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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Emerging Science: Undervaluing Wild Bees

Air Date: Week of

One of the most abundant wild bee pollinators in North America is the common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens). It is one of 49 species of bumblebees in the United States. (Photo: Bob Peterson, Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Climate change, disease and insecticides all contribute to the loss of domesticated honeybees vital for crop pollination. But as Living on Earth’s Shannon Kelleher reports, wild bees are just as valuable as pollinators and preserving their habitat is vital for their biodiversity and our food.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. Just ahead, how a passionate and dedicated scientist is helping restore the Mexican prairie, but first this note on emerging science from Shannon Kelleher.

KELLEHER: Over the past decade, farmers and beekeepers have raised the alarm about empty hives and disappearing honeybees. But maybe they should also keep an eye on wild bees.

Wild bees pollinate hundreds of crops, including grocery store staples like almonds, peaches, and onions. Scientists from the University of Vermont and other institutions around the world calculated that wild bees generate about $3,000 in value for every hectare they pollinate. This means that wild bees are actually just as valuable for crop pollination as domestic honeybees, which contribute a whopping $15 billion each year in agricultural value and keep the produce aisle stocked with everything from apples to zucchini.

The red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidaries) is a highly recognizable wild bee species in Europe. It can be found in many different habitats, including: farmland, grassland, heathland, towns, gardens, uplands woodlands, and the coastline. (Photo: Tom Phillips, Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Scientists also found that 80% of all bee-pollinated crops are pollinated by only 2% of wild bee species. The top pollinators are the common eastern bumblebee in the United States and the red-tailed bumblebee in Europe—species that have actually continued to thrive with the emergence of modern agriculture.

Without bees, the produce aisle would look pretty empty. Wild bees and domestic honey bees pollinate apples, mangoes, peaches, avocadoes, tomatoes, walnuts, and many other crops. (Photo: Pixabay CC0 Public Domain)

But although they pollinate fewer crops, other wild bee species are still important. Scientists say it’s crucial that we have a variety of wild bees around in case the ones we rely on most suffer from climate change or some new insecticide. The more diversity there is, the more resilient bees are likely to be. And besides, as researchers point out, conservation should be about more than just how humans can benefit. Although when you consider how heavily our food supply relies on the survival of bees, maybe a little selfishness isn’t the worst motivation.

That’s this week’s note on emerging science, I’m Shannon Kelleher.



University of Vermont wild bee pollination study

Loss of pollinators can increase risk of malnutrition and disease

Wild bee conservation for wild blueberry fields


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