Declines in bee populations around the world have been widely reported over the past several decades. Much attention has focused on honey bees, which commercial beekeepers transport all over the United States to pollinate crops.
However, while honey bees are a vital part of our agricultural system, they are generally considered the chickens of the bee world – domesticated and highly managed for specific agricultural use. They are not native to North America and often can’t be used as a surrogate for understanding what is happening with native wild bees – the focus of my research.
There are about 5,000 native bee species in North America. Many have shown no evidence of decline, and some are thriving in highly urbanized areas. But other species, including some that were previously common, are becoming harder and harder to find. As scientists work to understand bee decline, it is important to identify the unique roles that native bees play, and to identify threats specific to them.
One in every three bites of food we eat is made possible by bees. They pollinate almonds, apples, blueberries, squash, tomatoes and many other popular crops. They also pollinate alfalfa, which we feed to farm animals, so they support the meat component of our diet too.
We need bees for food security and to maintain healthy ecosystems. Bees pollinate flowering trees and wildflowers, which in turn provide food and homes for other animals and improve water, air and soil quality.
Along with honey bees, wild bees are also vital for crop pollination. Research has shown that the presence of wild bees increases yields across many types of crops. They often are more efficient at pollinating crops native to North America than honey bees. For example, a honey bee would have to visit a blueberry flower four times to deposit the same amount of pollen as a single visit from a bumble bee queen.