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Bees: Only a Few Needed to Pollinate World's Crops, New Study Suggests

Jun 17, 2015 03:11 PM EDT

It turns out that only a few "busy bees" are needed to pollinate the world's crops, according to a new international study.

The paper, published in the journal Nature Communications, suggests that only two percent of wild bee species pollinate 80 percent of bee-pollinated crops worldwide.

While everything from climate change, pesticides and pathogens have been shown to produce sharp declines in many wild bee populations, nonetheless they can remain abundant in agricultural landscapes.

That's important, considering that pollinating bees contribute about $3,000 per hectare of land to the agricultural industry - a number in the billions globally. Not to mention about two-thirds of the world's most important crops benefit from bee pollination, including coffee, cacao and many fruits and vegetables.

"This study shows us that wild bees provide enormous economic benefits, but reaffirms that the justification for protecting species cannot always be economic," Taylor Ricketts of the University of Vermont's Gund Institute For Ecological Economics, a study co-author, said in a statement. "We still have to agree that protecting biodiversity is the right thing to do."

The most important wild bees for agriculture include some of the world's most common species, like the common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens) in the United States and the red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) in Europe, authors say.

Honeybees are also important, but with honeybee colonies especially in rapid decline, wild pollination is now more vital than ever.

"Species and populations can fluctuate significantly as landscapes and climates change," noted Ricketts. "So protecting a wide variety of our wild bees is crucial."

The study highlights certain bee-friendly practices for farmers to consider in order to preserve bee biodiversity, including maintaining wildflowers and grass strips, organic farming techniques, and limiting - or delaying - the use of pesticides and other chemicals.

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