It's something I've been mulling over a great deal, as I stroll next to my flowerbeds or walk through my garden.....
It's in regards to the honeybee, and how it's widely claimed that their extinction in America would be the end of all crop pollination, resulting in a National famine and ecological disaster.
But would it really?
Let's delve a little deeper into the subject...
Here's the thing about honeybees: they are NOT native to the US.
They were introduced by European colonists in Jamestown, in the year 1622. They brought with them crops from their homeland as well, and assumed the honeybees would be essential for pollinating them.
Early cultures mastered the art of hunting down colonies and raiding honey, and beekeeping was common practice in may cultures such as Greece, Egypt and Rome.
|A feral hive that has taken up residence in a hollow sassafras tree|
They were known as "white man's flies" by the native peoples. Europeans brought other plants with them to provide nectar for the honeybees; plants like dandelions and dutch white clover - established plants that are very familiar to us today.
Interestingly enough, this is the only introduced insect that has been mostly beneficial, with the exception of aggressive Africanized strains and widespread allergies to their venom (me included).
(There is evidence though that honeybees do compete with native pollinators.)
With the commercialization of agriculture, Apis mellifera has proven to be invaluable. Hives of honeybees are trucked in to pollinate large expanses of crops like apples, canola and alfalfa.
What so many people don't seem to realize is that pollination has been happening on North American soil for thousands upon thousands of years before the honeybee arrived. But who's doing it?
There are over 4,000 native bee species, visiting flowers right beneath our noses. But it doesn't stop there....
Beetles, moths, butterflies, ants, flies and even birds can be credited with pollinating plants to some degree.
|A Snowberry Clearwing Sphinx moth pollinating Verbena canadensis|
|A Locust Borer beetle visits goldenrod|
|A Zebra Swallowtail butterfly nectaring on wild blackberry|
There are many, many plants for which only one species of pollinator is equipped. These animals are known as specialists. Some of these insects are hardly discernible with the naked eye.
What about these guys pollinating a sunflower? Can you see them?
They're there, I promise!
There seems to be a lot of confusion, as most every good-hearted activist seems to think honeybees are the ONLY bee. One popular article is this one listing 10 crops that would disappear along with the honeybee. Ironically, bumble bees are pictured, and most of the crops on that list are pollinated primarily by NATIVE BEES, not honeybees.
In fact, native bees pollinate 80% of all flowering plants, and 75% of the fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in the US. These plants include common grocery store items and veggies grown in our backyards.
Blueberries are one example:
On almost every webpage I've found touting the all importance of honeybees, it is listed that THEY are the primary pollinators for blueberry plants.
This is NOT true.
There is a native bee, known as the Southeastern Blueberry Bee, that is designed specifically for this purpose.
At first glance it looks like nothing more than a small bumblebee. But it is in fact a seasonal insect whose life cycle coincides precisely with that of the blueberry plants.
It can visit as many as 50,000 flowers in its short lifespan.
Honeybees have to be stocked very densely in blueberry orchards, and they are still just considered supporting pollinators for native bees.
Another good example is the Squash Bee:
While they resemble the honeybee, they can be told apart by their behavior in the garden. They are out at first light, when the squash flowers are open, and dash right in without hesitation. Honeybees are later risers, and tend to buzz around the flower before entering.
Even though honeybees will visit flowers of the curcurbit family (that would be your squashes, pumpkins, cucumbers, melons and the like), the Squash Bees are far more efficient, pollinating many times the amount of flowers that honeybees do.
And what about tomatoes?
Sorry, honeybees won't go anywhere near them. A larger bee is doing all of that work: the bumblebee!
While we tend to think of bumblebees as just bumblebees, there are actually about 50 species found in North America.
They are more social than the smaller native bee species, but not nearly as structured as European honeybee colonies.
These guys are known as generalists, visiting a wide variety of plant species throughout the growing season.
They have a very special way of pollinating called "buzz pollination," also known as Sonication.
Plant species like tomatoes do not give up their pollen readily. They can self pollinate, but the results are poor. It takes a low frequency vibration to release it, and bumble bees can do just that. Cool huh?
It doesn't stop there! Other crops that require buzz pollination are cranberries, blueberries, potatoes and eggplants. Honeybees are just not capable of this.
So why are honeybees really so important to American agriculture? The answer can be summed up in one word: monoculture.
Honeybees for pollinating huge expanses of canola
I find it ironic that while honeybees are depended upon for pollinating this canola field, the plants are dusted while the bees are undoubtedly visiting the flowers.
Native pollinators thrive on biodiversity. In fact, native anything thrives on biodiversity. Heck, even WE thrive on biodiversity!
Interestingly enough, commercial orchards in the western US are starting to use native bees, due the the rising cost of trucking in honeybees.
The Blue Orchard bee is used as a less expensive and more dependable pollinator, especially for sweet cherries.
In the end, pesticide use will have a negative impact on one and all, killing off the honeybee and native bees alike.
I guess it's easy to use the honeybee as the poster child for the war on pesticides, but it tends to narrow down everyone's focus too much.
The death of the honeybee would indeed have a huge impact on the economy. Industrial agriculture would suffer a crippling blow. Those who depend on supermarkets for their produce will be forced to look elsewhere.
Farmer's markets, maybe? Would it be entirely a bad thing?
Farmers would be forced to plant heirloom crops that aren't dependent on protection from pesticides. More and more people would begin growing their own food, working with the seasons.
This of course, would be the best case scenario.
I don't want anybody to think this post is meant to bash the European honeybee, as it is still near and dear to my heart.
Like many, I greatly enjoy the delicious honey, and benefit from its ability to cure pollen allergies, among other things. It is a miracle of nature: both superfood and powerful medicine.
I just want people to see the bigger picture. To view the environment as a whole.
But if worse should come to worst, and the honeybee really does die out, us backyard farmers need not despair.
While we would greatly miss that honey, at the end of the day, most of our plants would still get pollinated.
We just have to look a little closer to see who is REALLY doing most of the work.
|Sweat bee nectaring on some mountain mint|
Us homesteaders need to focus on creating good habitat for our native bees by encouraging biodiversity.
Consider allowing parts of your yard to grow naturally, letting grasses and wildflowers colonize. Let the leaves pile up under your trees. Leave fallen logs on the ground and let dead trees stand (wherever it is safe) to give native bees a place to nest.
Plant some beds of native flowers to encourage a variety of pollinators to visit your homestead.
Grab a book or two on insects, and spend time watching all those creepy crawlies as they come and go.
You will soon discover there is a whole other world right in front of your eyes.
Want to read more? Check out this awesome handout by the USDA: Bee Basics: An Introduction to Native Bees
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