Unseen Pollinators

If you are interested in ecology (and especially pollination), there’s a great piece you’ll want to read on Jeff Ollerton’s website. Dr Ollerton (University of Northampton) has just released a comprehensive paper on pollinator diversity in Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics. If you go to Jeff’s blog, you can follow his link and get a copy of his paper. I enjoyed a couple of hours of deep introspection reading his article this morning. There’s a lot to think about.

I’m not going to paraphrase Ollerton’s piece – it’s written in a clean, accessible style. You’ll have no trouble reading Pollinator Diversity and Why It’s Important. I won’t repeat his work here, but I will give you a little summary and a few extractions that are particularly interesting. (To me, anyway.)

Here’s the bottom line.  For the health of our ecology – including agricultural endeavours – diversity of pollinator species is essential. Diversity of species means a wide variety of kinds of creatures. We tend to go for quantity as a solution for our problems, but throwing more honey bees into a pollination problem is not necessarily the best fix. The loss of pollinator varieties frazzles the strands of the threads holding flowers, fruits, and foragers together in the web of life. Many – perhaps most – of these pollinators are largely unseen, unstudied, and virtually unknown. For example, there are ten times as many species of moths that work as pollinators. But they work at night. Most of us have never watched a moth pollinate a flower.

We (beekeepers) usually figure that if an anonymous pollinator or two disappears, honey bees can step in and fill the void. But here are two things to think about:

1) many pollinators are specialists which effectively pollinate flowers which honey bees usually ignore (or physically can’t work); and,

2) if the world is becoming too harsh for some pollinators, then it’s probably becoming too harsh for our own favourite pollinator. What’s good for the bumblebee is likely good for the honey bee, as Marcus Aurelius never quite said.

Vase of ill-fated WannaBeeFlowers.
(Original art: Daniel Miksha)

What happens when non-mellifera pollinators disappear? Here’s a wee example to consider. Let’s say that a certain type of flower (the glorious WannaBeeFlower, for example) is well-adapted to pollination by one of those 20,000-or-so odd bee species that populate our world. That WannaBeeFlower is sometimes also visited by honey bees who just grab a little nectar and run along to more enticing clovers. But because of those other bees, the WannaBeeFlower gets pollinated and blooms nicely season after season. Then one year, a clover parasite wipes out the clover. Your honey bees might starve, but they turn to the WannaBeeFlower. If that flower’s main pollinator goes extinct, the flower might also disappear, leaving your bees hungry on the bad year. Multiple this by a thousand similar flowers and their main pollinators and you can see the problem.  This is a selfish and narrow-minded reason to preserve diverse pollinators, but it gets our attention.

Of course there is more. Although honey bee keepers perform herculean tasks to keep honey bees flourishing, it’s becoming more and more expensive and frustrating. The same pollution and pesticides that are killing the “lesser” bees also affect honey bees. Conservation measures that help all of the pollinators will help your honey bees, too.

Those are only a couple of reasons that biodiversity is important. If we remind ourselves of the vast interconnected ecology of living things, we might disabuse ourselves of our narcissistic concern for our own hives.

I’m going to step off my palmolive box for a moment. If you want the facts presented without editorial comment, read Ollerton’s piece. It’s important. But before you go away, here are a few gleanings from his biodiversity paper that you can carry with you:

  • We usually think of honey bees when we think of pollinators. But one in ten terrestrial animals (including humans) pollinate flowers.
  • Wind plays an important role in pollination – but a whopping 87.5% of all flowering plants are visited by bees, bats, birds, butterflies, and other beasties.
  • New species are being identified daily. Today’s 350,000 species of pollinators (!) which visit 352,000 species of flowering plants (!) is an underestimate.
  • Heterocera (moths) are the most common pollinator species group (123,000), followed by Coleoptera (beetles, with 77,000), and Hymenoptera (bees and freinds, 70,000). Rhopelacera (butterflies) are relatively less diverse, represented by 18,500 known species that engage in pollination.
  • A thousand species of birds do some pollination work as well as a couple hundred bats. But to date, only three different species of marine worms have been spotted carrying pollen. Why’s that?
  • The effectiveness of pollinators varies a lot. Some rarely help flowers, but as a group, bees are the most prolific – probably because of their large hairy bodies – and because bees are almost completely dependent upon flowers for all their food.
  • The diversity of pollinators varies a lot across geographic areas – flies dominate in the arctic, bumblebees are dominant almost everywhere in the world except Africa, and there are almost no birds which work as pollinators in Europe, though elsewhere in the world they are important.

