The Role of Native Pollinators in Agriculture

Pollinators 101

     Bumble bee on sunflower

What are pollinators? What are native pollinators?

Pollinators include bees, insects, birds, and other animals that move pollen from one flower to another, thereby fertilizing plants and allowing them to reproduce. Native pollinators are those species that are native to a specific region. To the Native Pollinators in Agriculture Project, that region is North America. The blue orchard bee and numerous bumble bees are examples of native pollinators. Native, or “wild”, bees are distinct from managed bees, which were introduced to North America and are kept today by beekeepers in the United States for their honey, beeswax, and pollination services. The European honey bee (Apis mellifera) is the primary managed pollinator in the U.S. today.

Though bees are the most common group of pollinators, other insects and animals, including wasps, butterflies, flies, beetles, bats, and hummingbirds, are significant pollinators as well.

 Honey bee on blanketflower

Why are pollinators important?

Pollinators are vital to production agriculture. Approximately 30 percent of the food and fiber crops grown throughout the world depend upon pollinators for reproduction. The fruits and seeds from these crop species provide 15 to 30 percent of the foods and beverages consumed by humans. Roughly translated, approximately one out of every four mouthfuls of food and drink that we consume are produced from pollination services provided by pollinators.

The U.S. grows over 100 crop plants that are pollinated by insects and animals. Primary examples include almonds, apples, pears, citrus fruits, cherries, pumpkins, cucumbers, blackberries, cranberries, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, melons, tomatoes, soybeans and sunflowers. Insect-pollinated crops produced in the United States were valued at an estimated $20 billion to the U.S. economy in 2000.

An estimated 15 percent of the combined value of U.S fruit, nut, vegetable and field crop production can be attributed to pollination services provided by native bees. Including meat and dairy products produced from bee-pollinated forage and hay crops, such as alfalfa and clover, as well as the mark-up and sale of insect-pollinated produce, the contribution of pollinators to the U.S. annual economy could be an order of magnitude more.

Pollination services are provided by both managed and native pollinators. Commercial honey bee producers providing pollination services manage several hundred to as many as 80,000 hives. The annual almond crop in California alone requires 1.3 million colonies of honey bees to pollinate over 615,000 acres of almond plantations.

Why are native pollinators important?

Native pollinators also play a critical role in the production of certain fruits, vegetables, and forage crops. Native bees, including the blue orchard bee and numerous bumble bees and other native bees, are significant pollinators, and on a bee-per-bee basis, can be more effective than honey bees.

Monarch butterfly on clover

Native pollinators provide important pollination services for crops like alfalfa, melons, cranberries, blueberries, soybeans, and sunflowers.

Recent significant declines in populations of managed and native bees and other pollinators pose a real threat to production agriculture that could result in billions of dollars of economic losses to the sector and the national economy. Populations of managed and native bees, especially honey bees, are in a state of decline across North America. Varroa mite infestations and Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) have caused dramatic die offs in European honey bee populations. Native bees can’t replace managed bees, but they do represent a significant part of the overall pollination process for the nation’s agricultural and horticultural crops, particularly in providing an “insurance policy” of additional pollination services when honey bee populations are low. If the beekeeping industry continues to have trouble because of pests and diseases, native bees can fill in when managed honey bees are in short supply or are too expensive to import. Thus, native pollinators serve as a buffer against pollinator losses.

What can be done to protect and promote native pollinators?

Many simple and relatively inexpensive practices for pollinator conservation are available. Opportunities exist to “piggy back” pollinator protection efforts with integrated pest management and conservation initiatives designed to protect soil, water, and air quality and enhance wildlife habitat.

Widespread adoption of these practices is unlikely unless there is a general appreciation by the production agriculture sector of the ecological and economic benefits of pollinators. The dramatic decline in pollinator populations is a critical issue for production agriculture but it is not yet on the top priority list for many agricultural organizations. Many growers are not aware of how significant the contribution of native pollinators is to the production of their crops and farm profitability.

To learn about what the Native Pollinators in Agriculture Project is doing to educate producers on the value of native pollinators, and what you can do to help, read our Project Synopsis.

For more information on native pollinators, visit our Resources page.

The Native Ag Pollinators project is a legacy initiative of Solutions from the Land. Learn more about SfL here or search the Ag Pollinators site below!