At least not in the way we’d like. In the past few years a flood of articles has heralded native pollinators as “saviors”—groups of selfless, tireless, seldom-seen gladiators that are going to step in and save our food supply once the honey bees die off.
This is a comforting thought, and perhaps one day native pollinators will shoulder the bulk of our pollination needs—but it won’t happen within our current system of agriculture. It can’t. Successful transition to native pollinators will require nothing short of a complete overall of our current farming system.
Bumble bee on ceoanthus. Photo by Rusty Burlew.
If you read about the biology and ecology of wild pollinators, you will see they can be very efficient in terms of the number of flowers pollinated per minute. So efficient, in fact, that you wonder why the heck we ever started using honey bees. But as you dig deeper, you will also see they have very different life cycles and habitat requirements.
Some native pollinators will forage only a few hundred yards from their homes while honey bees will easily cover a three-mile radius—even more if resources are scarce. Some native pollinators visit only one plant species, or several, while honey bees pollinate hundreds. Some native pollinators are active only a few weeks of the year while a honey bee colony will forage any time the weather permits. Most native pollinators live singly or in small groups while honey bees live in massive colonies. The list goes on.
In the “old days,” let’s say before the end of WWII, people who kept honey bees kept them for honey. And if you didn’t keep bees, you didn’t worry about pollination. In fact, no one paid any attention to pollinators because there was no shortage. A farmer planted a field, the pollinators did their thing, and a crop was harvested. Short-lived, picky pollinators weren’t a problem because there were hundreds of different kinds. There was always one or a dozen other species to pick up where the last one left off.
But the Green Revolution changed how we farm and, before long, there weren’t enough native pollinators to do the job. The fields were too big, the habitat was too scarce, and pesticides were everywhere. As farms got bigger and more mechanized, honey bees had to be trucked in along with other forms of migrant labor.
Even the people who are currently studying native pollinators concede that without significant changes, native bees might supplement—but not supplant—honey bees. Some experts estimate that up to 30% of the farmland would have to be converted to bee habitat. Hedgerows, borders, and habitat strips would have to be interspersed with crops. This reserved land would need to remain un-tilled and be planted with large numbers of flowering plants so that something was always in bloom.
Thing is, even with all those resources devoted to wild species, it might not be enough. We would have to change pesticide practices, stop poisoning roadside weeds, and eliminate larger-than-life fields. We would have to become stewards—rather than pillagers—of the land.
I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from keeping a hive of honey bees or tacking a bee block to a fencepost. But even thousands of them won’t assure a future food supply. To do that we must change the way we farm—from endless rows of monoculture to GMOs to weed control—it all has to be fixed. Native pollinators can’t save us unless we save them first. Care of pollinators needs to be job one.