- Honey bees are wonderful, sophisticated creatures but our view of them as the sole managed pollinator is causing them undue stress.
- Diversifying our portfolio of bees reduces stress on honey bees, increases crop yield, and improves crop quality.
- Raising native hole-nesting bees is part of the future of more sustainable agricultural practices.
Relying solely on our stressed honey bees for agricultural pollination is not sustainable. Raising only one bee species is like planting vast acres of monoculture where pests, viruses, fungus, and disease are easily spread and this is relatable to the many challenges honey bees face today. Raising and supporting native hole-nesting bees is like having a species-rich polyculture field. Diversifying our bee portfolio is a common sense way to hedge our bets to ensure that we have a population of pollinators needed for a robust crop yield.
Native hole-nesting bees are sustainable super-pollinators that increase food production, improve crop quality, and ensure pollination (known as reduction of pollen limitation).
Our current conventional agricultural model of pollination has many problems. Before WWII, raising honey bees and selling honey and beeswax was seen as a profitable by-product of farming. Farms were traditionally smaller and were interspersed with hedgerows and wild places that provided nesting and forage habitat for wild native bees. Immediately following WWII, the intensification of agriculture lead to a physical loss of habitat and widespread use of aerial-sprayed chemicals (pesticides and liquid fertilizers) contributed to a reduction in native bee populations. Without enough local native bees to pollinate fields, farmers began to turn to honey bees as a crop pollinator. Our current view of honey bees as the only bee responsible for pollination has a relatively short history and our view needs to return to what is natural.
Our current management of honey bees is troublesome. Many problems are due to overcrowding of honey bee hives. Hundreds of hives are stored overwinter in close quarters and in early spring the hives are trucked across the continent to fulfill rental pollination contracts. Overcrowding allows diseases and pests to be shared not only among the hives but from honey bees to wild bees as well. The nation-wide traveling cycle stresses honey bees and which makes recovery from disease more difficult.
We are optimistic that we can change how we manage honey bees to more sustainable methods. One easy way to reduce stress on honey bees is to augment pollination by including hole-nesting bees like mason and leafcutter bees in our bee portfolio. Solitary hole-nesting bees don’t face the same problems and diseases as honey bees. Solitary bees behave and operate differently and the presence of a diversity of bees has been shown to cause honey bees to actually be better pollinators. Spring mason bees emerge in cooler weather, will fly in worse weather, and fly for a longer period during the day than honey bees. Mason and leafcutter bees are both more efficient pollinators by carrying dry, loose pollen on their abdomens. Solitary bees also have a much shorter foraging range than honey bees and this means that they pollinate near the crops where their nesting house is placed. Mason and leafcutter bees are a wonderful alternative if you are finding it harder or impossible to contract with a honey beekeeper.
Raising or renting solitary hole-nesting bees improves crop quality and increases crop yield without adding more expensive fertilizers or other chemicals. By simply adding another bee pollinator to a small farm the yield can be increased by an amazing 25% and this means less financial stress for farmers and more food for more people. Raising hole-nesting bees also provides much-needed nesting sites for local wild hole-nesting bees. Raising solitary bees also brings awareness to other native bees and it urges farmers and gardeners to learn more about the bees that are already under their care.
Sustainable agricultural pollination management must have a holistic approach that recognizes the benefits of enriching bee diversity through the protection, support, and raising of native bees. Bee diversity goes beyond raising alternative managed bees, it includes the needs of wild bees. The world is home to 20,000+ species of bee and of those about 70% nest in ground burrows. We need to better understand the needs of our solitary ground-nesting bees and include them in our pollination plans. For now, we know that solitary ground-nesting bees need sunny sites that are relatively undisturbed and we should leave them alone as they are only actively flying for about 6 weeks out of the year.
Our hope is that we change our view of bees to include the important work of native bees. Solitary bees and social bees like our beloved honey bees can, and do, work together to pollinate our crops. It’s time for us to think beyond honey bees and create a richer, more diverse portfolio of bees under our care in order to grow more food and grow it better.