The European honey bee is perhaps agriculture’s most important pollinator. Its greatest importance is that we derive honey from it. Honey production is a multibillion dollar industry.
There are no native honey bees. The varroa mite nearly wiped out honey bees in the late 80s and 90s, but those bees originally escaped captivity. They weren’t native. In fact, the European honey bee is the only honey bee that doesn’t reside in tropical regions. There are other pollinators though, and many are more effective than honey bees at pollinating plants.
I knew there were a lot, but I read there were over 4000 species of native bees. There are dozens of species of bumble bees alone. Bumble bees are more efficient pollinators for most plants than honey bees.
Bees aren’t the only pollinators. Wasps, beetles and other insects are important, too. So are hummingbirds, beetles, ants, butterflies, moths, bats and other small mammals and lizards. Many of these we’d like around our homes. Some we wouldn’t.
Agriculture is dependent upon pollinators. Some crops can’t exist without them. More than a third of all crop plants rely upon some type of animal for pollination. Fruit production especially depends on them.
We often look at pollinators only as they relate to agriculture. However, our ecosystems depend on them. When native pollinators suffer, so do native plants. When native plants suffer, so do native wildlife species.
In our home landscaping it is important to keep in mind when different plants flower. Pollinators need a constant supply of food. If we plant things pollinators like but they all bloom in the same season, we aren’t helping much. The same goes for planting food plots for wildlife. Stable supplies of both vegetation, pollen and nectar are essential.
When landscape plants invade the natural environment, they tend to upset that balance. In the past, well meaning individuals have planted exotic plants for conservation purposes. This has led to disastrous situations. Multiflora rose and kudzu are two examples.
Our unfortunate interference hasn’t been limited to exotic plants either. We’ve introduced nutria to control vegetation in ditches, and that has caused major problems for our waterways.
When wild Canada goose populations were in decline, we introduced a strain of Canada goose that doesn’t migrate. Now we’re stuck with resident geese that leave their droppings everywhere and are a health hazard. They also consume resources that won’t be available for future migrating geese.
Introducing species not native to an area can have unforeseen consequences. Creating an imbalance can limit native plant species. That can hinder native animal species.
People often want to manage the environment to favor certain species. Some would even like to see certain ones wiped from the earth. However, if we wiped out mosquitoes, ants and wasps we would upset the balance and we might not like the results.
Native plants and native pollinators have existed since the beginning of time. If we plant native species we stand a greater chance of encouraging native pollinators and achieving more stable populations of wild creatures.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.