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Hold the Honeybee Panic – Other Crop Workers Available

PHOTO: As honeybees continue to decline, native bees, including bumblebees, are being studied as a safety net for agriculture. Photo credit: Deborah C. Smith
PHOTO: As honeybees continue to decline, native bees, including bumblebees, are being studied as a safety net for agriculture. Photo credit: Deborah C. Smith
May 29, 2013

LANSING, Mich. - Honeybees still are in decline across the United States, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that points to pesticides, parasites, poor diet and lack of genetic diversity as some of the problems.

The situation has piqued interest in native bees, which did all the pollination work until industrial mono-crop farming. Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society, which promotes the conservation of natives, said it comes as a shock to many folks when they learn honeybees are not native; they came from Europe with the settlers.

"They grew up with the idea of honeybees and hives," he said. "Most people don't realize almost all of the other bees don't have hives. Most of them are solitary; it's a single mother providing for her young."

A realization is dawning that relying on one pollinator for crops isn't smart, economically or scientifically, Black said, adding that native bees have attributes especially for northern climates.

"They're often more fit for the climate than honeybees are," he said. "They'll pollinate when it's cooler. They'll pollinate when it's overcast and rainy."

Identifying native bees can be tricky. While a bumblebee is obvious, Black describes some natives as looking more like small flies. Flies themselves also are pollinators, along with moths and hummingbirds. Bee identification tips are available at the Xerces website xerces.org.

It's estimated there are at least 4,000 species of native bees, Black said, and many of them already work in Michigan agriculture. He cited studies that show that even when hives are trucked in for pollination, natives mingle with the honeybees for the job. The key, he said, is to provide habitat - which includes a variety of native plants, a seasonal series of flowering plants and very little pesticide use.

The USDA study is online at usda.gov.

Rob South, Public News Service - MI