As a beekeeper my greatest satisfaction is when my hives survive the winter. My favorite winter sound is hearing the steady hum of the honeybee cluster inside the hive on cold winter days; and I breathe a big sigh of relief when I see the bees bring in their first heavy loads of pollen on an early spring day. John Burroughs likened this moment to the dove bringing the olive branch back to Noah’s ark. I keep my honeybees near the garden not far from the grazing cows and sheep. I manage the bees much like I manage the other livestock and I keep them for what they produce, most notably honey and beeswax. Yes, honeybees are livestock. In the Merriam Webster dictionary “livestock” is defined as “animals kept or raised for use or pleasure. Especially: farm animals kept for use and profit.” The American Veterinarian Medical Association clarifies the definition: “Honeybees are classified as livestock/food-producing animals by the federal government because products from apiculture enter the human food chain, including honey, propolis, pollen, and royal jelly.” Like most other livestock in North America, they have been imported and are not a native species.
The decline of honeybees has been in the national spotlight and often viewed as an environmental issue, but in reality it is an agricultural issue because our modern system of crop monoculture depends on them. The system of transporting honeybee hives from California for almonds, to Georgia for peaches, to Maine for blueberries and New York for apples is riddled with challenges that leave the bees stressed and vulnerable to numerous problems from pests to chemicals. This current agricultural practice is not a sustainable model.
Though honeybees are touted as essential to agricultural pollination, the North American ecosystem evolved without the honeybee. In the honeybee’s shadow, just out of focus, is a force of native bees that are faster, more skilled and more efficient at pollinating flowers. Native bees evolved with the plants and flowers of North America, making them pollination experts. They are everywhere, but we haven’t seen them because we haven’t seen past the honeybee. We have focused an entire narrative on the wrong bee for the wrong reasons. In this shadowy unknown, there are nearly 450 native bee species just in the Northeastern states and nearly 4,000 native bee species in North America. Honeybees provide little benefit to our native ecosystems. In fact, they may cause a competitive disadvantage to our native bees by competing for resources and spreading disease . Only recently has research been focused on our native bees and their value to our ecosystem and as pollinators for our agricultural systems.
Encouraging the biodiversity and numbers of these pollination experts not only benefits the ecosystem at large but also provides benefits to agricultural crops. The Xerces Society outlines guidelines for providing native bee habitat on farms in their publication “Farming for Bees”. If given the proper habitat, native bees could save farmers the unneeded expense of renting honeybee hives for pollination. Agriculture has yet to harness the full power of our native bees and to do so will demand creating habitats on farms so they have forage when agricultural plants are not in bloom.
As a prime example of their value, consider a few food crops. New York is the second largest producer of apples in the United States, 25 million bushels, worth $261 million. Recent research from the labs at Cornell University has found 120 species of native bees in over 24 orchards in central New York and has found that bee diversity increases if there are natural areas surrounding an orchard. Mining bees (Andrena spp.), mason bees (Osmia spp,), and bumblebees (Bombus spp.) are the most common genera in apple orchards and it was discovered native bees outnumber honeybees on a per bee basis. Early research is showing seed set increases with native bee diversity and abundance, but not with honeybee abundance. As research continues, the value of native bees to the apple industry continues to grow. A full 85% of surveyed growers viewed native bees as valuable pollinators.
Squash has its very own native specialist bee that emerges just as the plants begin to flower. The squash bee is a pollinator powerhouse that can be found wherever squash-like plants grow. This native is a solitary ground-nesting bee and lives in aggregations with other bees laying the eggs of their young in the soil beneath the squash plant. Soil tillage can be problematic for squash bees, though plows and rototillers typically do not penetrate to a depth that is detrimental to all developing larvae. Other native bees such as bumblebees (Bombus spp.), sweat bees (Halictus, Lasioglossum spp., Agapostemon spp., Augochlora spp.) and small carpenter bees (Ceratina spp.) all visit these flowers, too. Squash and pumpkin production in New York State is valued at $74 million dollars per year. Recent studies have found that there is no difference in fruit set with or without honeybees present. However, the presence of bumblebees working alongside squash bees does increase yield. Squash bees and bumblebees are champion pollinators of this native North American plant.
