Read here to learn about our native wild plums, the crisis, and how you can help in conservation project within the Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana region.
This is the short version of an article written by Solomon Gamboa of Indigenous Landscapes. To see the full-length article written by Andrew Goebel of Indigenous Landscapes click here. The full-length offers more information on each topic written about in the short-version, as well as containing citations for quoted research.
In recent years we've become aware that Honeybees and Monarch Butterflies have suffered population declines due to various human activities. In response some organizations or individuals have tried to create habitat for pollinators within their properties. The chemicals that effect honeybees negatively have also been put under the microscope of the public's eye. The short version of this article is written to quickly broaden our perceptions and, perhaps, direct us in a productive path towards pollinator conservation.
Why do we care about pollinators?
If you care specifically about the production of honey, a product only attainable from the non-native Honeybee (Apis mellifera), there's no need to worry. As of this time, honeybee populations are stable, though colonies suffer from higher failure/death rates than in the past due to pathogens and parasitic insects. Our monoculture, weedless agricultural landscape of almond, apple, and cherry orchards can't support bees year-round, so these orchards are honeybee dependent by design not by necessity. This is to say, if we create habitat for our 4,000 species of Native Bees within our agricultural landscape, the honeybee is no longer necessary for it's pollination services. The convenience of being able to truck-transport honeybees from orchard to orchard enables these environments to be complete free of native plants that would support native bees and other pollinators on site for pollination. See the almond orchard picture below to see the system that creates portable honeybee hive dependency. Honeybees couldn't survive here either if they weren't trucked away afterwards, because there's nothing else to forage for after the Almond bloom peaks. They'd have to be fed corn syrup and sugar water to get by.
Why Should We Care About Native Pollinators?
Native bees account for over 50% of the insect pollination in our ecosystems. The plant diversity within our Desert, Grassland/Prairie, Savannas, Forests, and Wetland ecosystems is largely dependent on native pollinators which also includes flies, beetles, moths, butterflies and other species of insects. The remainder of the pollination is taken care of by the wind, which pollinates certain trees, shrubs, and grasses primarily. Since honeybees are non-native they are in no way necessary to the function of these ecosystems. While their negative effects haven't been thoroughly studied, resource competition and pathogen spreading from honeybees have indicated potential negative effects on native bee populations. See our extended version of this article for more details on negative impacts of honey bees on native bees. Without native plant diversity, we will see a further decline in biodiversity. Native pollinators help to ensure plant diversity through the pollination of plants that compete with wind-pollinated plants. To put it simply, loosing native pollinators would destroy the fabric of our ecosystems, which currently are the only terrestrial carbon sink mitigating climate change, improving water quality, improving air quality, and supporting the thousands of species that we exclude from our agricultural system.
What should I do, what should we do?
First, don't become a honeybee keeper, your passion and energy would be more productive doing some of the things we're about to recommend. Keeping honeybees cannot solve and in some ways may worsen the major issues with pollinator conservation. The decline of native bees and pollinators is primarily due to the destruction of our ecosystems (habitat loss), owed mostly to hundreds of millions of acres of agriculturally managed land. It isn't a farmer's fault entirely, our agricultural land is decided by what people demand/consume through diet choices and energy use but we'll save that for our next article. Further decline has happened as our rural and agricultural landscapes have become more intensively applied with herbicides that eliminate the wild plants our pollinator populations relied on. While invasive plants are now destroying the edge habitats which used to hold a high diversity of flowering plants where native pollinators could set up shop. Honeybees have actually been shown to increase the success of non-native invasive plants due to their willingness to pollinate them.
So what to do, what to do? Find ways to promote and support Indigenous Agroforestry.
