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 honey bees on the farm 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 the products they produce most notably honey and beeswax. Yes, honey bees are livestock. According to 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, “Honey bees 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 they have been imported to North America and are not a native species.
The decline of the honeybee has been in the national spotlight and is often viewed as an environmental issue but the North American ecosystem evolved without the honey bee. The decline of the honey bee is an agricultural issue because our modern methods of monoculture are dependent on them. Current agriculture practices are not a sustainable model and the system of transporting honey bee 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 issues from pests to chemicals.
In the honeybees shadow, just out of focus, exists a diversity of native bees that are faster, more skilled and more efficient at pollinating flowers. The real bee crisis lies with them. Native bees have evolved with the flowers of the North America making them pollination experts. Encouraging this biodiversity of experts will benefit the ecosystem at large but also provides benefits to agricultural crops. We have focused an entire narrative on the wrong bees for the wrong reasons. Native bees are everywhere, we don’t even see native bees because we don’t see past the honeybee. In this shadowy unknown, there are nearly 450 native bee species in the Northeastern states and nearly 4,000 native bees species in North America. Honey bees 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 (1). Only recently has research been focused on the value of our native bees and their valuable resource as pollinators to our agricultural systems.
Though honeybees are touted as essential to agricultural pollination, the diversity of native bees if given the proper habitat could save farmers unneeded expenses of renting honey bee hives. The Xerces Society outlines guidelines for providing native bee habitat on farms in their publication “Farming for Bees”. New York is the second largest producer of apples in the United States, 25 million bushels worth $261 million. Recent research (2) from the labs at Cornell University have found 120 species of native bees in over 24 orchards in central New York and that bee diversity increases if there are natural areas surrounding an orchard. Early research is showing seed set increases with native bee diversity and abundance but not with honey bee abundance. 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. As research continues, the value of native bees to the apple industry continues to grow. 85% of surveyed growers viewed native bees as valuable pollinators. The number of native bees was correlated with orchard size, the larger the orchard the less bee diversity was found.
The squash has its very own specialist bee, the squash bee is a pollinator powerhouse that can be found wherever squash-like plants grow whose emergence coincides just as the plant begins to flower. Other native bees such as bumble bees (Bombus spp.), sweat bees (Halictus, Lasioglossum spp. and Agapostemon spp. and Augochlora spp.) and small carpenter bees (Ceratina spp.) all visit these flowers. Squash and pumpkin production in New York State is valued at $74 million dollars per year. Recent studies (3) have found that there is no difference in fruit set with or without honey bees present. However, the presence of bumblebees working alongside squash bees does increase yield. Squash bee are a solitary ground nesting bee and live 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. Squash bees and bumble bees are champion pollinators of this native North American plant.
Bumblebees (Bombus spp.) are the preferred pollinator of tomatoes and like other native bees have developed a special pollination technique called “buzz pollination”. The bees grasp the anther of the flower and vibrate their wing muscles to literally shake the pollen from the flower. This is a skill honey bees lack but a skill that has been perfected by bumble bees. Tomato production in New York accounts for $47 million dollars annually. Studies (4) have found that bee pollination increases fruit size and yield. Tomatoes belong to the nightshade family along with peppers and potatoes and they all are native to the Americas. These plants have a long evolutional history with the native pollinators that dates back before domestication.
Sunflowers another American native also have a specialists known as long horned bees (Melissodes spp.) that can be found spending their days on these flowers. Numerous other species visit sunflowers and contribute to the diversity and abundance of species including leaf cutter bees (Megachile spp.), bumble bees (Bombus spp.), small carpenter bees (Ceratina spp.), sweat bees (Halictus spp., Lasioglossum spp., Agapostemon spp. and Augochlora spp.) among others. A sunflower is not just one flower but a composite of thousands of tiny flowers. Sunflowers especially the branching variety produce multiple flowers and contain both male and female parts and therefore pollination happens more naturally than hybrid sunflowers. Hybrid sunflowers grown in commercial agriculture are either pollen producing males or nectar producing females. Foraging honey bees either collect pollen or gathering nectar to bring back to the hive, usually not a pollination issue for most natural sunflowers varieties. In hybrids this selective foraging reduces the changes of cross pollination. A recent study (5) found the behavioral interaction between honey bees and native bees on hybrid sunflowers increase pollination efficiency 5 fold or doubling the honey bee pollination services. The study points out that honey bees are ineffective pollinators on a per-visit basis and to get quality fertilization large number of honey bees need to be provided. The interaction between native bees and honey bees 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 predict crop yields.
In looking at these examples it is clear to see that native bees play an essential role not only in natural ecosystems but a lead and critical role in agricultural production. Why then do we only see one non-native bee, why all the press over honey bees? The answer lies within their name, we care because we don’t want to lose the valuable products they provide, an industry worth $340 million. Honeybees are not bellwethers of an environmental problem but rather an agricultural problem. The decline of our native bee biodiversity is an environmental concern, however their survival may lie within our food systems. Agriculture has yet to harness the full power of our native bees and to do so means creating habitat on the farm so they have forage when agricultural plants are not in bloom. Mitigating 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. Perhaps the honey bee 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.