If you’re like me, you enjoy the beauty of colorful flowers and love eating fresh fruits and vegetables. You recognize that many of the medicines and supplements we use come from plants. And you realize that the astounding diversity of ornamental, food, and medicinal plants that we grow or forage would not exist, if not for the interdependent synergy (referred to in biology as ‘mutualism’) that exists between flowering plants and their pollinators (bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, flies).
Pollination is an essential function of all terrestrial ecosystems. By many accounts, more than 80% of the flowering plant species found in the world’s natural habitats depend on pollinators to reproduce. These include plants that are considered vital to food chains; either eaten in their entirety or whose foliage and/or fruits and nuts are eaten by herbivores which, in turn, are hunted by predators.
3/4 of the world’s agricultural food crops rely, at least in part, on pollinators for propagation. In fact, most orchard fruit and garden and field vegetable crops are pollinated by insects and/or other avian (birds), and sometimes mammalian (bats) pollinators.
There are some garden and field crops that produce both male and female flowers on the same plant (tomatoes, pumpkins, cucumbers, squash). They’re called ‘self-pollinating’ and are often inseminated when the wind blows pollen from the male flowers (reproductive organ called the stamen) to the female flowers (reproductive organ called the stigma). But most NY-grown garden and agricultural crops rely on foraging insects and other pollinators which, when searching for food (nectar and pollen), unintentionally transfer pollen from male flowers to female flowers of the same plant variety, thereby fertilizing the females.
New York has more than seven million acres in agricultural production, and many of the state’s leading crops (apples, berries, pumpkins) rely heavily on pollination by both wild pollinators and managed bees; typically European honeybees and bumblebees kept by beekeepers. All are critically important to the health of the state’s agricultural environment and the strength of its agricultural economy. But, research indicates that both managed honeybees and native pollinators are in decline.
Managed pollinator services is currently an $18 billion agricultural industry in America. And, until this century, populations of imported European honeybees had been so easy to manage that pollination by wild bees was essentially ignored in agricultural systems. However, managed bee colonies have been under pressure for many years now, from a multiplicity of pathogens, parasites, and other problems.
Many honeybee hive managers have experienced annual losses of 30% or more of their colonies, with losses of more than 70% during the worst years, resulting in higher hive-rental costs and/or limits on honeybee availability to apple growers in New York, the nation’s number-2 apple-producing state.
The viability of depending on other bees for pollination has become an ever-more-important issue; one that Bryan Danforth, a Cornell University entomology professor and one of the nation’s leading advocates for native bees as an agricultural asset, has called “a food security issue.”
New York State is home to more than 450 wild pollinator species, including 416 bee species, a native population that is now seen as important to the pollination of commercial crops, as well as to biodiversity in our environment. These unmanaged, wild pollinators are essential for maintaining the integrity, productivity, and sustainability of many types of ecosystems, including forest understory, meadows, pastures, fields, roadsides, many agricultural field crops, fruit orchards, and backyard vegetable and flower gardens. Preserving our native pollinator communities and the habitats that sustain them is now more of an imperative than ever before.
In May of 2014, Professor Danforth and Cornell Orchards farm manager Eric Shatt were checking bee activity from rented hives when they observed large numbers of foraging wild bees in the apple blossoms. After a committee that oversees the orchards agreed that allowing Danforth and Shatt to circumvent the use of managed honeybees during the following apple blossom season, relying instead only on wild pollinators, was a research risk worth taking, Shatt was able to report a full crop of fruitlets, demonstrating that, under the right conditions, wild bees can play a critical role in enhancing food security and increasing sustainability, while saving growers money and easing pressure on vulnerable managed honeybee hives.
In order to assess the level of pollination services provided by wild bees and honeybees at commercial and home apple orchards, the Northeast Pollinator Project is collecting data from apple growers, which will allow them to monitor wild pollinator populations across the region over time and to provide data-driven recommendations on whether or not, and at what level, participating growers should rent honey bees. To learn more, visit www.northeastpollinatorpartnership.org.