Guest Rant by Will Raap
Honey bees and wild pollinators need your help and need it now.
Gardeners know that good pollination makes for better crops of tomatoes, cucumbers, apples and raspberries. And that’s especially true for certain commercial crops like almonds, which need to have 1 million honey bee hives brought to California’s Central Valley to provide pollination for 60 million trees, supporting 80% of the world’s almond production. But wild bees, beetles, flies, butterflies, moths, birds and bats also are critical in moving pollen from the male to the female parts of flowers for fruit and seed setting.
The journal Science affirmed this point with a recently published study of 600 sites in 20 countries involving 41 crops. It found that wild insects are more important than we may have thought for crop pollination and that honey bees cannot replace the value and importance of wild pollinators. Science reported that “Wild insects pollinated crops more effectively, because an increase in their visitation enhanced fruit set by twice as much as an equivalent increase in honey bee visitation. Further, visitation by wild insects and honey bees promoted fruit set independently, so high abundance of managed honey bees supplemented, rather than substituted for, pollination by wild insects.”
So our gardens and farms need BOTH wild insect and honey bee pollinators.
Albert Einstein, the physicist, not an entomologist but still a deep thinker about global issues, said “If the bee disappears off the surface of the earth, man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”
What can be done?
Wild pollinators usually live in natural habitats, such as the edges of forests, wetlands and riparian zones, hedgerows or grasslands. The Science article shows agriculture can also help promote nature’s free pollinator services with practices that conserve or restore natural areas around and within croplands, add diverse flowering plants, provide nesting areas, and minimize and/or ban pesticide use. Sure, farmers with flowering crops can always pay to bring in commercial honey bee hives, but it may be cheaper and will be more effective and better for the environment if we design farming systems to help wild pollinators thrive.
I helped created a non-profit program, Bees for Trees, that is helping families in Costa Rica become beekeepers. It provides participating families with a zero-interest micro-loan to begin producing honey from 10 hives – enough to increase household income by 30 to 50 percent. In return, these small landowners must stop using toxic pesticides and herbicides and also reforest 10% of their denuded land, thus reducing erosion, increasing ground water reserves, and improving wild pollinator habitat. We’re working on a crowd-sourcing campaign, where a $25 donation can help us expand the program and get you some fresh Costa Rican honey.
The Science article concluded that without steps to conserve wild pollinators, “The ongoing loss of wild insects is destined to compromise agricultural yields worldwide”.
What if every farmer, large and small, were supported to be good stewards of the nature around them by being offered incentives that improve their overall income, not just financial but also the kinds that healthy ecosystems offer for free?
* With apologies to the Troggs and their 1966 best-selling song “Wild Thing”
Will Raap, founder of the Intervale Center, Restoring Our Watershed and Gardener’s Supply, is engaged in creating positive social, environmental and economic change by employing the power of markets and social enterprises. He focuses on local food, renewable energy, and land restoration enterprises that support a more resilient economy and more sustainable future. Other initiatives include The Earth Partners, Reforest Teak, Farm at South Village and the New Economics Institute.