New Science: Wild Pollinator Habitat Benefits Agriculture

Abundant wild pollinators help increase yields for many crops. Photo: Flickr user Natalie Maynor under a Creative Commons license.

Abundant wild pollinators help increase yields for many crops. Photo: Flickr user Natalie Maynor under a Creative Commons license.

By Elizabeth Schuster, environmental economist

When most people think of pollinators, honey bees are the first thing that comes to mind. But wild pollinators–like bumblebees, sweat bees and squash bees–can be more effective at pollinating than managed honey bees.

In fact, in crop studies they have been credited with doubling the proportion of flowers that develop into mature fruits or seeds.

Despite the evidence of wild pollinators being a viable alternative to managed honey bees, they are only just beginning to catch on as a strategy in the agricultural community, primarily due to a lack of understanding of the costs and benefits of investing in them.

The Nature Conservancy has completed an economic analysis of wild pollinator contribution to 10 major crops grown in the northeastern United States – tomatoes, blueberries, watermelons, cantaloupes, soybeans, cucumbers, squash, apples, peaches, and bell peppers.

The results can help farmers realize the net economic benefits, on a per-crop basis, that wild pollinator habitat can provide.

The Study

Wild pollinators, like bumblebees, sweat bees and squash bees can be more effective at pollinating than managed honey bees. Photo: Flickr user Jabzg under a Creative Commons license.

Wild pollinators, like bumblebees, sweat bees and squash bees can be more effective at pollinating than managed honey bees. Photo: Flickr user Jabzg under a Creative Commons license.

The results from our New Jersey study can easily apply to other regions growing similar crops with similar weather conditions, and New Jersey makes a good benchmark because agricultural revenues in the state are an important economic driver: farm revenues reached $1.12 billion in 2012, the highest on record for the state (USDA NASS 2012).

We used U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA NRCS) data to calculate the costs of implementing one acre of wild pollinator habitat per 24 acres of crop production. The key to the analysis is the percent of yields per crop that result directly from wild pollinators, and determining the production boost (in dollars) that occurs after implementing the habitat. A key component in maximizing the benefit of wild pollinators is actually having that habitat as part of the farm.

The Value of Wild Pollinators

This table shows the value of production attributable to wild pollinators in New Jersey (based on average prices and yields, 2007-2011).

 

Crop

% of yield from wild pollinators

Value of production ($) from wild pollinators

Value of production boost

Squash

81%

$9,640,000

$1,171,300

Tomatoes

18%

$5,530,000

$149,300

Blueberries

10%

$8,213,000

$123,200

Bell Peppers

10%

$3,301,000

$49,500

Watermelons

10%

$343,000

$5,100

Peaches

9%

$3,142,000

$42,400

Apples

9%

$2,008,000

$27,100

Cucumbers

9%

$1,281,000

$17,300

Cantaloupes

8%

$689,000

$800

Soybeans

5%

$1,583,000

$11,900

 

In nearly all cases and especially for tomatoes, blueberries, melons, cucumbers, squash, apples, peaches, and bell peppers, gross revenues increase directly because of the installation of pollinator habitat—and that’s even after subtracting out implementation costs.  Land areas converted for pollinators were assumed to be fallow or poor quality fields, backyards, or areas in hedgerows and between fields.

Wild Pollinators on the Farm

Wild pollinated cucumbers are less likely to be malformed, making them more marketable. Photo: Flickr user Chiots Run under a Creative Commons license.

Wild pollinated cucumbers are less likely to be malformed, making them more marketable for farmers. Photo: Flickr user Chiots Run under a Creative Commons license.

We see that squash are highly dependent upon wild pollinators, and investment in their natural habitat makes economic sense in all of our scenarios. In fact, gross revenues see an increase of $262/acre even when one acre of squash is retired from production.

Blueberries see an increase in gross revenues by $112/acre if one acre of vacant land is available. But would blueberry yields grow as much as squash yields if an acre of productive fruit-growing land were actually converted to wild pollinator habitat?  Several studies show that blueberries are prone to under-pollination, which results in a lower berry weight. A good plan then would be to target a parcel in the middle of a vast expanse of blueberries for wild pollinator habitat. The estimated increase in gross revenues in that scenario is $93/acre.

For cucumbers, investing in habitat is budget neutral – gross revenues remain exactly the same before and after. However, cucumbers that are under-pollinated become misshapen, so farmers having to throw away portions of harvests due to malformation would likely see benefit from more appealing end product from the increased number of pollinators at work.

The numbers for melons and tree fruit are misleading, with gross revenues appearing to increase just $0-$100/acre. However, it is important to note that we have used the most conservative numbers for all the crops, and that especially for melons and tree fruit, wild pollinators can boost gains by offsetting a farmer’s costs for rented honey bees.

Soybeans were the one crop that didn’t see an increase in gross revenues. However, the benefits of native pollinators in agriculture are clear.  If we allow wild pollinator habitat on farms and elsewhere to disappear, it will be much more difficult and costly to recover lost wild pollinator populations. Therefore, investment in wild pollinator habitat today can lead to savings tomorrow, and serve as a form of crop insurance. Dedicating areas to wild pollinators as part of a farm’s long-term plan can reduce risk and potential income fluctuations associated with land conditions beyond a property’s borders changing over time.

What does it all mean?

Value farms and food? Planting wild pollinator habitat can help. Photo: Flickr user Gigi Elmes under a Creative Commons license.

Value farms and food? Planting wild pollinator habitat can help. Photo: Flickr user Gigi Elmes under a Creative Commons license.

Environmental economists have only recently begun quantifying the economic benefits of wild pollinators, and it is such a new area of research that very little has been published in this area.

Agriculture is a key driver of local economies in many rural areas in the United States, and small-scale farms are linked to nutrition, food security and employment.

Our study provides a decision-support tool for farmers to consider on-farm wild pollinator habitat restoration, leading to increased yields and increased revenues.

If we value the presence of farms in our communities, and if we value an abundance of produce in our market aisles, we can help by supporting wild pollinators by planting appropriate vegetation on our farms and in our backyards to sustain them.

Read more on how the Conservancy is benefiting agriculture through wild pollinator habitat.

References

U.S. Department of Agriculture. “New Jersey Annual Report and Agricultural Statistics.” National Agricultural Statistics Service 2012. Web. http://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/New_Jersey/Publications/Annual_Statistical_Bulletin/index.asp

Morse, R.A., & N.W. Calderone. “The value of honey bees as pollinators of US crops in 2000.” Bee Culture 128.3(2000): 1-15.

Elizabeth Schuster is an environmental economist with the Nature Conservancy, based in New Jersey. She is currently working on a range of coastal and freshwater projects, all focused on quantifying the economic benefits of ecosystem services. Prior to working at the Nature Conservancy, she had 15 years’ experience in environmental conservation and economic development working with rural communities in Venezuela, Honduras, Mexico and the United States.



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