Non-Bee Insects Are Important Pollinators, Too

Hoverfly (Eupeodes corollae) by Thomas Bresson via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Hoverfly (Eupeodes corollae) by Thomas Bresson via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0 / Hoverfly (Eupeodes corollae) by Thomas Bresson via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

There’s no doubt that our planet’s honeybees are in trouble. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has decimated apiaries and wild bee colonies on three continents, and scientists still don’t fully understand what’s causing it. And CCD is more than just a threat to the bees. Agriculture depends on honeybees to pollinate crops from almonds to watermelons [PDF]. Without the bees, say experts, our food supply and our economy will suffer. 

But bees are not the only pollinators out there. In fact, says a new study, non-bee insects may be just as busy as bees when it comes to pollination. Which ones? “Almost any insect you can think of,” ecologist Margie Mayfield told Scientific American. 

Mayfield and more than 50 other researchers from around the world analyzed 39 scientific studies of crop pollination. The studies spanned five continents and examined pollination of 17 different crops, including coffee, apples, mangoes, and radishes, as well as almonds and watermelons. The analysis showed that flies, beetles, butterflies, ants, and wasps were responsible for nearly 40 percent of the workload. That number varied by crop and location; in some places, that number reached 50 percent. In other places, non-bee bugs were the only pollinators.

This is really good news, Mayfield and her colleagues report in a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science. Non-bee insects are a bit more resilient than bees. They can roll with the punches and aren’t as dependent on wild habitats. 

The next step may be convincing farmers that these other bugs are doing them good, Mayfield said in Scientific American. "I've encountered farmers in California and in South Africa and in Australia who spray their pesticides largely at night, because that's when the bees have gone back to their hives. And they do that with the idea that we'll spare our pollinators and control our pests. But that very much takes the assumption that only bees are important pollinators." 

Global concern for honeybees is a wonderful thing. Perhaps in time we can extend that interest to the rest of the little workers flitting from flower to flower, quietly supporting our way of life.