“So what’s all the hype about pollinators, anyway? Doesn’t pollination just happen?” This question comes up frequently. Prior to the mid-1940s most pollination did “just happen.” The fields, woodlands, and roadsides at the perimeters of most farms were aflutter with all manner of pollinating animals. These included native bees as well as butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, and other wild things bent on collecting pollen, nectar, or both. In fact, many of the pollinators co-evolved with the flowering plants they favored, creating a win-win mutualism. The flowers were outcrossed, which assured a complex gene pool, and the pollinators were nourished with a healthful and varied diet. Luckily for humans, farm crops and family gardens were pollinated along with everything else.
But the close of WWII accelerated the expansion of “modern” agriculture, which is characterized by immense fields that require colossal pieces of machinery and the liberal application of fertilizers and pesticides. This works in a sense. It produces bumper crops of inexpensive food. But the unintended consequences are legion, and wild pollinators are some of the biggest losers. Humans, too, are big losers.
Insect pollinators can be killed outright by insecticides. Okay, we know this, and farmers try to “control” for it. But the common protective measures, such as not spraying while a crop is in flower, don’t begin to address all of the pollinators’ troubles. So what are the problems? Here are a few, although there are many more:
- Most wild bees have relatively short foraging distances. A wild bee born in a monolithic monocrop has but one thing to eat—and no variety means poor nutrition.
- A wild bee born on the perimeter of this field doesn’t fare much better because farmers kill the weeds to discourage harmful insects.
- Bees that live in the soil can get squished by heavy machinery. Bees that live in the stubble can get plowed under.
- Even if the farmer doesn’t spray during crop flowering, spray may drift from adjacent fields.
- Many of today’s insecticides are systemic, meaning they are inside the plant whether it’s in flower or not.
- Bees need food during the entire course of their life cycles. If all the weeds are killed and only the crop remains, the bees have food only when the crop is in bloom.
It is for these reasons that pollination doesn’t “just happen” anymore. The wild bees have largely disappeared and farmers are forced to use honey bees to do the work. Honey bees are very willing and extremely capable, but they face many of the same challenges as wild bees—especially that poor monoculture diet seasoned with a dash of pesticide.
Honey Bee Suite