Farming Innovations: Native Bees

Last month, I wrote about problems faced by honeybees, America’s most prominent pollinators, and how fostering honeybee habitats can be done in places as far-fetched as airports. Honeybees play an extremely important role in agriculture, but they’re not the only pollinators we rely upon for our food. Native insect species, including wild bees, also provide critical pollination services throughout the world.


The Problems

Colony Collapse Disorder has hit “domesticated” honeybees (a species imported from Europe, whose hives and locations are managed by humans) especially hard. Unfortunately, it’s also spreading to many of North America’s 4,000 native bee species that previously appeared unaffected. Helping native bee species thrive is just as important to wildlife and agriculture as saving honeybees. The native bees won’t produce honey that humans can appropriate for food and skincare, but that doesn’t make them any less important.

Native bees come in many sizes and colors

There are over 4,000 species of bee native to North America. So why are we so fixated on honeybees? (Photographed by Mace Vaughan, The Xerces Society, Nancy Adamson, and Rollin Coville)

It turns out that monocropping, the cultivation of just one kind of plant on the same land year after year, is worse for the environment than we thought. Farmers have been monocropping for centuries in order to increase labor efficiency for activities such as planting and harvesting. Monocropping is also a useful technique for mechanized farming in the modern age. Yet, for years, scholars and scientists have implicated monocropping for soil erosion and desertification across the world. Now, it’s clear that monocropping also harms pollinators.

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Field of wheat. (Photographed by Cornelia Schütz)

When acres upon acres of a monocrop are not in bloom, nearby pollinators lack sufficient food. This occurs even when farmers alternate between two or more crops each season; whatever the season, only one type of plant on the same swath of land is in bloom, depriving local pollinators of food during all other phases of that crop’s growth. Beekeepers can supplement their domestic honeybees’ diet with corn syrup or sugar water, but these lack the nutritional value of pollen and nectar. Humanity’s appetite for honey further exacerbates these bees’ food shortages; when honeybees should be subsisting all winter on the honey they’d created in warmer months, beekeepers take it away from them to sell to us, replacing honey with even more corn syrup and sugar water.

As if monocrop-generated nectar shortages and beekeepers’ honey harvesting weren’t enough, honeybees are also exposed to many communicable diseases and pathogens every year from other hives across the country. The worst exposure occurs at huge monocrop pollination events, such as the almond bloom throughout California’s Central Valley. Introducing weakened, malnourished honeybees into that kind of large-scale pollination event is a perfect way to transmit diseases to other honeybee hives, as well as to local native species.

The Solutions

In the face of such widespread harmful farming, beekeeping, and pollination practices, do native bees still have a chance? Biologists say yes. Partnering with farmers, biologists have been experimenting with pollination techniques that attract more native bees. The basic idea is: If you cultivate a variety of plants in close proximity, the native bees will come. This can be done next to cropland on marginal soil that would otherwise be unusable, planting something as simple as shrubbery or wildflowers—much like airport beekeeping. For larger croplands, more effective techniques include alternating rows of two main crops, or alternating rows of one crop with assorted native plants that flower at different times and require little to no maintenance. Of course, organic farming is ideal for these practices, as neonicotinoid pesticides have been proven harmful to bees.

Monocrops and native plants in adjacent plots

Pollinator planting adjacent to blueberry farm. (Photographed by Don Keirstead)

Such diversified planting techniques can completely supplant the need to hire migrant honeybees. In fact, some native bee species are more efficient than domestic honeybees at pollinating crops like blueberries and squash anyway. Even farmers who can’t or won’t rearrange their cropland optimally for native species can still reap some benefits from peripheral flowering vegetation; studies show that the presence of native bees increases the pollinating efficiency of hired honeybees.

Chart of native flowering plants that attract beneficial insects

Native Flowering Plants that Attract Beneficial Insects

Whether experimenting with new cropland distribution or just planting shrubs and wildflowers nearby, native bees stand a fighting chance if we shift our thinking away from monocropping once and for all. Not only will we help America’s native bees thrive, but we’ll also reduce the strain on the overburdened honeybees that we already know and love.

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One Comment

  1. Very interesting and informative. I will try to plant small patches of flowers next year that will attract native bees.

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