Commercial Honey Bees Not as Effective as Dwindling Wild Honey Bee Populations, Study Warns

honey bees

Efforts to protect honey bees and other threatened pollinator populations are more important than ever, particularly in areas where they’re needed most, a new study finds.

According to the findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, wild honey bee populations are the most scarce in areas that demand the most pollination, putting immense pressure on growers who rely on the work of the bees amounting to about $3 billion worth of agricultural work.

The research is the first of its kind on a national scale, and comes after efforts made by the White House to address colony collapse disorder, the mysterious condition displacing millions of wild honey bees. The condition has been linked to extensive use of pesticides, particularly those in the neonicotinoid class. Manufacturers of the pesticides have refuted suggestions the chemicals are linked to declining bee populations, but the European Union found enough reason to temporarily ban several types of neonics in efforts to help European bee populations rebound.

In the U.S., areas like California’s Central Valley, the top-producing region for almonds and other orchard crops are facing “a steep imbalance between wild bee populations and the need for the pollination services they provide,” reports the Los Angeles Times.

Because of the rapidly declining wild bee populations, growers are being forced to bring in commercial honey bees to pollinate, an expensive but necessary step in maintaining production.

The researchers looked at bee-dependent regions across the contiguous U.S. during a five-year period between 2008-2013, noting a 23 percent decline in wild honey bees throughout the regions, specifically where the bees are most needed.
“[T]he biggest disparities,” reports the Times, “occur in areas where extensive tracts are given over to single-crop cultivation. Those include 139 counties, mainly in the Upper Great Plains, areas flanking the lower Mississippi River, and swaths of Texas, California, Arizona and Washington.”

“I think the reason why the Central Valley lights up so much is largely almonds,” study co-author Taylor Ricketts, a landscape ecologist at the University of Vermont told the Times. “It’s a hugely valuable crop that’s been expanding like crazy, and it’s entirely dependent on pollinators.”

The researchers plotted their findings onto a map, to help contextualize the decrease in populations relative to a region’s specific pollination needs. “The resulting map could be a warning to growers that they are too dependent on commercial honey bees,” the Times noted.

The researchers also noted the importance of wild bees in delivering “better pollen,” and changing the behavior of commercial honey bees.

“It could be a glimpse of the future for a lot of crops,” said Ricketts. “It’s such an extreme and early case, where they’ve so intensified that there’s no habitat left for native bees. “

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honey bee image via Shutterstock