Currently our agricultural system is based on annuals; corn, wheat, soybeans, and a few other crops which are all seed crops. Agroforestry replaces the annual seed crop system with perennial seed crops mostly in the form of tree nuts such as Pecans, Oaks, Chestnuts, Hickories, an Hazelnuts. These woody plants can be spaced out so their canopies don't touch allowing for smaller trees, shrubs, and herbaceous crops to be grown in between diversifying the agricultural landscape. Indigenous examples of the lower level plants would be Blackberries, Raspberries, Wild Plums, Serviceberry, Passionflower, Stinging Nettle, Groundnut, Grapes, Cut-leaf Coneflower, Jerusualem Artichoke, Evening Primrose, PawPaw, American Persimmon and many more. When agriculture shifts to an indigenous perennial system, soil is conserved, more carbon is sequestered in the soil and above ground, irrigation needs decrease, fertilizer needs decrease and biodiversity increases in response to the native plants. Since the plants are indigenous, it becomes "eco-inclusive", allowing all types of insects including pollinators, and higher life forms to co-exist. Compare this with our current agricultural system which is "eco-exclusive" primarily supporting one single species (humans). In fact, any food system that isn't based in indigenous plants is much more so eco-exclusive, as non-native plants lack the co-evolution with native insects and wildlife to support them.
When our agricultural system incorporates indigenous plants as the foundation, we no longer have to look at the hundreds of millions of acres of agricultural land as habitat loss in the way that we do today. This would also in part, mitigate what is called habitat fragmentation, by connecting perennial indigenous agroforestry land to existing undeveloped habitat. We would not need to talk about Monarch butterfly decline or pollinator decline if our Agricultural system would include them, instead of exclude them. Though this requires a shift in awareness of indigenous foods and diet choice by the people to support such a major transition.
Our Upcoming Workshops as Fundraisers for Indigenous Farm
Indigenous Landscapes is preparing to purchase a 12-15 acre piece of arable land locally, in the Cincinnati Region. This land will grow over 65 native species of food crops, over 30 native culinary and medicinal herb crops, while housing over 40 more native species of plants within a prairie for pollinator support on site. This amount of land will not produce a significant amount of food for the metropolitan, but it will instead serve as the source of indigenous foods for annual indigenous food festivals. These food festivals will be the way we promote indigenous Agroforestry to the public.
If you would like to support us in this conservation venture, please attend one or all of our upcoming workshops which have a $20.00 fundraising fee. Keep in contact with our Facebook Page or watch our Workshops page on our website to be sure you're registered once registration opens. The first workshop will be this March, focused on pollinator conservation. Your attendance will not only deliver you a high quality workshop, but 100% of the proceeds will go to funding the land purchase for this local indigenous plant farm, to be.
To see the full length version of this article with more statistics, insights, and research citations written by Andrew Goebel, follow this link.
This is the extended version of our article "Do you care about Bees or other Pollinators, Please read this..." This version, written by Andrew Goebel of Indigenous Landscapes, has more detailed insight into to the current state of native bees and honey bees with research sited in the end of the article.
The problem with pollinators
Much attention has been given to the decline of honey bee (Apis mellifera) populations and the potential consequences of their demise. Recent years have seen a rise in awareness of the importance of pollinators in general with much money and effort going towards creating “pollinator gardens” and “habitats” in cities, along highways, and our backyards. The majority of this attention has been on populations of honey bees and Monarch butterflies. When thinking of a pollinator, these are likely the two examples people have in mind. Although well intended, this narrow focus limits consideration of the bigger picture and the potential negative impacts of honey bees themselves.
Missing from popular discussion is the less well known fact that native bee species have been declining in recent decades. Since most of the 4000 species of native bees lead a solitary existence (they are not social and don’t live in hives) they are difficult to study. Therefore the majority of native bee research has examined bumble bees (Bombus spp.) since they live in small colonies. The findings highlight the need to implement conservation measures sooner rather than later. One quarter of our bumble bee species have experienced significant declines, including some of the most common species (1).
Why do we need native bees?
Not only can native bees pollinate the majority of world crops they are essential components of native ecosystems. Honey bees do not have the ability to “buzz pollinate” which is a requirement for 15,000-20,000 species of flowering plants (1). Decreased numbers of native bees contributes to decreased seed set from plants that they pollinate. In fact, pollination limitation is one of the most commonly found causes of reduced reproduction in wild plants (2). This results in decreased future forage opportunities, which further pressures native bees (1).
What is driving the decline in native bees?