Dr Ollerton also tells us that there “is also much that we do not understand about the potential effects of pollinators that have been introduced to parts of the world in which they are not native.” Honey bees (which are not native to the Americas, Oceania, and much of Asia) may impact native species of bees. Their deleterious effects seem limited,  ranging from insignificant to potentially disruptive, depending on the biodiversity of the environment and the density of the managed honey bee colonies. If just a few non-native honey bee colonies are kept in areas with a variety of flowering plants, they probably are not displacing other pollinators. But we don’t really know for sure – this aspect of ecology hasn’t been thoroughly studied.

It’s possible that people who keep bees are doing more ecological good than harm. Here’s one reason. If you care about your bees, you will be more eager to support green spaces in your community and will be more likely to complain to city hall when the spray planes leave their hangars. Having more beekeepers means having more voices for initiatives that will help all the pollinators. In balance, keepers of honey bees are likely doing more to preserve wild pollinator habitat than they are to reduce foraging opportunities for other pollinators.

More good than bad?

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a geophysicist who also does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and is based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has written two books, dozens of magazine and journal articles, and complements his first book, Bad Beekeeping, with a popular blog at www.badbeekeeping.com. Ron wrote his most recent book, The Mountain Mystery, for everyone who has looked at a mountain and wondered what miracles of nature set it upon the landscape. For more about Ron, including some cool pictures taken when he was a teenager, please check Ron's site: miksha.com.
This entry was posted in Bee Biology, Ecology, Pollination, Save the Bees and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Unseen Pollinators

  1. Thank you, Ron, for publicizing this new research. The ecological implications of sustaining a broad diversity of pollinator species cannot be overstated.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jeffollerton says:

    Thanks for the shout out Ron, that’s a nice summary of the review.


  3. Thanks for the article Ron. I suspect beekeepers and their bees, strategically placed, are covering for the reduction in other pollinators. But even with all the clever tricks we pull to keep their populations up, one day there will be a hiccup and it will all be apparent that we’re in pollinator trouble. IMO

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Erik says:

    Thanks, Ron. I’ve been reading up on native pollinators lately and wondering if beekeeping my be detrimental to natives. I bet there is some impact especially with a high density of hives.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ron Miksha says:

      I think you are exactly right – honey bees in moderation are likely good for the environment. High density beekeeping (often an agricultural necesssity) probably isn’t, though it’s most common in a disrupted monoculture setting anyway..

      Liked by 1 person

      • Erik says:

        Yes and no. There are a number of mid-sized beekeepers that raise queens, sell nucs, and do other activities with a few hundred hives. A neighbor near me, for example, is overwintering 40-50 hives in their yard. In the spring they will become nucs for sale or go back out to their apiaries. I understand the pollinator operations – likely a big impact and perhaps need for the type of farming we now do.


  5. Come fall, I’m always interested in the local alfalfa field, which I tend to see worked by many more butterflies and hoverflies, rather than my honeybees. This feeling is even more pronounced when I would rather have heavier hives in September, and the second-cut alfalfa seems to be the only plant around producing nectar! It seems these other pollinators don’t mind the trip-wire mechanism of the alfalfa flower? Perhaps butterflies can even work them without tripping the flower’s mechanism, but I understand it is necessary for pollination. In any case, it is interesting to think of the possibility of honeybees out-competing other pollinators during certain conditions.

    I see there is a visual artist in the family as well. Very nice painting! ~Will


    • Ron Miksha says:

      Hi Will,

      You make an interesting observation. Honey bees barely survive here (western Canada) if they have only native plants to forage. But we have alfalfa, sweet clover, and canola – all imports from other continents. For the edification of non-farmers, second-cut alfalfa (which you mentioned) is the short regrowth after it has been cut for hay. Some years it is only a few centimetres high but blossoms nicely. So, our main nectar sources are from imported farm crops. You have probably looked at old production records for bees in Alberta – average crops were twenty pounds a year until ranchers planted clovers and alfalfa around 1900. Now honey crops are close to 200 pounds a year. Without farmers’ crops (which you point out are possibly benefiting native pollinators), our honey bees would be competing more directly with butterflies, hoverflies, and bumblebees. (And they wouldn’t do too well.)

      Thanks for noticing the gratuitous promotion of my-son-the-artist. He is our 15-year-old, Daniel. Still life arrangements are not his typical work. He usually paints landscapes, like the one below.

      • Ron

      <img src=”https://wp.me/a6nQS6-178″ alt=”Town by the Sea” />


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