Native bees: More bee for the buck

CORNELL (US) — Native bees are two to three times better pollinators, are more plentiful, and are less prone to colony collapse than the better known honey bee, a new study shows.

“An individual visit by a native bee is actually worth far more than an individual visit by a honey bee,” says Bryan Danforth, professor of entomology at Cornell University. “Honey bees are more interested in the nectar. They don’t really want the pollen if they can avoid it. The wild, native bees are mostly pollen collectors. They are collecting the pollen to take back to their nests.”

Natives are also more plentiful than once thought. In 25 surveyed orchards near Ithaca and Lake Ontario in New York, Danforth says he expected to find 40-50 native bee species, but found close to 100.

Graduate student Mia Park is studying how the landscape surrounding apple orchards impacts the native bee fauna and compares the per-visit pollen deposition of native bees and honey bees. (Credit: Bryan Danforth)

Honey bees are considered valuable because, unlike most native species, they can be moved from farm to farm. For example, honey bees are critical in pollinating California almond fields in February when there are no native bees around, Danforth says.

But the honey bee’s mobility has exposed it to a wide variety of pathogens and stresses, which likely contribute to colony collapse disorder.

There are more than 20,000 bee species in the world, including roughly 450 in New York state, Danforth says. The species in New York can help pick up the slack of the declining honey bee, which is not native to North America. In fact, native bees may have been doing a lot of pollinating work all along but not getting credit for it.

“In the past, the attitude has always been, ‘Well, you have the crop, and you have the honey bee, and that’s all you really need.’ But nobody has ever bothered to ask, well what about all these other bees that are out there?” Danforth says. “The role of native bees in crop pollination has been largely unappreciated—until colony collapse disorder created a crisis.”

Danforth is also the lead researcher studying native bee species abundance in New York state apple orchards. The findings so far are “very good news” for New York apple farmers, who contribute nearly $261 million each year to the state economy.

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