Beyond honeybees: pollinators in agriculture

Honey bees are a well-known source of pollination, with the added advantage of obtaining honey at the end of the growing season, and sometimes throughout the growing season. But even with the added benefit of collecting honey, honeybees aren’t necessarily the best pollinators.

In the 1980s, Varroa mites were introduced to locally managed honey bee colonies, resulting in a sharp decline in honey bee colonies across the country. In 2006, colony collapse disorder (CCD) was first recorded, with a devastating loss that year of about 31 percent of managed honey bee colonies nationwide.

Apart from all this, honeybees are very superior in choosing food sources. For example, tomatoes are never pollinated by honeybees due to the small size of their flowers and the buzz pollination required for successful pollination. Tomatoes also do not contain nectar to feed honey bees. On the flip side, almond crops are pollinated exclusively by honeybees, but the logistics that come with that are a challenge. Almond producers require beekeepers to travel with their hives to fulfill nationwide pollination contracts.

Related: Perspective: We may be able to live without bees, but why would we take this opportunity?

Other pollinators include butterflies (such as the king), moths, flies, wasps, beetles, bats, birds, and other small animals. The 2015 Pollinator Health Strategy Report tells us there has been a nearly 90 percent decline in monarch butterflies.

Although it wasn’t extreme, there was a decline in pollinator numbers via the plate, insects, or otherwise. what’s going?

Even with significantly increased targeting and use of modern agricultural pesticides, the use of agricultural pesticides has had a negative impact on population numbers. Human encroachment on natural habitats is another major cause of population losses in pollinating insects. Removing vegetation from these areas removes shelter and food for insects.

Photo by Paul Ruedd, Shutterstock

This is particularly bad news for insects that do not have a varied diet or do not have a particularly effective feed. For example, the larvae of the monarch butterfly live exclusively on milkweed and depend on it for food and shelter. The Pollinator Health Strategy Report identifies “loss of soybean breeding habitat in corn and soybean production, loss of breeding habitat due to land conversion, illegal logging and deforestation in winter sites, and extreme weather conditions,” along with other issues such as diseases, predators, parasites, and pesticides. As reasons for the population loss of the royal family.

That’s why many production-centric Midwest conservation efforts focus on making better use of buffer zones and creating pockets of pollinator habitats around farms and highways.

Fig wasp pollinators
Image via Somboon Kamtaeja, Shutterstock

A 2016 study demonstrated the importance of insects other than bees as pollinators in nearly every crop system. In fact, there are many crops that rely exclusively on pollination by an insect that is not from a bee.

Figs and fig wasps evolved to have a symbiotic and mutualistic relationship where the female fig wasp pollinates the flowers of the fig tree in the process of laying her eggs. Then the eggs hatch, the males exit through the tunnels after fertilization, and when the female wasps climb up, they pick up the pollen and fly away, finding another fig tree to repeat the process on. Native or non-native honeybees, such as builder bees, are generally smaller than honeybees and even more effective as pollinators. Hovercraft, whose appearance resembles a bee and fly, can be more effective pollinators than bees due to their tendency to roam a much larger area, pollinating along the way.

With the increasing threats to a diverse group of honeybees, what can be done to support pollinator populations?

Many agricultural certifications, such as the bio-certification by Demeter International, require that a percentage of the land be set aside as a reserve for natural habitat to house and feed local insects and animals. Creating safe havens like these can help increase the numbers of insects that support pollination.

Here are some other ideas:

  • Plant a lot of interesting and beauty flowers for your garden or rows of crops. Bonus points if they are milkweed and/or native plants. I do not know from where to begin? Some agricultural companies will send out free packages of pollinating plants (as BASF has done), or you can check with your local conservation area or university extension office.
  • You can keep honey bees or, better yet, provide bee houses for native bees who live a solitary life rather than living in colonies like honeybees. These look similar to birdhouses with paper straws stacked inside.
  • Consider installing a house or two of bats for nocturnal pollinators.
  • Keeping water available to pollinators in bird baths or some other container also supports these important insects.

With so many food sources dependent so heavily on pollination, it is up to all of us as consumers to contribute to improving pollinator populations. Agricultural producers can consider dedicating part of their land as a nature reserve or planting plants that attract pollinators in crop rows such as milkweed or various weeds. If you can do anything else, tell your friends!


Brianna Scott is a veteran farmer living in East Washington while receiving her Master of Science in Agriculture from Washington State University. She is active in the veteran AG community and raises poultry and livestock while growing a large garden at the market.

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