Wild bees outperform honeybees, but our farms don’t make them welcome

Scientists are discovering that wild bees are far better pollinators than the honeybees that dominate commercial agriculture, according to FERN’s latest story, published with HuffPost. But that discovery, which coincides with a worldwide collapse in pollinator numbers, spotlights a “desperate need” for new approaches to farming that work with these wild bees. 

“For most of history, farms were small, nature was near, and no one had to think much about pollination,” writes Rowan Jacobsen. “But as farms became enormous and natural areas receded, many farmers began importing beehives during the blooming period. Eventually, they stopped thinking of nature as a source of fertility. Most of America’s 2.7 million beehives spend their lives on a tractor-trailer, following the bloom from almonds in California to apples in Washington State to blueberries in Maine.

“In recent years, public appreciation of the pollination value of honeybees has increased substantially, but much less attention has been paid to wild bees. When you’ve got 20,000 honeybees nuzzling your apple tree, you know it. You barely notice the handful of bumblebees searching for a free flower, much less the tiny mason bees and mining bees and sweat bees. Even many experts assumed their contributions were minor.”

But a study of 41 farms on six continents that grew almonds, blueberries, buckwheat, cherries, coffee, cotton, kiwi, mango, passionfruit, pumpkins, strawberries and watermelon “blew up the conventional wisdom,” Jacobsen writes. “There wasn’t a single crop for which increased fruiting caused by honeybees outperformed that of wild bees. On average, wild bees delivered twice the bump of honeybees.”