The Benefits of Bees

As spring approaches and bees and other insects begin pollinating flowers and crops, a study from the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State University shows just how valuable these insects are.

Using publicly available price and production data combined with existing pollination field studies, the team identified key areas in the U.S. that produce economically and nutritionally valuable crops, such as apples or almonds, and are also highly dependent on pollinators like honeybees, butterflies and wasps. By overlaying maps of predicted wild bee abundance, the researchers identified areas where there was high economic dependence on pollinators but low predicted abundance of pollinators.

They also calculated that the economic value of insect pollinators in the U.S. was $34 billion, much higher than previously thought.

“The value of insects as part of our economy is apparent when you look at the well-established connection between farming and beekeeping. Farmers sometimes will buy or rent bee colonies to help pollinate their crops when there aren’t enough wild bees in the area,” said senior author Vikas Khanna, Wellington C. Carl Faculty Fellow and associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering. “We’ve found that some of the areas that are economically most reliant on insect pollinators are the same areas where pollinator habitat and forage quality are poor.”

Just 20 percent of U.S. counties produce 80 percent of the total economic value that can be attributed to wild and managed pollinators. These findings will inform conservation efforts and ensure sustainable production of key crops.

“Pollinators like bees play an extremely important role in agriculture,” said Khanna. “The insects that pollinate farmers’ crops underpin our ecosystem biodiversity and function, human nutrition and even economic welfare.”

One third of managed honeybee colonies die each winter in the U.S., and populations of many wild pollinator species are showing declines as well. The research, published in Environmental Science and Technology, suggests a need for farmers to mitigate the shrinking bee populations by providing a more suitable habitat for the insects to thrive.

“Our study showcases the increasing importance of pollinators to supporting U.S. agricultural systems, particularly for the foods that are vital for healthy diets, like fruits, vegetables and nuts,” says Christina Grozinger, Publius Vergilius Maro Professor of Entomology and director of the Center for Pollinator Research at Penn State.

“This detailed map of pollination needs and pollinator deficits helps identify regions where resources could be provided to improve pollinator habitat, as well as other regions where local land use practices are supporting both agriculture and healthy pollinator populations,” she said. “Those places could serve as models for sustainable agriculture and pollinator conservation practices.”

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