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This article is from the In-Depth Report The Food Issue: The Science of Feast, Fuel and Farm
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Return of the Natives: How Wild Bees Will Save Our Agricultural System

Reviving native bee species could save honeybees--and our agricultural system--from collapse

It is a system some farmers are already embracing. In the Central Valley, Frank Muller and his two brothers farm a diverse assortment of conventional and organic crops for chain stores such as Safeway and Walmart, including canning tomatoes, pickling cucumbers, and everything from almonds to wine grapes to sunflowers. The Mullers have planted habitat to attract native bees and have started their own on-farm honeybee operation. “They can be in our crops all the way from February through August or September,” he says. The farmers will also put in plants specifically chosen to provide nectar in the remaining months. “We're not going to lose our bees,” Muller says of the crisis. “We just need to manage them differently.”

For now the Mullers are still in a minority. Not all farmers are ready to upend their long-standing ways of doing things—or pay—to bring in more pollinators, at least not until the honeybee predicament directly harms them. As honeybees continue to suffer, though, more and more farmers may change their minds.

M'Gonigle thinks the honeybee crisis could be “a kind of blessing in disguise” because “it forces us to think, ‘What are we going to do to keep our food production going?’ In the long term, it might be that we look back and say, ‘Wow, this was a good thing, a good way of getting us to reprioritize and start thinking about conservation of native species.’”

As I watch a mix of honeybees and their wild cousins dart among purple flowers in one of Kremen's hedgerows, it is easy to see what he means. Our entire modern-day agricultural system has grown up with honeybees, so we have never had to really consider the fact that relying on a single pollinator is probably not sustainable. This may be a window of opportunity—even if climbing through it could sting a little.

This article was originally published with the title "Return of the Natives."

MORE TO EXPLORE

The Beekeeper's Lament: How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America. Hannah Nordhaus. HarperCollins, 2011.

Are Neonicotinoids Killing Bees? A Review of Research into the Effects of Neonicotinoid Insecticides on Bees, with Recommendations for Action. Jennifer Hopwood et al. Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, 2012. www.xerces.org/neonicotinoids-and-bees

 

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To learn more about almond pollination in California and migratory beekeeping, visit ScientificAmerican.com/sep2013/migratory-beekeeping

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