Bumblebees (Bombus spp.) are the preferred pollinators of tomatoes and like other native bees have developed a special pollination technique called “buzz pollination”. This is a skill honeybees lack but a skill bumblebees have perfected. The bees grasp the anther of the flower and vibrate their wing muscles to literally shake the pollen from the flower. Tomato production in New York accounts for $47 million dollars annually. Studies have found that this bee pollination increases fruit size and yield. Tomatoes, like peppers and potatoes, belong to the nightshade family; all are native to the Americas and all have a long history of co-evolving with native pollinators that dates back before farming.
Sunflowers, another American native, also have specialists known as long horned bees (Melissodes spp.) that can be found spending their days on these flowers. Numerous other native bee species — including leaf cutter bees (Megachile spp.), bumblebees (Bombus spp.), small carpenter bees (Ceratina spp.), sweat bees (Halictus spp., Lasioglossum spp., Agapostemon spp. and Augochlora spp.) and others – visit sunflowers and contribute to the diversity and abundance of sunflower species. A sunflower is not just one flower but a composite of thousands of tiny flowers. The branching variety, especially, produces multiple flowers containing both male and female parts and therefore pollination happens more readily than with hybrid sunflowers. Hybrid sunflowers, grown in commercial agriculture, are either pollen-producing males or nectar-producing females. Foraging honeybees either collect pollen or gather nectar to bring back to the hive. While for most natural sunflower varieties, this does not pose a pollination issue, in hybrids this selective foraging reduces the chances of cross pollination. A recent study found the behavioral interaction between honeybees and native bees on hybrid sunflowers increases pollination efficiency 5-fold or doubles the honeybee pollination services. The study points out that honeybees are ineffective pollinators on a per-visit basis and to get quality fertilization, a large number of honeybees need to be provided, but the interaction between native bees and honeybees changes bee behavior to increase effectiveness of pollination. Other studies have found the greater the diversity and abundance of native bees, the greater the yield, suggesting that wild bee diversity can boost crop yields.
In looking at these examples, it is clear to see that native bees not only play an essential role in natural ecosystems but a lead and critical role in agricultural production. The honeybee is not the bellwether of environmental problems as has been claimed. Why then the fuss over one non-native bee, why all the press about honeybees? The answer lies within their name: we don’t want to lose the valuable products they provide, an industry worth $340 million. They play a partner role in agricultural production. Yet the honeybee furor may be what will end up helping our native bees. Mitigating the threats that face honeybees — such as wise use or non-use of insecticides, increase of pollinator plantings, reduction of invasive plants and social change to reduce our carbon footprint – will benefit the biodiversity of our native wild bees. So perhaps the honeybee is the mascot, the champion that will save us all.
- Geldmann, Jonas & González-Varo, Juan P.. (2018). Conserving honey bees does not help wildlife. Science. 359. 392-393. 10.1126/science.aar2269.
- Park, Mia & Orr, Michael & Danforth, Bryan. (2010). The Role of Native Bees in Apple Pollination. N.Y. Fruit Quart.. 18.
- Julier, H & Roulston, Tai. (2009). Wild Bee Abundance and Pollination Service in Cultivated Pumpkins: Farm Management, Nesting Behavior and Landscape Effects. Journal of economic entomology. 102. 563-73. 10.1603/029.102.0214.
- Silva-Neto, Carlos & Lima, Flaviana & Goncalves, Bruno & Bergamini, Leonardo & Bergamini, Barbara & Elias, Marcos & Franceschinelli, Edivani. (2013). Native Bees Pollinate Tomato Flowers and Increase Fruit Production. Journal of Pollination Ecology. 11. 41-45.
- Greenleaf, Sarah & Kremen, Claire. (2006). Wild bees enhance honey bees’ pollination of hybrid sunflower, Proc Natl Acad Sci (USA) 103, 13890-13895. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 103. 13890-5. 10.1073/pnas.0600929103.