This book could not have come at a better time. We stand at a crossroads, where honey bee losses and rental rates for pollination are on the rise, research is expanding our knowledge of native bees’ role in crop pollination, and growers are looking for pollination alternatives to improve crop security. Herein lies the heart of this book: It is a technical resource that brings together the latest advances in native and introduced bee management with a big-picture perspective on how to manage a farm for these pollinators’ greatest success.
Pollinators are essential to our environment. Seventy percent of the world’s flowering plants, including more than two-thirds of the world’s crop species, rely on pollinators to reproduce. The fruits and seeds from these crops are necessary for 30 percent of the foods and beverages we consume, and include the most nutritious and interesting parts of our diet: apples, watermelon, blueberries, carrots, broccoli, and almonds to name but a few. We also count on pollinators for the beef and dairy products that come from cattle raised on alfalfa. In 2000, growers in the United States were paid close to $20 billion for insect-pollinated crops. According to estimates, managed and wild native bee species, as well as nonnative leafcutter and mason bees, are responsible for close to a quarter of this value; honey bees are responsible for the rest.
But now the honey beekeeping industry is in crisis. During the past 50 years, we have witnessed an almost 50 percent decline in the number of managed honey bee colonies in the United States. This trend is a result of stagnant honey prices in the 1970s and 1980s, combined in the past two decades with a barrage of new pests and diseases introduced from Europe, Asia, and potentially elsewhere. Most recently, and most alarmingly, the beekeeping community is facing Colony Collapse Disorder, where for still unknown reasons, worker bees simply abandon the hive. All these problems, known and mysterious, have led to beekeeper-reported losses of 30 percent during the 2006–2007 season and 35 percent during the 2007–2008 season.
With such sustained declines, beekeepers are going out of business. It can no longer be safely assumed that honey bees will provide all of farmers’ future pollination needs. At the same time, research emerges every year about the role alternative pollinators, managed and wild, are playing in agriculture. Scientists from New Jersey to California and Michigan to Texas have demonstrated that wild native bees play a role in crop pollination. Other researchers continue to experiment with new species of managed native bees and the additional floral resources needed to support their successful reproduction.
All this work, however, raises concerns about how we manage our farm landscapes. The continuing trend toward larger monocultures, insecticide use, and the concomitant lack of habitat—particularly a decline in the number and diversity of flowering plants available when crops are not in bloom—creates a landscape where few crop pollinators can survive.
To diversify our pollinators, we must better understand how to manage a variety of bee species as well as the habitat that supports them and their wild counterparts. We cannot expect our natives to perform if we don’t consider and provide for all of their habitat needs. For example, cherry and apple orchards might bloom for only three or four weeks, but mason bees are active as adults for six weeks or more. If flowers are not available outside of the crop bloom period, the dense concentration of foraging bees will run out of pollen and nectar sources. Their reproduction will not be enough to increase their managed populations.
Managing native bees also raises concerns. Moving them, for example, significantly increases the risk of spreading diseases or pests from one part of the country to another. These diseases may impact not only other managed bees but also their wild counterparts. As we increase our use of managed native bees, we need to exercise greater care and caution and develop regional varieties to help mitigate this potential problem.
In the coming years, honey bees will continue to be critically important for production agriculture. To improve the sustainability and security of farming in the United States, however, it is important for growers to diversify the pollinators upon which they rely. It also might be time for beekeepers to diversify their own operations and expand their management to native bees. This book provides the necessary tools for growers, beekeepers, and other agricultural professionals to do just that. Perhaps the silver lining of Colony Collapse Disorder is its wake-up call to invest time, research, and energy into new managed pollinators and new ways of looking at farm management for the betterment of all pollinators. We are being asked to picture a future in agriculture where even the most intensively managed almond orchards, cranberry bogs, and squash fields make room for flowering plants that complement blooming crops and have strategically placed hives of honey bees, tubes of leafcutters, boxes of bumble bees, and natural habitat that provides a home for wild native bees.
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation