THE IMPORTANCE OF POLLINATORS

The vast majority of plant species-- almost 90%, in fact-- rely on pollinators to reproduce. Pollination is the process by which pollinators help plants to produce fruit (technically anything with seeds on the inside, so that includes things we normally think of as vegetables, like cucumbers, green beans and tomatoes) by transporting pollen from one flower to another. There are approximately 200,000 different species of animals around the world that act as pollinators. Of these, about 1,000 are vertebrates, such as birds, bats, and small mammals, and the rest are invertebrates, including flies, beetles, butterflies, moths, and bees. Pollinators provide pollination services to over 180,000 different plant species.

Pollinators help plants survive, and plants:

  • Produce ⅓ of our food supply by giving us countless fruits, vegetables, and nuts
  • Provide ½ of the world’s oils, fibers (such as the cotton used to make clothes), and other raw materials
  • Are used to create many medicines
  • Provide food and cover for wildlife
  • Keep waterways clean
  • Prevent soil erosion
  • Produce the oxygen we breathe
  • Absorb CO2, counteracting global climate change

Globally, pollinators are responsible for pollinating more than 1,200 crops. 87 of the leading 115 food crops, or about 75%, depend on pollinators. Every year, pollinators contribute more than $217 billion to the global economy, and $24 billion to the US economy. If we consider the indirect products of plants, such as milk and beef from cows fed on alfalfa, the value of pollinator services in the US would increase to an incredible $40 billion.

 

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF HONEY BEES 

Honey bees are among the most numerous and efficient pollinator species in the world. Considering that the average honey bee can visit more than 2,000 flowers in one day, these bees greatly increase the chances of a plant producing a fruit or vegetable.

Honey bees are the species most commonly used as commercial pollinators in the US. They are managed and used to pollinate over 100 crops grown in North America, and contribute $15 billion to the US economy every year. Many crops, such as almonds, which contribute $4.8 billion to the US industry each year, rely on honey bees for more than 90% of their pollination.

But honey bees don’t only pollinate crops-- they also pollinate wild and native plants, thus contributing to all the environmental and societal benefits attributed to pollinators in general above.

 

HONEY BEE BECLINE

Honey bees are clearly vital parts of our ecosystem, acting as highly efficient pollinators of our food crops as well as for wild flora. We need bees to keep our crops and earth healthy, but in recent years their numbers have been decreasing by the billions. This decline has been linked to several factors, including parasites such as varroa mites, which bite bees and infect them with fatal viruses, the use of pesticides which poison bees, and monoculture farming, which prevents them from having a varied diet.

Last year, in 2016, 44% of managed beehives in the US died. The number of managed honey bee colonies in the United States has declined steadily over the past 60 years, from 6 million colonies (beehives) in 1947 to 4 million in 1970, 3 million in 1990, and just 2.5 million today. Overwintering loss rates have increased from the historical rate of 10-15% to approximately 30%, and beekeepers have collectively lost approximately 10 million beehives.

 

THE ROLE OF NATIVE BEES 

Did you know that there are 4,000 different bee species native to North America? These bees vary widely, from cuckoo bees to bumble bees. Some are smaller than an eighth of an inch, while others are more than an inch long. They range in color from metallic green or blue to dark brown or black to striped red or orange.

Native bees are often overlooked because they aren't domesticated, or because some of them don't look like "traditional" bees (fuzzy, black and yellow). But these bees are the original residents of North America, who quietly and industriously pollinate our crops side by side with the honey bee.

Native bees might not spend much time in the spotlight, but they make a huge contribution to our environment and our economy. In 2009, the crop benefits from native insect pollination in the United States were valued at more than $9 billion dollars.

Sadly, native bees are struggling just as much as honey bees. Many species are endangered, and a few have already gone extinct. The factors that harm managed honey bees also harm wild bees, such as parasites, pathogens, and poor nutrition due to monoculture farms. A study published by the National Academy of Sciences last year found that wild bees may be disappearing in California’s Central Valley, the Midwest’s corn belt, the Mississippi River Valley and other key farm regions. Between 2008 and 2013, modeled bee abundance declined across 23% of US land area.

Now more than ever we must find new and innovative ways to protect these national treasures and preserve the balance of our ecosystem.

 


Sources

“Honey Bees”. United States Department of Agriculture: Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. February 10, 2017. https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/planthealth/plant-pest-and-disease-programs/pests-and-diseases/non-regulated/honey-bees/!ut/p/z1/04_iUlDg4tKPAFJABpSA0fpReYllmemJJZn5eYk5-hH6kVFm8X6Gzu4GFiaGPu6uLoYGjh6Wnt4e5mYGwa6m-l76UfgVFGQHKgIAB3fNrQ!!/

“Fact Sheet: The Economic Challenge Posed by Declining Pollinator Populations”. The White House, Office of the Press Secretary. June 20, 2014. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2014/06/20/fact-sheet-economic-challenge-posed-declining-pollinator-populations  

“Native Pollinators: Fish and Wildlife Habitat Management Leaflet.” National Resources Conservation Service. Wildlife Habitat Management Institute. May 2005. https://www.plants.usda.gov/pollinators/Native_Pollinators.pdf

“Pollinators Need You. You Need Pollinators.” Pollinator Partnership. http://pollinator.org/pollinators