Pollination panic: honeybees are in trouble. can native pollinators rebound to fill the gap?

AuthorDeWeerdt, Sarah

Outside my office window as I write this article, I can see the tomato plants in our garden heavy with fat, red fruits, like strings of big Christmas bulbs. Perhaps my favorite part of gardening is its alchemical quality, the way a crop seems to come out of nothing. The transformation of dirt and air and sunlight into a perfect tomato seems no less miraculous than the transformation of lead into gold, and it always makes me feel hopeful, secure in the natural world's generosity.


Picking up a newspaper, though, I get a very different picture of the food supply. For nearly two years now, ominous headlines have described a mysterious ailment, colony collapse disorder (CCD), that is wiping out the honeybees that pollinate many crops. Without honeybees, the story goes, fields will be sterile, economies will collapse, food will be scarce.

But what few accounts acknowledge is that what's at risk is not itself a natural state of affairs. For one thing, in the United States, where CCD was first reported and has had its greatest impacts, honeybees are not a native species. (European colonists brought the bees to the Americas in the 1600s.) And the way most commercial crops get pollinated, with enormous populations of captive honeybees (in the United States the bees are trucked to and fro), bears little resemblance to the way things happen in the garden or, indeed, in the past. Pollination in modern agriculture isn't alchemy, it's industry.

System Bee

About three-quarters of the world's flowering plant species depend on animals to help them reproduce by moving pollen grains from the male parts of one flower to the female parts of another. (Other plants rely on wind-borne pollen or self-pollination.) Animal pollinators include birds, bats, flies, beetles, butterflies, and moths, but in most parts of the world by far the largest share of pollination is accomplished by bees.

The overall picture is similar in agriculture, with about 70 percent of the world's leading crop species benefiting from animal pollination. Animal pollination adds an estimated US $112-$200 billion annually to the value of agriculture worldwide, and animal-pollinated crops account for a little over one-third of the food supply. These crops include most fruits, vegetables, and seeds, as well as forage and hay crops fed to the animals we raise for meat and dairy products. It's not likely that we would starve to death without pollinators, since most of our calories come from wind-pollinated or self-pollinated grains like wheat, rice, and corn, but our diets would be vitamin-poor and certainly dull. Some crops, such as melons, require animal pollination in order to set fruit at all. Others, like tomatoes and raspberries, can self-pollinate but produce more, larger, or better fruit with the help of pollinators--in the case of tomatoes, 45 percent more fruit compared to self-pollination alone.

Although a few crops are pollinated by other kinds of insects--certain figs are pollinated by wasps, for instance--in general animal pollination in agriculture means bees. For most of agricultural history, the various bee species native to a given place carried out much of this work invisibly, and "pollination just ... happened," as Scott Hoffman Black, executive director of the Xerces Society, an invertebrate conservation organization, puts it. But in modern industrial agricultural systems, pollinators are almost always honey-bees, kept and managed specifically for pollination.


In the United States, commercial production of more than 100 crops, from almonds to zucchini, is said to depend on honeybees. Many growers rent honeybees from commercial bee-keepers who truck their hives from place to place to pollinate different crops. Perhaps the most dramatic example of the scale of this pollination industry is provided by the California almond crop, which requires nearly 60 billion bees to pollinate its 223,000 hectares of blooms from mid-February to mid-March each year.

The total number of hives involved in the U.S. pollination industry has been somewhere between 2.5 million and 3 million in recent years (it's difficult to pinpoint an exact number, both because of the catastrophic losses from CCD and because the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn't keep statistics on the use of hives for pollination). These hives are ferried along three major pollination routes--West Coast, Midwest, and East Coast--with beekeepers in each region moving their hives to warm southern climates for the winter, then following the sequence of blooms throughout the growing season. University of Illinois entomologist May Berenbaum, who chaired a National Academy of Sciences panel that recently reviewed the status of managed and...

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