Polli-Nation: Why Native Pollinators Matter

by Shahla Farzan / The Mindful Californian

  • Megachile fidelis on Mexican sunflower

Photo: Megachile fidelis on Mexican sunflower. Credit: Kathy Keatley Garvey

The specter of election season is upon us and once again, the phrase “addiction to foreign oil” seems to be a particularly popular bludgeon among political rivals. As a nation, we are as fond of our addictions as we are of scrutinizing them. In the spirit of self-flagellation, let us add another to the list: addiction to foreign pollinators.

The European honeybee (Apis mellifera) is one of the most intensively managed introduced species in the world. Before high fructose corn syrup, honey was one of the few sweeteners available for human consumption. Early honey hunters scaled trees and endured countless stings to collect the elusive amber substance. In the 1600s, European colonists transported their tiny insect cargo around the world, from the shores of Tasmania to the North American colonies. In a few short centuries, the honeybee has spread to every continent except Antarctica.

Despite its cosmopolitan nature, the honeybee is not the hardiest of creatures. Colony counts have been declining for decades in the face of an onslaught of human-caused threats, including the introduction of an invasive endoparasitic mite, exposure to lethal viruses, and widespread pesticide use in industrial agriculture. In recent years, these threats have had very real consequences; between 1947 and 2005, biologists estimate that the number of honeybee colonies declined by 59%.

The outlook for honeybees was already looking grim, but few could have predicted the mysterious Honeybee Armageddon of 2006. In a single year, a previously undocumented phenomenon now dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of colonies worldwide.

Since then, bee biologists have borne a remarkable resemblance to their study organisms, busily trying to identify what has caused the deaths of billions of honeybees. A break in the case occurred this spring, when Chensheng Lu and colleagues at Harvard University identified a direct link between CCD and the use of neonicotinoid insecticides. Unlike other pesticides that kill insects nearly instantaneously, neonicotinoids persist in plant tissues long after spraying, presenting a risk to honeybees that consume plant pollen.

Despite the targeted efforts of beekeepers worldwide, honeybees appear to be in terminal decline. Given that this species is responsible for the pollination of 75% of our crops, this presents a serious problem for global food security. Native pollinator species, while historically viewed as inefficient and unreliable, are moving into the spotlight as a potential alternative to the honeybee. Last year, researchers at UC Berkeley reported that native pollinators in California already contribute at least 1 billion to the agricultural economy and pollinate 35-39% of California’s crops.

Though much of native pollinator conservation is tied to agricultural production, for some plant species, pollinator survival is quite literally a matter of life and death. “Some flowering plants have evolved to depend on a particular species of native bee for pollination,” says UC Davis bee biologist Katharina Ullmann. “It’s assumed that in these cases, if the bee species disappears the plant will disappear too.”

Organizations such as the Xerces Society are working to encourage the conservation of native pollinators and their habitats. Unlike many threatened mammalian species, pollinating insects can exploit tiny habitat patches, even rooftop gardens buried in the concrete jungle of Los Angeles.

In the face of plummeting honeybee colony counts and ominous predictions about the fate of US agriculture, it can be hard to look on the bright side. Even so, increasing appreciation for native pollinators has proven to be an unexpected silver lining. The saga of the honeybee is far from over, but a new age has already begun.

 

For more on native pollinators, visit Chris Bowman’s companion column Saving Bees in a Post-wild California.

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12 Comments
  1. Carl Nuza

    This is another consequence of human activity. However the decline of honey bees will have a direct and immediate consequence on how humans see the world. It might not be apparent at first that cutting down trees and natural species is dangerous to our ecosystem hence we keep disturbing nature and its role. However, bees are pollinators and their role in maintaining many different species cannot be overstated. If human activity leads to the reduction of their numbers, we will notice a drastic fall in plant yield within a few generations. It is in the best interest of humanity that we save the pollinators because not only do they provide us with products like honey, they are very crucial for maintaining plant diversity and abundance.

  2. Jennifer Saephanh

    Bees contribute to pollination greatly. With their decline, plant growth would be hugely impacted. We need both bees and plant growth to contribute to the biodiversity of our home. All dead and living things contribute resources that benefit our ecosystem and the species that live within it. Unless there is development of safe and harmless pesticides, the use of pesticides needs to end. There is a possibility of reserving the bees we have left. But it cannot happen if use of pesticides are ongoing. Pesticide use is not the only contribution to the decline in bees. Industrial agriculture and climate change also contribute to their decline. Since climate change is not something that we can control, we should take action on things that we can change. This includes reducing use of pesticides and industrial agriculture. Conversion to ecological farming could be a solution.

  3. Heather McDonough

    I couldn’t imagine a world without flowers or plants. Bees play such an important and often understated role in our survival. The fact that bees are disappearing at such an alarming rate is something that needs to be addressed. We have created a world where we forget the role that every single large or small organism plays in the bigger picture. Most organisms have a special place that they fit, a role in the world that only they can fill. Without that job being done there is a chain reaction of adverse effects. Bees specifically have specialized niches that they fill. Each species has a different pollinator and without that specialized organism there is a good chance that the plant will go extinct. We have already decreased biodiversity and eliminated key species that were once in abundance. Bees are such a special group of species and there are many different types that are able to fill many roles. They have the ability to bounce back from colony collapse disorder if we can give them back some of the space we took from them.

  4. Aman Percival

    I had heard about honeybees disappearing and I am overjoyed whenever honeybees are in my yard enjoying the flowers. I wish more could be done to save honeybees and prevent their further decline. I’m glad we have other native pollinators to rely on, but how long are they going to be around until they too disappear? Bats are important pollinators and they too are disappearing. Instead of saying , “Oh, honeybees are declining but at least we have other pollinators left”, we should be asking ourselves how we can fix the problem, reverse the damage, and prevent future damage to species and the environment. The world needs more than a bandage, it needs change.

  5. Margaret Kashuba

    The issue of CCD in honeybees is one that threatens not only bees but our food security as a nation. It threatens our economy in California, particularly as agriculture is an important part of our lifestyle and income. Less pollinators means that crops will do more poorly, prices wlll rise, and crop imports will rise. Studying this phenomenon is crucial to everyone’s well-being. The media has covered this topic a bit, but it needs to be addressed more. Native pollinators should be encouraged by planting native vegetation in yards. Removing partial or entire lawns that are foreign and not beneficial to native species due to the drought and replacing it with drought-tolerant species that provide habitat and resources to native pollinators is something everyone can do to increase native pollinators, as well as help honeybees. It would also make for a more interesting yard landscape and increase people’s knowledge and appreciation of native California vegetation and the benefits certain plants offer.

  6. Leticia Padilla

    Bees play an important role in stabilizing our food security and CCD should be of utmost concern to policy makers. Unfortunately, companies who create the harmful insecticides that are harming bee colonies around the globe have the economic power to have their voices heard in government. A lot of these companies also like to undermine and attack the credibility of scientists who have constructed studies that prove that their products are unsafe. Public education and activism are two ways we, the public, can stop these companies because they are not only threatening the future of honeybees, but our future as well.

  7. Maleha Rashid

    The article does a great job at pointing out the importance of Native Pollinators. Over just a few years there has been a drastic decline in honeybees. This will affect native flower populations as well as agriculture. Most of our food is dependent on bees. The disappearance of bees will cause the extinction of many plants and crops. Although beekeepers worldwide are making an effort to stop the declining rate of bees, there should be a larger effort to help conserve a very important species, for not only its own survival but in a way for ours as well.

  8. Alex Schaefer

    This article brings CCD to attention and elaborates on its painful implications for honey bees as well as humans. Although the European honey bee may be the most effective in pollinating our crops, we should be thankful that native bee species are still present and rather abundant. The fact that they will pollinate crops at least in part with the flowers they prefer is reassuring. If the state can enact a piece of legislation that will limit the use of harmful insecticides that fuel CCD, then perhaps there is hope for a European honey bee rebound. In the meantime, the native bees must take the reins and carry the weight because they are all we have to rely on. They are certainly better than nothing.

  9. Rachael Dimmer

    About a year ago there was a bill regarding stopping the use of neonicotinoid pesticides. I remember politicians who were against this bill going on television and flat out denying the allegations regarding this pesticide. Then…I heard nothing. I looked online but I saw no updates regarding this bill. Did the money hungry pesticide companies manage to slow or stop the enactment of this proposed bill? I wonder. Also, it sounds like a wonderful idea farming native bee species to fill in where the European honeybee has failed. However, unless legislation is passed, I feel this problem will persist regardless of bee species.

  10. Michelle Patras

    With the decline of honeybees, there are now serious problems for plant life and human food security. As stated in the article, honeybees are responsible for the pollination of 75% of crops. On the plant level, some plants solely depend on a species of native bees, which creates a serious problem if that bee species is declining. An alternative solution could be to increase the use of native pollinator species. They are quite efficient pollinators. Also, creating an ideal environment with no human threats, no invasive endoparasitic mites, and safer chemical pesticides that will not persist within the plant tissue.

  11. Alex Gwerder

    I agree with Rali, the colony collapse disorder will be particularly damaging to plants that rely on buzz pollination, where the vibrating frequency of bees opens the anthers and releases the pollen. From a family of long time bee farmers, I can attest to how easy it is to lose a hive especially over winter when honey bees are mostly reliant on honey reserves while flowers are not blooming. As a naturalized species, the European honey bee may be struggling with slight climate change effects in addition to neonicotinoid insecticides, and hopefully there is an alternative chemical that won’t inhibit bee populations.

  12. Raulito Lagrosa

    The growing decline of honeybees presents a problem for many plants because most of these plants require a transfer of pollen, and honeybees are one of these important pollen transporters. Without the pollen, plants will likely not grow the way they are suppose to, and it’s one reason why honeybees are crucial to the agricultural industry. Honeybees make honey, which is used to crete different products such as cough drops, vitamin supplements, and used to help with sore throat. Solutions must be made to ensure that honeybees don’t continue to decline because they are very important organisms that help humans in everyday life.

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