the long lived ones that stick around through the seasons. Finally, let us not forget the flies, wasps, moths and all the others. The native plant garden needs them all and benefits from this wealth of species.
Update: Please, don’t miss the follow up article “Bring back the Native Pollinators.” You will find some answers.
Agroforestry: Sustaining Native Bee Habitat for Crop Pollination
Native Pollinators in Agricultural Hedgerows: An Alternative to Honeybee Colonies for Crop Pollination
Native Pollinators in Anthropogenic Habitats
Wild Pollinators of Eastern Apple Orchards (Xerces Society)
Native Bees, Native Plants and Crop Pollination in California
Native bees are better pollinators, more plentiful than honeybees, finds entomologist (Cornell University)
Organic Farming for Bees. Conservation of Native Crop Pollinators in Organic Farming Systems (Xerces Society)
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