Ag, Conservation Leaders Seek More Research to Boost Native Pollinators

Efforts to promote native bees, other insects and birds said to be vital to $20 billion in ag food production.

Learn more about pollinators.

This bee, Osmia ribifloris, is an effective pollinator of commercial blueberries and is one of several relatives of the blue orchard bee, Osmia lignaria. Similar in appearance, the blue orchard bee is also a successful commercial pollinator now being evaluated for use in a wider range of crops.

courtesy Agricultural Research Service/Jack Dykinga

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Arlington, Virginia — The federal government must increase research investments on the role of native insects and animals in crop pollination, and develop pollinator conservation practice recommendations that can be implemented at the state level, say national agriculture and conservation leaders meeting during the first National Agriculture Pollinator Forum. A former deputy Secretary of Agriculture was among agriculture and conservation leaders who spoke out to underscore the need to stabilize and enhance native pollinator populations that contribute to the $20-billion, pollinator-dependent fruit, nut, vegetable and field crop production industry in the United States.

"The need to enhance our native pollinator populations to address the threat to our nation's ability to produce food, not to mention the agricultural producer's bottom line, cannot be overemphasized," says Richard Rominger, a California farmer who served at USDA during the Clinton Administration. "At least 15 percent of the value of pollinator dependent U.S. fruit, nut, vegetable and field crop production can be attributed to pollination services from native pollinators."

The forum was held to address the need to boost native bees, insects, birds and animal populations that are vital to production agriculture. The forum was staged by The Native Pollinators in Agriculture Work Group, a panel of more than 30 growers, academics, government officials and conservationists that represents a first-of-its-kind effort to bring solutions to the problem of declining native pollinator populations from the agricultural sector.

Native pollinators, primarily wild native bees, supplement the pollination services provided by managed bees to maintain farm productivity and profitability. In recent years, managed honey bees have been beset by the emergence of Colony Collapse Disorder, in addition to pests and diseases, which have resulted in yearly losses of more than 30 percent of colonies and declines in the overall number of honey bees available for crop pollination.

"Native pollinators can’t replace managed bees, but they provide significant pollination services," says Rominger, a member of the Work Group. However, there are several "gaps" in what is known about the role of native pollinators, and there is limited awareness among agricultural producers about the contributions of native pollinators. "We must develop regional and crop specific data on the importance of native pollinators to agriculture," he says.

Work Group Chairman Rudy Rice, a past president of the National Association of Conservation Districts and a lifelong dairy and grain farmer from DuQuoin, Illinois, said the importance of native pollinators to farmers is obvious when considering that 75 percent of the world's 240,000 flowering plant species are pollinator dependent, including 30 percent of food and fiber groups. "One out of four mouthfuls of food and drink that humans consume are produced from pollination services provided by pollinators," says Rice, who has been involved in the conservation movement since 1974.

"The onset of CCD in managed bee populations led us to explore how pollination services from natives might help enhance agricultural productivity and profitability," Rice says. "This subject is of interest to farmers and ranchers because native pollinators — bees, insects, birds — are vital to production agriculture."

Rice says USDA needs to expand crop-specific research on importance of native pollinator habitat, including an increase in funding levels for NRCS Plant Materials Centers, a network of 27 facilities and specialists serving all 50 states and territories that develop hundreds of conservation plants to provide critical habitats and address environmental concerns. He also calls on USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service to develop and distribute pollinator practice recommendations for State Technical Advisory Committees, advisory groups coordinated by each State Conservationist to help organize and deliver Farm Bill related program benefits.

California Secretary of Agriculture A.G. Kawamura, another Work Group member, told reporters that his experience as a produce grower and shipper in Orange County validates the findings on native and managed bees by the expert panel. "Agriculture is under tremendous stress," Kawamura says. “There are economic and environmental challenges, including drought and climate change. And there are rising production costs. It just makes good sense to capitalize on the 'free' pollination services provided by natives."

Mace Vaughn, the Pollinator Program director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, an organization that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat, says the benefits of native pollinators, particularly to the grower's bottom line, make habitat building, proper pesticide use and other projects and efforts that can enhance native pollinator populations a good business decision. "There are many invaluable resources from which farmers and ranchers can draw, including researchers at local land-grant universities," Vaughan says. "Relatively inexpensive habitat and land-use tools can make a major difference in pollinator populations and, subsequently, in production success."

During the forum, Rice also announced the Work Group's plans to create and launch a national agriculture pollinator alliance that will seek the involvement of major agriculture organizations in the effort to boost native pollinator populations.

The nearly 100 leading agricultural and conservation advocates attending the forum heard from a panel of six growers, coming from Oregon to Florida, who offered their own success stories of introducing a wide range of habitat and practices to their respective operations that have increased local native pollinator populations and increased their bottom lines. And NRCS Acting Chief Dave White shared with forum participants a variety of conservation practices aimed at native pollinators in agricultural production.

For more information on the National Agriculture Pollinator Forum and the Native Pollinators in Agriculture Project, visit the website.