The Importance of Bee Pollinators and Plant Health

The Green Gazette explains the vital relationship between bee pollinators and plant health.
By Claire Anderson
February/March 2003
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Learn about bee pollinators and plant health.
PHOTO: EYEWIRE


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Learn about bee pollinators and plant health. 

Few people know that honeybees (Apis mellifera) are not native to the Americas, but were brought over by Europeans. Before these bees came to this country, pollen bees, also called "native," "wild" or "non-Apis" bees, were responsible for pollinating our flowering plants.

Even though they don't live together in hives, and the females make their own simple nests and care for their own offspring, pollen bees are still somewhat social creatures that don't mind nesting together in close quarters. You can foster a bee collective by providing them with nesting blocks.

There is a vital relationship between bee pollinators and plant health. Some pollen bees' adult activity coincides with the flowering period of their food plants, making them suited for management with crops that have brief blooming periods. This quality, paired with their gentle nature and resistance to mites and viruses, makes them fantastic orchard and garden pollinators, and perfect for many backyard gardeners.

More information on pollen bees can be found at the Pollinator Paradise website: www.pollinatorparadise.com

Bringing Back the Buzz

Before you take that next forkful of food, be thankful. Or rather, bee thankful. Every third bite of food we eat, as well as most of our clothing, some beverages and many medicines, could not be produced without the essential pollination provided by bees, according to research entomologist Stephen Buchmann.

But native bees and other pollinators are in crisis. Their populations are plummeting due to habitat destruction and fragmentation, and due to the widespread use of pesticides on farms and lawns.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that more than 50 pollinator species are threatened or endangered; wild honeybee populations have nose-dived, declining by 25 percent since 1990. Not only does this spell peril for pollinators and plants, but it also negatively affects the human food supply. Pollinators are critical in the production of more than 150 food crops in the United States — from apples to alfalfa. Honeybee shortages in California caused by parasites and pesticides required almond growers to import bees to pollinate their crop. Worth $800 million, that's nothing to sneeze at.

It's no exaggeration when researchers point out that our food — and our future — relies on pollinators. The good news is that you can take steps to encourage pollinator populations in your own back yard. The steps are simple, and the rewards are fruitful. While you're helping them, they'll be helping your fruit and vegetable crops be the best they can bee. For example, studies have shown that ample bee pollination can increase strawberry fruit size by 40 percent. To attract more pollinators:

• Provide nesting blocks for pollen bees. Habitat for these bees can be as simple as 5/16-inch holes drilled into an old log or small blocks of wood (visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Bee Biology and Systematics Laboratory website at www.loganbeelab.usu.edu /) or you can purchase pre-drilled blocks from Fedco (www.feedcoseeds.com) and other garden product suppliers.

• Lose your lawn. Create your own pollinator-friendly garden by planting a variety of native flowering plants. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center offers lists of native flowering plants and links to local native plant societies (www.wildflower.org). 

• Use organic pest-control methods, not pesticides. Common-Sense Pest Control by William Olkowski is a veritable treasure trove of information on least-toxic techniques.

• Make habitat for pollinators and other wild critters. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Conservation Program (LANDCARE or www.nrcs.usda.gov/feature/backyard/wildhab.html) gives valuable tips on establishing beneficial back yards. Also see The National Wildlife Federation's Habitat Program website (www.nwf.org/backyardwildlifehabitat), where you can keep track of your own back yard's development and learn about species native to your area.

• Last but not least, support growers who use pollinator-friendly practices and buy organic food as often as you can.

Busy, Busy Bees. To make just one pound of honey, worker honeybees travel 55,000 miles and source 2 million flowers.


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