Pollinator Conservation

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Why is Pollinator Conservation Needed?

Animal and insect pollinators are essential to pollination in over 75% of the world’s flowering plants, which includes roughly 35 percent of the world’s crops. Animal and insect pollinators include bees, moths, flies, bats, birds, ants, butterflies, wasps and beetles. Some of these pollinator species have declined in numbers, become endangered or even gone extinct due to the loss of natural food supplies and habitat. As a result, pollinator conservation was made an important part of the 2008 Farm Bill.  This bill provides support for research and makes pollinator habitat conservation a priority for land managers and conservationists. The 2014 Farm Bill includes amendments that provide continued support for the pollinator protection provisions and directs the USDA to encourage farmers to protect pollinator habitat as part of voluntary conservation plans.  These changes will benefit both managed pollinators such as honey bees as well as wild pollinator species across the U.S.

Honey Bees

Honey Bees collecting pollen on Corn Poppy.

Honey Bee Pollination

Honey bees don’t just produce wax and honey – they are extremely valuable pollinators of many agricultural crops. Honey bees are not native to the U.S. – they originally came from Europe and were brought over by early colonists. The list of crops that are pollinated by honey bees is endless – fruits, berries, nuts, clovers, alfalfa, canola, squash, melons, peppers and many more.  Alfalfa is an important forage crop in the U.S. Honey bee colonies have long been managed by beekeepers to provide pollination services for crops as well as for honey production.

Honey bee populations have been in decline in recent years. According to the U.S. Agricultural Research Service, there has been a loss of about one third of honey bee hives in beekeeping operations across the United States. Recent studies suggest that these declines have been caused by the combination of several factors which may include infectious pathogens, malnutrition, stress, and pesticides.

Most recently, beekeepers have been striving to reduce pesticide use near hives and investing more in food supplies for their bees. Planting flowers that produce pollen and nectar, especially during the weeks when crops are not blooming, help to provide nutrition to honey bees throughout the entire season. With enhanced nutrition and health, honey bees will be better equipped to fend off disease, pathogens, and the effects of stress.

Native Bee Pollination

GreenSweatBee_OverviewAccording to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, there are over 4000 species of native bees in the U.S. alone. Bees are the most predominant pollinators of flowering plants in nature, thus contributing a vital service to the ecosystem. Because of this important role, bees are referred to as “keystone organisms”.

Some native bees have names that reflect how they build nests—leafcutter bees, mason bees, miner bees, carpenter bees, digger bees, etc. Others are named for their behavior, which include bumble bees, sweat bees, and cuckoo bees. Finally there are some bees that are named for the types of plants they pollinate such as squash, sunflower and blueberry bees.

If honey bees are in short supply, the pollination needs of many crops can often be filled by native bees. Research has shown that native bees can be major pollinators of agricultural crops and sometimes do the job more efficiently. For instance, the blue orchard bee is a primary pollinator of cultivated apples. Another important crop pollinator is the western bumble bee, which has been used to pollinate cranberries, avocadoes, and blueberries. Native squash bees are major pollinators of cultivated squashes. Some native bees are even commercially managed like honey bees to provide pollination services.

Squash Bee

Squash Bee on Cosmos.

Black Long-Horned Bee

Black Long-Horned Bee
on Purple Coneflower.

Native Bee Conservation

There was a time when native bees and wild honey bees performed all of a farmer’s pollination needs because of the presence of natural areas nearby. These natural areas provided nesting sites, food and protection for the bees. Because of the way agricultural landscapes are developed today, there is often a lack of native bee habitat and forage near farms. Techniques to encourage native bees to live in your area are simple to implement. These can be done on a farm or in a home garden.

It is easy to engage in native bee conservation. You can preserve known nesting and foraging sites on your property, or you can create them. Good bee habitat must include water, areas for nesting or egg-laying and secure over-wintering sites. Flowers that provide nectar and pollen throughout the growing season will provide adequate food. These habitat and forage areas should never be treated with insecticides or other harmful chemicals. If insecticides are utilized in the vicinity of bee habitat, they should be applied when they have the lowest impact possible on local bee populations. This might entail spraying pesticides only when bees are not active.

References and Links for More Information on Pollinators and Their Conservation:

General Information

Crop Pollination & Pollinator Conservation for Farmers