Beyond honeybees

Photo by Mark Kent

When we talk about pollinators, most of us picture a honeybee. And if you’ve seen The Bee Movie, the animated feature film from a few years back, chances are you can even hear Jerry Seinfeld’s voice every time you see a honey bee pollinating a flower.

There’s no denying honeybees are important to farmers: the US almond crop alone requires the services of 1.3 million hives of honeybees.

But when it comes to our gardens and the natural world around us, native pollinators – bees, birds, moths and even bats – play an absolutely vital role that we shouldn’t overlook. In fact, it’s all these unsung pollinators who are the ones that are really at risk of vanishing… and are the ones that we gardeners and property owners can do the most to preserve.

With billions of honeybees living in North America, it’s easy to forget that they are an imported species. Bees were certainly known to indigenous peoples in various parts of the Americas, but it wasn’t until the Spanish settlers began arriving in the 1600s that the European honeybee (Apis mellifera) showed up. The advantage of Apis mellifera is that they love to live in large colonies, produce masses of honey, and are quite happy to be managed by humans.

All this has made them into a tremendously important agricultural asset. If you have a big field of tomatoes or squash, or an orchard full of apples or peaches, you can’t just hope that pollinators will show up: with no pollinators, there is no harvest, so farmers do everything they can to ensure that every flower on their plants gets visited by a tiny worker. The best way to do that is to bring in hives of honeybees. Sure, they’re not the most efficient pollinators on the planet, but with 60,000 of them in each hive, the odds are high that every plant will get visited by at least one of the furry little helpers.

If there was an easy way to raise and manage some of the 4,000 species of native pollinators, honeybees would be out of a job. Because the fact is that when it comes to pollinating, honeybees are a bit of a slouch. Native bees are much, much more efficient. If a tomato field is pollinated by bumblebees instead of honeybees, for example, the crop yield can rise by 50 per cent; another study found that each mason bee can do the pollination work of hundreds of honeybees.

Some studies have found that native bees are already doing a lot of the work that honeybees are credited with. On some watermelon farms, for example, it’s believed that 90 per cent of the harvest is due to pollination by bumblebees, while other crops could be 25 to 30 per cent pollinated by native bees.

This is a big deal to farmers. Almond farmers pay beekeepers $300 per acre to bring their hives to the farm, so not surprisingly they are very interested to learn that there are ways they could encourage native bees to do the same work for free.

Most of us aren’t farmers, of course, but we still benefit from native pollinators. Every fruit in your garden grows because it was pollinated (and don’t forget that anything with a seed inside it – such as tomatoes, cucumbers and squash – is technically a fruit). Every wild blueberry or raspberry we pick was pollinated by something.

And, of course, it’s not just us who benefit. Nuts and fruits are tremendously important food sources for wildlife, from bears fattening up on acorns to evening grosbeaks feasting on wild cherries.

One of the best things we can do to help nature is to ensure our gardens are welcoming to wild pollinators. That means planting a diversity of plants, so they have food all season long. It means leaving some areas a little wild so they can have a place to live. And above all it means refraining from spraying pesticides, which is something we at Water’s Edge have never done.

If we all do a bit, we can help these vital and fascinating pollinators to thrive, something that’s to the benefit of all of us.





Posted in In the Garden.