Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Cheap Japanese imports flood the market, then improve on the originals that they copied, until they are themselves the pinnacle to be emulated. It happened with gadgets, it happened with guitars, and it even happened with whiskey. Now it’s happening with bees.
The Japanese Orchard Bee is way more efficient than the honeybee, visiting and potentially pollinating up to 15 flowers per minute. The honeybee takes its sweet time, only getting to around two flowers every minute. It’s ironic, given that “busy bees” are enshrined in our lexicon as the exemplar of hard and tireless work. It’s also a little worrying that bees can be graded by their efficiency, when the bee is precisely as efficient as it needs to be to cover its hive’s needs.
But efficiency is key in the hive-rental business. Bee colonies are trucked around the U.S. like rock bands on a stadium tour, stopping over at farms only long enough to pollinate the very monoculture crops that have destroyed the bees’ natural habitats. Dave Biddinger of Penn State University, who is working with the Japanese Orchard Bee, says that a single JOB can do the work of 80 honeybees and carry up to 100 times more pollen.
“A number of Pennsylvania fruit growers have relied exclusively on pollen bees for pollination for over five years with no noticeable loss in fruit quality or yield,” says Biddinger’s 2013 study.
The catch is that the Japanese Orchard Bee is best used for apple orchards, something you may have guessed from its name. The humble honeybee might be less efficient, but it’s a great all-rounder.
Other plants attract other insects that can do the job of the honeybee. Squash bees can pollinate pumpkins, despite their short, weeks-long lives, because the off-season work can be taken over by bumblebees. This leaves honeybees out of the picture entirely.
This diversity is the key to keeping both crops and honeybees healthy. To continue the rock-tour analogy, these supporting acts can take the pressure off the beleaguered honeybee.
Entomologist Shelby Fleischer, who calls this diversification “Plan B” told NPR that we shouldn’t “just aim for any one species. Historically, there’s been a lot of emphasis on making honeybees our pollinator, and resilience suggests that we should try and support a community of bees.”
It probably doesn’t surprise you that trucking a single species around the country to pollinate monoculture crops is unsustainable, nor that the answer is to diversify the species and strains of both crop and pollinator. But despite agribusiness’s love of uniformity, the efficiency of letting local bees take care of local crops might win it over.