Talk of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) tends to bring out two groups of extremists—the group that believes the demise of honey bees will completely destroy our ecosystem and the group that says, “Good riddance, honey bees are not native anyway.”
It is true that honey bees are not native to the Americas. If all the honey bees died tomorrow we would still have an ecosystem. But the ecosystem we have at present is not native either. It is overflowing with introduced crops, ornamental plants, weeds, animals, and even introduced humans. Species have disappeared as well; many plants and animals have gone extinct without a trace. And if that isn’t enough, we’ve changed the composition of our water, our air, and our soil—we’ve even mucked with the climate.
So I don’t agree with either group of extremists. The western honey bee was brought here to pollinate introduced farm crops. As Alex Wild over at Myrmecos says, honey bees are farm animals and CCD is an agricultural problem. This is true.
The ecosystem is broken
On the flip side, however, removing honey bees will not restore our ecosystem; it will just leave us with a lot of crops without pollinators. There are many native pollinators that are probably up to the job—but none that can succeed with our present agricultural methods.
There is a lot of talk about finding a “replacement” for honey bees—of finding species that can be managed in large numbers to provide vast amounts of pollination service for our gigantic monoculture cropping system. This, I believe, is something to be wary of.
Native bees should not be managed
If we take a native species and try to breed it, manage it, medicate it, and RoundUp Ready it for agricultural service we may very well build into its genetics the same problems we are having with honey bees. We have weakened the honey bee by forcing it to work in these highly artificial agricultural environments, and we will weaken its replacement as well. Already, managed bumble bees have contracted diseases that have spread to wild populations, and managed alfalfa leafcutting bees have come down with diseases such as chalkbrood.
Instead of trying to convert our valuable native bee species into pollination machines, we need to fix our agricultural system so that crops can be pollinated by the large number of native bee species that are already in place and ready to work. If we try to raise native bees like farm animals, we will be setting ourselves up for failure all over again.
Honey Bee Suite
Rusty – I wish you had a “like” button; I’d hit it three times! We shouldn’t treat farm animals like farm animals either. When we treat living things like they belong on an assembly line, whether they are farm animals, insects, or crops, it produces ecological disaster.
Rusty, I believe your heart is in the right place, but I think it is tougher than that.
I support honeybees in the US. They are here to stay, and are a welcome pollinator in all our crops. They have been overbred by centuries, not decades. I believe the genetic weakness has caught up.
This is a good mistake that people who understand the need for a robust pollinator won’t allow to happen again.
In general, the monoculture practice we have today is in place because we want cheaper food. Farmers/Orchard Owners can’t afford two sets of picking equipment, multiple types of spraying equipment, different picking times, etc. It winds up being too costly. I believe that monoculture is here to stay, whether we like it or not. Commerce drives this requirement.
We also need significant numbers of native pollinators, FAR more than can be achieved through simple hedge rows around the properties. For a farmer to achieve total pollination (thus best yield) he has to ensure that all areas of his crop are pollinated. This, in general, takes a pollination expert. It’s part art and part science.
I suggest within 5-7 years we’ll be seeing major issues with pollination in the US. We need to be actively looking for change now.
– change in how the farmers pollinate. (different sprays, different processes to match the pollinator’s capabilities.)
– change in relying soley upon the honeybee.
– change in funding to how we currently spend our research dollars. There should be more research funding for alternative native pollinators.
How do we go about asking for more native bees to become useful to the farmer/orchard? There has to be profit in it for the native insect raiser and pollinator.
We need to begin finding, learning peculiarities, managing, and using native pollinators throughout the US. The Blue Orchard Bee (aka Mason Bee) is a great example of this on the west coast. We need to find other local insects to affect crops/orchards elsewhere in the country.
My website is starting that process now. The focus is on helping people be successful with one of the most harmless pollinators out there (the mason bee) As people become successful and familiar with that insect, we’ll be asking them to see what else is in their yard or orchard… This will take years, but we need to be starting as soon as possible.
Our purpose isn’t to replace the honeybee, rather to support it as an additional pollinator. It’s not going to be easy, but crisis provides opportunities to those looking to help.
Dave, Owner of crownbees.com
Check out robot bee projects at Harvard and Sheffield, UK. Technology to the rescue.