Wild bees are responsible for pollinating a lot of crops in the United States, some of which rely on the bees, while others simply benefit from their actions. But a study from the University of Vermont has found a “worrisome mismatch between falling wild bee supply and rising crop pollination demand” around the country.
They highlighted 139 counties that are seeing an increase in the need for pollination and a decrease in wild bee populations. These counties are located in key agricultural regions of California, the upper Midwest and Great Plains, and several others.
Some of the crops most dependent on pollinators—including pumpkins, blueberries, pears, apples, and plums—seem to have the strongest mismatch between the number of wild bees and the demand for pollination.
“This study provides the first national picture of wild bees and their impacts on pollination,” said Taylor Ricketts, a conservation ecologist at the University of Vermont. He added that if wild bee populations continue to decline, it could hurt U.S. crop production and farmers’ costs.
The 4,000 species of bees in the United States alone contribute billions of dollars in value to agriculture. While there are managed pollinators—bees that are essentially employed by individuals and companies—the cost of using such bees continues to rise, especially in light of the falling wild bee populations. Fewer wild bees means more cost in producing crops, which will be passed on to consumers or result in the collapse of some farms.
Even when using managed pollinators, wild bees can still complement pollination in ways that can increase crop yields.
While there have been a lot of questions about what is causing the decline and death of bee populations in the last decade, the researchers behind this study have found a trend that might have been overlooked before: land use. The expansion of croplands can result in the destruction of bee habitats, resulting in fewer bees. Crops planted adjacent to bee populations, or in areas where bees have long since adapted to farmland, are more likely to be pollinated by wild bees.
This new information, while disturbing, might be able to help us better understand wild bee populations, and develop new ways to help preserve and support those populations.
“Wild bees are a precious natural resource we should celebrate and protect,” said Ricketts. “If managed with care, they can help us continue to produce billions of dollars in agricultural income and a wonderful diversity of nutritious food.”