pollinator habitat

Wild pollinators cannot replace honey bees . . .

At least not in the way we’d like. In the past few years a flood of articles has heralded native pollinators as “saviors”—groups of selfless, tireless, seldom-seen gladiators that are going to step in and save our food supply once the honey bees die off.

This is a comforting thought, and perhaps one day native pollinators will shoulder the bulk of our pollination needs—but it won’t happen within our current system of agriculture. It can’t. Successful transition to native pollinators will require nothing short of a complete overall of our current farming system.

If you read about the biology and ecology of wild pollinators, you will see they can be very efficient in terms of the number of flowers pollinated per minute. So efficient, in fact, that you wonder why the heck we ever started using honey bees. But as you dig deeper, you will also see they have very different life cycles and habitat requirements.

Some native pollinators will forage only a few hundred yards from their homes while honey bees will easily cover a three-mile radius—even more if resources are scarce. Some native pollinators visit only one plant species, or several, while honey bees pollinate hundreds. Some native pollinators are active only a few weeks of the year while a honey bee colony will forage any time the weather permits. Most native pollinators live singly or in small groups while honey bees live in massive colonies. The list goes on.

In the “old days,” let’s say before the end of WWII, people who kept honey bees kept them for honey. And if you didn’t keep bees, you didn’t worry about pollination. In fact, no one paid any attention to pollinators because there was no shortage. A farmer planted a field, the pollinators did their thing, and a crop was harvested. Short-lived, picky pollinators weren’t a problem because there were hundreds of different kinds. There was always one or a dozen other species to pick up where the last one left off.

But the Green Revolution changed how we farm and, before long, there weren’t enough native pollinators to do the job. The fields were too big, the habitat was too scarce, and pesticides were everywhere. As farms got bigger and more mechanized, honey bees had to be trucked in along with other forms of migrant labor.

Even the people who are currently studying native pollinators concede that without significant changes, native bees might supplement—but not supplant—honey bees. Some experts estimate that up to 30% of the farmland would have to be converted to bee habitat. Hedgerows, borders, and habitat strips would have to be interspersed with crops. This reserved land would need to remain un-tilled and be planted with large numbers of flowering plants so that something was always in bloom.

Thing is, even with all those resources devoted to wild species, it might not be enough. We would have to change pesticide practices, stop poisoning roadside weeds, and eliminate larger-than-life fields. We would have to become stewards—rather than pillagers—of the land.

I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from keeping a hive of honey bees or tacking a bee block to a fencepost. But even thousands of them won’t assure a future food supply. To do that we must change the way we farm—from endless rows of monoculture to GMOs to weed control—it all has to be fixed. Native pollinators can’t save us unless we save them first. Care of pollinators needs to be job one.


Bumble bee on ceoanthus.


  • The disconnect that many people have from their food sources precludes the ability to wrap their heads around the multitude of problems caused by the steep decline in all of our pollinators across the board. It isn’t just domestic food that would dwindle. We would lose wild food sources as well, and that means wild animals further up the food chain would also decline as a result. I think that most people cannot conceive how important pollinators are to our terrestrial food web.

  • Agreed. I find it so disturbing that there’s research being done into producing robot bees for pollination. It’s such twisted logic that if we’ve destroyed all our ecosystems so much that pollinators are struggling for survival, then instead of trying to fix that oh well we’ll just make some artificial ones then.

    There are a few crops which are better pollinated by native pollinators – for instance tomatoes, which rely on buzz pollination carried out by bumble bees.

    • Good point. Other examples of crops better pollinated by wild bees are pears and alfalfa (lucerne.) We need all our pollinators, both wild and managed.

  • One of the best blog posts that I have seen in a long while on the native bee issue.

    I am surprised at the “30% of the farmland would have to be converted to bee habitat” estimation, however this makes sense in a situation where vast fields of monoculture have been created and any natural bee forage has been eradicated.

    Please do keep talking on this subject.

  • Okay- what is nice about the post “Native pollinators can’t save us unless we save them first. Care of pollinators needs to be job one.” I do agree with most of the blog post HOWEVER the author in every comparison uses the native bee MOST different than honeybees. Many differences exist, but I know from experience that many solitary bees that pollinate local farms are extremely gregarious nesting in large densities and do all the needed pollination for a 7 acre farm (also native bumblebees [which will fly a kilometer or more..] visit our nectarless tomaotos and peppers which honeybees will ignore [they have a hard time getting the pollen out]). That is the difference – a fundamental change in agriculture – food systems – I like how the author emphasizes saving them first. A rebuttal of mine regarding that the argument that wild pollinators “don’t but maybe could” would be SO lengthy – short version here – “they do already” – see papers by Dr. Claire Kremen here http://nature.berkeley.edu/kremenlab/kremen_publish.html and see how very recent research in the UK and USA show how important wild pollinators are RIGHT NOW even doing more than honeybees – tcheck these out http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-06-wild-pollinators-contribute-honeybees.html http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2011/06/20/wild-pollinators-worth-billions-to-farmers/ Here is proof that honeybees were not due all the credit given for pollination. Often you can assume if something or someone is ‘Indigenous’, ‘wild’, ‘small’, ‘unassuming’, etc. they will be overlooked, well this is the case for our native bees. ALSO – Honeybees cannot replace wild pollinators. Emergence time of year, foraging behavior and time of foraging, flower preferences (flower constancy), size, ability to sonicate, etc. Medicinal and edible tropical species of plants are disappearing because honeybees in some cases cannot or in others choose not to visit the flower. We do need to absorb native wild bees into our ethical consideration, consciousness, ecological “managing” and agricultural pollination services. Sometimes seeing that they are needed for farm financial success perks the ears of people – and this is a PROVEN fact, with lots of opportunity for new studies. Thanks for the post. My facebook page on cultural realtionships with native bees around the world here https://www.facebook.com/pages/Ethnobeeology/318530098181576

  • It feels greedy for people to bring honey bees to the US just to replace the native population and to promote honey.

    • Dear Think,

      You have to remember that when honey bees were brought here in 1622, we didn’t know anything about native bees, invasives, and habitat degradation. At the time, we didn’t even know about pollination. The settlers were not greedy, they were just trying to survive. Think about it.

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