We are Focused on the Wrong Pollinators

We are Focused on the Wrong Pollinators

Commercial honeybees (Apis mellifera) receive the majority of our focus and research, but they are only one small part of a larger pollinator system.

It is the wild, native pollinators that do the brunt of the pollination for our gardens and our ecosystems. Supporting these insects is essential and can be very straightforward.

The Million-Dollar Bees

Wild pollinators come in all different shapes and sizes- they have each evolved to fit particular purposes. There are tiny insect pollinators, huge bumblebees, and even bees with extra long tongues to reach deep-tubed flowers.
Wild pollinators are far more efficient pollinators for an entire ecosystem (or our garden) because they have evolved for (literally) millions of years to fit the right niche. Expecting the common cultivated honeybee to fit all those purposes is like trying to use one wrench for many different sized bolts.

In a North Carolina study of blueberry pollination, Dr. Hannah Burrack valued the benefit of each species of native pollinator at $1.42 million dollars of yield per year (x.) That is from an area with dozens of native pollinators, all doing this work for free.

Those are some valuable insects!

In a similar study, it was found that honeybees only increased the yield of six out of 41 different crops. In other words, they only had a positive effect on 14% of the crops tested. Who accounted for all the extra pollination? Wild pollinators did it. Even in crops pollinated by honeybees, wild pollinators often accounted for twice the workload (x.)

Bumblebees, using the powerful vibration of their wings, are able to coax blueberry flowers to release more pollen.

Broadening Our Pollinator Perspectives

Wild bees have evolved for different sorts of tasks. Some are strong flyers, able to pollinate in spite of wind and rain. Others have specialized tools, such as wings that can vibrate flowers to release pollen. Each species has different favored pollen sources and different body types. They are also affected by pesticides in very different ways. 

A massive study on wild bee populations recently concluded that pesticides affect wild bee species much more than our domestic honeybees. While honeybees were mildly affected by the low pesticide dosages of the study, wild bees were affected in a huge way. Wild bee density in the treated fields was half that of untreated fields. Solitary bee nests disappeared from the treated fields completely.

It is time to start looking beyond our domestic honeybees. It is the wild pollinators that truly support us, and they are in significant decline- 50% of wild Midwestern bees are already gone from their historic ranges (x.)

If you want your garden to produce abundant fruits and vegetables, or your perennials to reseed themselves, you need native pollinators.

Supporting Native Pollinators is Easy!

There are simple, powerful methods we can all use to support wild pollinators.

One of the best things any homeowner can do is provide wild pollinators with a safe haven. Our lawns are food deserts to bees (especially when they are laden with pesticides.) A bee haven is a place with no pesticides of any kind. It must have diverse flower species that bloom throughout the growing season. Donating even a small percentage of your lawn to wild bees helps to feed them throughout the year.

ifarm is running a workshop on Planting for Pollinators in two weeks that will cover tips and techniques to easily grow a beautiful, diverse flower garden that supports pollinators.

You will be amazed by what you see start to happen, as local pollinators catch on to your gift.

2 Comments
  • Margaret genest
    Posted at 08:23h, 24 June Reply

    Good article. Lots of people don’t realize the honey bee isn’t native to North America. I frequently watch for pollinators in my garden. Lots of mason bees, green sweat bees and bumblebees. I have never seen a honey bee in my garden. My garden is organic and thrives with these lesser known pollinators.

    • Nick Shrewsbury
      Posted at 10:09h, 28 June Reply

      Thanks Margaret! It is amazing how thickly the pollinators come when you provide just a little sustenance.

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