The University of Vermont’s study on the current state of wild bees has been completed, and as many of us suspected, there is a serious decline in wild bee populations in the United States. Measuring wild bee loss took several years, and is the work of several universities across the country. What they found is unsettling, but points out where action needs to be taken to turn the demise around.

In some parts of the U.S. native bee populations are good, and in others, at an alarming low. Where? Naturally, the worst hit counties are those that hold the greatest concentration of cropland, though there are other regions of poor bee numbers scattered around the country. The worst stricken places are also those that have very high bee demand to bring crops to harvest. Though some crops only have moderate to low pollination needs – like cotton, canola, sunflowers, and soybeans – many important food crops have high pollination needs. Whether wild, or managed, bees are as important as your next meal.

Native Bee Decline Map 2013 (Courtesy of PNAS)

Native Bee Decline Map 2013 (Courtesy of PNAS)

There are those who don’t find this of huge concern, stating that there are lots of pollinators out there besides bees. But the populations of all pollinators will be in the same kind of decline, not just because of agricultural pesticides, but also due to massive loss of weeds. The gardener’s and farmer’s worst enemy is a pollinator’s food source. The majority of arable land in a farming community is planted with a single kind of crop. In the city, there is very little pollinator-friendly plants, and in suburbia there may be flowers, but many are also treated with chemicals that kill pollinators, but a weed is not allowed to grow either… it goes against neighborhood property maintenance rules. If pesticides don’t kill them, starvation is the next greatest threat to wild pollinators.

Humanity, in it’s need to control everything in a fashion that suits different perceived desires, has removed too much untamed meadow and grass land, in addition to the problem with pesticides. The lack of a steady, and varied diet is one of the biggest suggestions the EPA has offered to the honey bee industry as a portion of the problem in colony loss, and disease. But not all bee species make honey, which is why they were brought across the Atlantic hundreds of years ago, still they are all just as important to the planet, if they didn’t serve a purpose for something, they would not be here.

There are 4000 native species of bees in the United States. From the tiny sweat bee to the huge, furry bumble bee, they all have different foraging needs. Some of them feed from only one kind of plant. Some only forage certain weeks of the year, because Nature made sure that all creatures had a plentiful, balanced diet. Certain pollinators will only service certain plants, in a few cases. Without that particular pollinator, the entire population of a particular plant could vanish. Bees can be very territorial. You could have 50 types of plants in a meadow, but each species of bee will only take care of THEIR plants.

Miner bees, carpenter bees, leaf cutting bees, digging bees, killer bees, orchid bees, mason bees, sweat bees, and bumble bees are all necessary to keep the flora of North America going. These are the native bees, which honey bees are not. The honey bee is an exotic import that didn’t exist in North America until the European settlers brought them. Those are just broad categories too, within the different genus and families that bees are classified under in science. Since honey bees have been here since the 17th century, they have naturalized, creating plenty of wild ones out there humming around, though industry that drives the most recognized cry that something needs to be done to save the bees is only concerned about the ones in their hives. So, it’s not at all surprising that this is the first study on wild bee populations ever.

There’s a lot of interesting data in the scientific paper published in the National Science Academy’s PNAS Online, like this quote:

“Between 2008 and 2013, wild bee abundance was consistent in 67% of the US land area. However, our model indicates decreases in 23% of the United States, and these decreases were highly likely in 9% of the United States. Most of the areas of likely decrease occurred in agricultural regions of Midwestern and Great Plains states and in the Mississippi river valley. Eleven states [Minnesota, Texas, Wisconsin, South Dakota, North Dakota, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Louisiana] collectively accounted for 60% of the areas of predicted decrease in wild bee abundance. Over the 5-y period in these states, corn and grain cropland increased 200% and 100%, respectively, and mostly replaced grasslands and pasture.

In the map the authors refer to as the ‘index of bee abundance’ shown above, it’s very easy to see that where there is intense farming, like the Central Valley of California, and the Cornbelt of the Midwestern states, wild bee abundance is at it’s lowest. Supposedly we need more farmland than exists to feed the world, and yet, that 200% increase in land planted in corn is for biofuels, not food. Should we be sacrificing bees and pollinators for the fuel industry? Common sense says no.

There are not enough managed bees to pollinate the food crops being grown as of the 2015 season, and what about the rest of the plants growing in the USA? No one is going to manage bees to service wild land – it has no market, and therefore, no income or profit. Obviously, that is not how reversing the decline of bees and other pollinators can be done.

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Tammy Clayton

Tammy Clayton

Contributing Writer at Garden Culture Magazine
Tammy has been immersed in the world of plants and growing since her first job as an assistant weeder at the tender age of 8. Heavily influenced by a former life as a landscape designer and nursery owner, she swears good looking plants follow her home.
Tammy Clayton