Nobody panic, but honey bees are lousy pollinators.
They get a lot of credit for keeping our crops afloat, and an entire industry has evolved around trucking hives across the country to pollinate plums and almonds in California and tangerines in Florida, but it’s the 4,000 species of native bees who are the heroes of our produce aisles. From teddy bear bees and tickle bees to mud bees and squash bees, the diverse world of wild pollinators is critically important to our farms. In many cases, native pollinators do the heavy lifting while the honey bees get the glory.
A 2014 study that evaluated 41 crop systems around the world found that wild pollinators were twice as effective as honey bees in augmenting the fruit yield. The North East Pollination Partnership reports that native bees are four times more effective at pollinating apple blossoms than honey bees. For blueberries, native bee pollination results in twice as much fruit as honey bee pollination. Honey bees won’t even bother with tomatoes, so it’s up to bumble bees to pick up the slack. Our native bees have co-evolved alongside native North American crops like blueberries, pumpkins, cherries, and cranberries, and consequently different species are specialized champion pollinators for different crops.
The honey bee used in commercial American agriculture, Apis mellifera, is a European import: the settlers brought this bee over in 17th Century for the sake of their sweet tooth. While honey bees make a mean honey pot, they’re comparatively lackluster pollinators. Unlike the highly specialized native bees, honey bees are a one-size-fits-all solution.
Add to this, honey bees are very precise and tidy about collecting pollen, wetting it before forming it into the pollen pouches on their back legs. As a result, not much pollen falls off or gets transferred on their travels across the field. To borrow the words of Dave Hunter, founder of the native bee advocacy company Crown Bees, honey bees are simply “too sophisticated” to be superlative pollinators; they have a different end game.
Native bees are messier. For instance, a mason bee carries dry pollen all over her body as she belly flops from flower to flower. Bumble bees, true to form, just knock a whole lot more pollen loose. Clumsiness has never been so constructive because the end result is more fertilization and therefore more (and bigger) fruit.
Native bees defy most of our honey bee stereotypes. For starters, they don’t make honey. Native bees are solitary, i.e. they are not beholden to the complex caste system of a hive. (The notable exception here is the social bumble bee.) With no queen to protect, solitary bees are extremely gentle. Depending on the species, native bees typically live in hollowed out twigs, branches, or holes in the ground. All the females are fertile, not just the queen. Importantly, native bees are a diverse group of free agents.
By contrast, honey bee pollination is a convenient generalist approach to commercial agriculture. Their group domestication habits make honey bees easy to transport, and their devotion to the hive makes them easier to manipulate for industrial agricultural purposes. According to Hunter, most solitary bees won’t linger long in pesticide drenched fields, but worker honey bees have no choice but to stick with the hive wherever it is placed.
And renting hives for pollination is a lucrative business. According to one survey of beekeepers in the Pacific Northwest, pollination rentals account for 68 percent of beekeepers’ gross income, honey production just 30 percent. From a business opportunity standpoint, pollination rentals makes honey bee keeping a twofer.
But the relentless tour schedule and exposure to insecticide laced pollen are taking their toll on the honey bees. From mites to colony collapse disorder, the suffering of honey bees has long been making headlines. With that said, honey bees aren’t remotely endangered. As Hunter points out, preaching “save the bees” and raising honey bees is like saying “save the birds” and farming industrial chicken. It’s the native bees for whom we should be sounding the alarm bells.
According to a report by the Center of Biological Diversity released earlier this year, nearly half of all native bee populations are in decline—and 25 percent of them are imperiled or at risk of extinction. Increased pesticide use and habitat destruction from agricultural intensification as well as urbanization and climate change are the primary drivers of this loss.
The honey bees we’re trucking across the US aren’t helping the situation. In fact, Apis mellifera is an invasive species that may well be contributing to the hardships of our native bees by out-competing them, taking large amounts of nectar and pollen back to the hives and doing a half-hearted job of spreading pollen around on their journey.
What is arguably most problematic about the current industry standard of using honey bees as a bandaid for our declining populations of native pollinators is that it lures us into a false sense of security, cementing the notion that we can continue to game the system, planting monocultures and dousing our fields in chemicals. These fields cannot sustain our native pollinators, and it’s the native pollinators who have always sustained us.
Native bees are foundational to the health of our ecosystems. Using honey bees as a proxy by which to measure pesticides’ toxicity to our pollinators leaves us in the dark about the impact of these chemicals on native bees. For many species, we have too little data to even fully assess their status.
What we do know is that reducing or eliminating our chemical use would be tremendously beneficial to our native pollinators. Similarly, planting our fields with a diversity of native crops—rather than rows and rows of monocultures—would help ease the pressures on our pollinators’ natural habitats.
And while the challenges facing native bees are systemically driven, individuals can do their part by purchasing produce that has not been treated with pesticides and insecticides. Supporting smaller farms that use truly organic practices and intercropping, growing pollinator-friendly plants in and amongst the the money-making crop, is crucial.
Simply planting native wildflowers is also beneficial. As Aimee Code, Pesticide Program Coordinator of the Xerces Society, has said, “Any person who has even a postage stamp yard can stop using pesticides, put in more native plants,…and leave some wild areas for bees to to nest in the ground. It is that easy to help make a difference.”
Importantly, we need more widespread awareness around the extraordinary unprompted contribution native bees make to our food system. With every bite of blueberry cobbler or pumpkin pie, we should be giving our thanks to and telling our neighbor about the native bees who put this food on our plates.