It is widely assumed that habitat loss and fragmentation are some of the leading causes of native bee decline. While urbanization certainly contributes to these conditions, it is agriculture that accounts for the majority of land use. In the United States over 60% of the land has been converted to different forms of agriculture representing an enormous loss of habitat and degradation of forage for numerous organisms including native bees. Some mid western states have undergone dramatic conversions. Illinois, for example, has lost its most of its prairies, wetlands, and forests to agriculture amounting to 95% of the land area in the northern two thirds of the state. Half of the bumble bee species found historically in Illinois have been either locally extirpated or showed declines in distribution (3).
Most species of bumble bees are ground nesting. They build their homes in abandoned rodent burrows or other cavities within the soil. Prairie habitats that include sufficient areas of clumping grasses provide the necessary conditions for rodents to dig burrows. When farms in Illinois switched from having permanent and temporary pastures with wildflowers and multiple crops to primarily corn and soybean, the steepest declines in bumble bees occurred (3).
Fragmentation can be understood as a problem of ecosystem simplification. Despite mounds of research many ecosystem dynamics are still poorly understood. One theme that has emerged is that more complex environments support more species and are more resilient to change. The current agricultural system in the US is based on only a few crops which are often planted in large monocultures. These may be interspersed with patches of semi natural areas creating islands of habitat within a sea of agriculture. Areas that were once covered in any number of our thousands of native plants have become solid stands of only a few non native crops. This simplification of the environment has consequences.
Bumble bees require a variety of plants that flower at different times to provide food throughout the season. They are further specialized in their own emergence times and by length of their tongues which impacts what flowers they will visit. Agricultural conversion to only a few species of plants reduces the foraging window for all pollinators.
Issues with honey bees and domestication of other bees
Introduced from Europe, honey bees did not co-evolve with native bees or the ecosystems in which they have been placed. Like many other introduced organisms, their presence can have unintended and negative impacts on native flora and fauna. In fact there is ample evidence that honey bees can contribute to the decline of native bees and flora.
Honey bees compete for forage with native bees. Bumble bees have been shown to have reduced amounts of foraging in proximity to honey bee colonies - sometimes avoiding entire areas. The closer the nest sites the less that native bees were able to compete (4). Further, since honey bees focus on nectar collection instead of pollen they are less effective than native bees and other non bees (flies, beetles, etc) at pollinating and may be linked to the spread of invasive plants as well (1).
When honey bees encounter native bees on the same flower there is potential to spread parasites and disease. This is also true of domesticated native bumble bees. The system of apiculture and native bee domestication creates populations that can harbor much higher pathogen loads than wild or native bees, increasing their chances of exposure. It may be possible for honey bees to spread deformed wing virus to bumble bees which has been implicated in the colony collapse disorder phenomenon (1). Honey bees are shipped around the country to match various bloom times, mingling sick and healthy colonies.
Furthermore, pesticides that have been deemed “bee friendly” are only legally required to be tested on honey bees not native ones (4). Bumble bees are often active during pesticide application in the morning or evening that is timed to avoid mid day honey bee foraging (4).
What can be done?
Changing current agricultural practices is a clear way to mitigate the decline of native pollinators. Farmland designed to include sufficient habitat could support native bumble bees which have been to shown to effectively pollinate most crops without human intervention. A shift away from intense use of non native honey bees and other domesticated bees would lower competition with native pollinators and reduce the potential of debilitating pathogen outbreaks.
Transitioning to a food system based on native food plants could address multiple problems at once. In such a setup, crop land itself could actually act as habitat and begin to reconnect our fragmented landscape.
(1) Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. (2016). An overview of the potential impacts of honey bees to native bees, plant communities, and ecosystems in wild landscapes: Recommendations for land managers.
(2) Potts, S. G., et al. (2010). Global pollinator declines: trends, impacts and drivers. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 25(6), 345-348.
(3) Grixtia, J. C., Wonga, L. T. (2009). Decline of bumble bees (Bombus) in the North American Midwest. Biological Conservation, 142(1), 75-84
(4) Goulson, D., Lye, G.C. (2008). The decline and conservation of bumblebees. Annual Review of Entomology, 53, 191-208