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A Cost Share Solution for Wild Bee Habitats

Wild Bees Generating Farm Income

By now you’ve likely heard about dwindling bee populations, and you’ve probably spent at least a few minutes considering the ripple effect of a world without pollinators. Maybe you’ve even noticed more honeybee hives popping up in your area or encountered a professional beekeeper. Awareness campaigns and government incentives have worked to bring the issue of disappearing pollinators to the forefront of conversations.  After all, insects are a very valuable part of our economy. Without them our food security is jeopardized.

Diminishing bee populations have played a contributing role in the declining productivity of American agriculture. Fewer pollinators, of which bees represent a significant portion, means fewer plants come in contact with insects they depend on for reproduction. Despite several years of effort, pollinator populations are still not abundant and scientists are expanding efforts into wild bee habitats. 

Wild Bees Can Increase Farm Income

Wild bees and other insects like moths and butterflies are an integral part of agriculture. 75% of crop production around the world relies on wild insects for pollination. Not only do we rely on them for our nutritional wellbeing, they are a driving force of our economy. According to the USDA, “pollinators add more than $18 billion in revenue to crop production every year.”  Increasing pollinator populations is a sought after means of boosting agricultural productivity, but also an allusive one. 

The U.S. and private sectors have spent millions of dollars on research and implementing methods to increase honeybee populations yet, they are still struggling to maintain current numbers and have not experienced a significant increase. Pesticides and mites continue to account for millions of honeybee deaths every year.  And, reliance on a single species of bee on commercial bee farms appears to also be a flawed method. Reclaiming natural habitats could encourage pollinator diversity and allow wild bee populations to flourish.

How Are Wild Bees Different?

A commercial farming operation can own a commercial farm of bees which they know will act as pollinators for their crops.  Wild bees, on the other hand, come and go and are dependent on wild habitats.

It might seem simple, create more habitats and we will have more wild bees, some of which may be more resistant to chemicals or parasites, and we could see an uptick in agricultural productivity which will impact farm income.  But, it turns out, it’s not quite that simple. 

If a farmer wants to increase bee populations they have to allot some of their own harvestable land to be used for wild habitats. Fewer acres, means less money for the farm.  Even if there is an increase in productivity on other parts of the farm, acres out of production still have to be seeded and managed which adds work and expenses that are not completely offset by harvest income. 

Often one farmer will invest in pollinators and neighboring farms will reap the benefit (Econ 101 - “free rider problem”). This scenario happens with commercial honeybee hives purchased by one small farm, who end up pollinating many farms. When it comes to wild bees, there is an even bigger exchange. Land with the potential to generate income is traded for wildflowers and woods.  Many small farms can’t justify the investment.

Another detrimental component is that populations are fragmented. They exist, but they are so spread out across an area that they don’t reach the crops that need them. Again, intentional habitat creation could be a solution, but also again, are farmers willing to invest?

The Cost Share Solution

Cost sharing options have existed for a long time. Farms can apply to participate in conservation programs where they are paid to keep a portion of land wild and in some cases plant native wildflowers that maintain biodiversity and also support wild bees and butterflies. This can help defray some of the costs.

More recently, researchers are encouraging farmers to join forces and absorb the cost of maintaining wild habitats.  The solution is an interesting idea. Much like individual farmers share equipment or trade off for specific jobs and tasks, building more habitats could be accomplished in a similar fashion.  While one farm might be hesitant to absorb all of the costs of developing habitats, several together would be able to allocate land and resources to build pollinator populations in a location that benefits all farms. The investment would be more reasonable and could also take advantage of government cost sharing options.

A portion of land that sits between several farms would be left or cultivated as a wild bee habitat. Similarly, neighboring farms could pool resources to utilize the corners of crop circles for new habitats ensuring that all area crops have pollinators nearby.

The potential productivity that could result from individual farms joining forces would likely boost farm income and be a welcome mechanism for economic growth especially as the U.S. continues to lose shares in the global market.

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