Beautiful Native Plants

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Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Bring Back the Native Pollinators! Honey bees are not enough

A long-horned bee on sunflower
© Beatriz Moisset
I keep pondering the questions I posed in my previous post (Will We all Die if Honey Bees Disappear?): how did we manage to become so dependent on a single species of pollinators, the domestic honey bee? What happened to the native ones that populated the entire continent and performed the pollination of the native plants? In my search for answers I stumbled upon an old publication of the Department ofAgriculture and finally began to find some answers.
Here is an excerpt from the USDA document prepared by the Division of Bee Culture in 1942: “The Dependence of Agriculture on the Beekeeping Industry—a Review.”
Wherever a proper balance exists between plants and pollinating insects, both flourish. Agricultural development, however, has seriously interfered with this balance. It has demanded the growing of certain plants in enormous acreages and has unwittingly destroyed native pollinating insects as well as their nesting places. As a result the burden of pollination has been increased to such an extent that wild bees are no longer adequate or dependable, particularly where agriculture is highly developed. In many places the depletion of wild pollinators is so acute that honeybees have to be brought in especially for pollination, and so in practically all agricultural areas honeybees are now the most numerous of the flower-visiting insects.
Now we know! Native pollinators were more abundant a century ago and played an important role in agriculture as long as there was some natural habitat near the farms! Even fencerows were enough to provide nesting habitat for wild bees. Also pesticides weren’t as prevalent then. Intensive agriculture aided by managed honey bees changed all that.
Furthermore, the authors were aware that some crops are pollinated more efficiently by native bees than by honey bees. Examples of this are blueberries, squash and alfalfa. Tomatoes can only be pollinated by native bees. They went on to discuss the necessity to protect native pollinators and regretted the lack of action.
Authorities universally admit the importance of wild insects in pollinating agricultural crops; yet no State or Federal organization is especially concerned with the conservation of beneficial insects. It is apparent, therefore, that the destruction of pollinating insects has not been fully recognized as the important cause of decreased seed and fruit production in many crops that are benefited by insect pollination.
As long as honey bees were available, who cared about other pollinators? Industrial beekeeping was developing fast in those days. Transportation of hives became a large business; farms continued to become larger and less diverse and pesticide use increased. Some measures were taken to protect beehives from pesticides; but they did not apply to wild pollinators.
Solitary bee
© Beatriz Moisset
Finally, more than thirty years later, somebody rang the alarm loud and clear. Steve Buchmann and Gary Nabhan published their aptly named book The Forgotten Pollinators in 1996. It was a wake-up call to many, a clearheaded look to what was happening to pollinators and the need to turn the tide.
Along with the book, several organizations arose that concerned themselves with the plight of pollinators and the need for action. Foremost are the Pollinator Partnership and the Xerces Society; both provide information for the general public on how to help pollinators. In the past fifteen years, I have seen a steady growth of interest on this subject, even among people who had never paid attention to pollination before.
In my opinion, all these efforts combined are but a drop in the bucket when compared with the magnitude of the problem. Native pollinators have continued to lose ground and it would be a gigantic task to bring their populations back to functional levels. To illustrate this point, I suggest you take a look at the land from a plane window next time you take a flight. Or else, you can visit Google Earth and see for yourself how little habitat is left for pollinators in large areas of this country.
Central Valley, CA
Almond fields, pollinated by honey bees.
No natural habitat left anywhere
Google Earth
Wild bees and other pollinators still can perform most or even all the pollination services of smaller farms. This is the case with some apple orchards and watermelon fields in the Eastern United States. That which is needed is some nesting habitat nearby and no or minimal pesticides. Suburban gardens can provide such habitat.
Bucks County, PA
Small farms and abundant habitat for pollinators
Google Earth
More than ever, our gardens are becoming invaluable pieces of pollinator habitat. It goes without saying that native plants are the best choices for native pollinators. For suggestions on how to help these forgotten members of the ecosystems, I recommend the Pollinator Friendly Planting Guides supplied by the Pollinator Partnership, and the Ultimate Guide to Attracting Native Bees.
Pumpkin patch
teeming with bumble bees and squash bees
© Beatriz Moisset
Pollinator Friendly Planting Guides (Pollinator Partnership).
Ultimate Guide to Attracting Native Bees (Beautiful Wildlife Gardens)
© 2014, Beatriz Moisset. First published in Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens