Wild bee decline study: How farmer's friends are receiving support

Scientists, with White House approval, have released the first national bee map to protect America's wild bees – and the farming industries they support.

Mike Groll/AP
A honeybee works atop a gift zinnia in Accord, N.Y. Sept. 1. The US Department of Agriculture has released a map showing where different types of bees live around the US.

If you thought dogs were man's best friend, think again. Honeybees and their pollinating wild bee cousins help gardeners and farmers with growing nearly everything green we eat. This means a decline in wild bees, described in the first-ever bee map Monday, is a serious matter.

"Wild bee declines may increase costs for farmers and, over time, could even destabilize crop production," Taylor Ricketts, director of the University of Vermont's Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, told Reuters. "Wild bees help pollinate many of our most nutritious crops, support natural ecosystems and contribute over $3 billion to the U.S. economy each year."

Wild bees declined in 23 percent of their habitat in the 48 contiguous states between 2008 and 2013. This is mostly because their habitat was developed for other agricultural use. Wild bees have lost parts of their natural habitat to the development of farmland for corn used to make biofuel. Bees do not pollinate corn, or wheat, for that matter.

"Our results highlight the need for strategies to maintain pollinator populations in farmland, and the importance of conservation programs that provide flowering habitat that can support wild bees and other pollinators," Rufus Isaacs, a Michigan State University entomologist who heads the US Department of Agriculture (USDA)-funded Integrated Crop Pollination Project, told Reuters.

The map's authors have identified 139 counties in the United States where the contrast between bee decline and bee demand – in the form of farming – is particularly stark. They want to target these areas for habitat programs to support the bumblebees there, Dr. Isaacs told The Christian Science Monitor.

Public agencies such as the USDA provide funding for farmers to plant bee-friendly, native vegetation to support bees, and Isaacs has visited one farm that provides 60 acres of bee paradise. He says the private sector is also involved, as some power companies swap the green vegetation under power lines out with plants for pollinators, and fruit farmers have planted vegetation that attracts bees at their own expense.

"You can start small," Isaacs says. "You can have a little patch in your backyard of native plants, and you'll start to have all sorts of insects show up."

Wild bees can pollinate more efficiently than honeybees, especially because they fly in inclement or cold weather. Wild bees also fly in different patterns, and for some crops the haphazard pollination works better than the honeybee's tidy, row-by-row approach.

With this in mind, some farmers in California are actively working to add wild bees to their pollinator portfolios. Wonderful Pistachios & Almonds plans to use blue orchard bees for this year's nut crop, Geoffrey Mohan reported for the Los Angeles Times.

"Where there are wild bees present, even modest numbers of wild bees can make the honey bee a better pollinator of almonds. It changes the behavior of the honey bees," University of California-Davis entomologist and study author Neal Williams told the Times. "So they’re essentially transporting better pollen.”

This report contains material from Reuters.

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