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Tiny saviors in our backyard

Honey bees get most of the buzz, but some native bees are better at spreading pollen. They may hold the solution to world pollination problems that affect important crops.

In 2007, the world was introduced to a plague so disturbing it seemed almost biblical. Out of the blue, honey bees were dropping dead or worse, vanishing into the air by the millions. In the four years since, colony collapse disorder (CCD) has been a regular resident on newspaper front pages as scientists desperately try to puzzle out what’s wrong.

Certainly the stakes are high, considering that 35 percent of the world’s crops — amounting to $216 billion per year — depend on various creatures to ferry pollen from one flower to another. And certainly, if scientists cannot help honey bees recover, it could dramatically affect the price of food.

What is not so certain is whether the familiar honey bee is really the only game in town.

“The alfalfa leafcutting bee has been in commercial use since the late ’50s, early ’60s,” says UC Davis professor emeritus Robbin Thorp. “Since the early ’90s, bumble bees have been commercially produced for tomato greenhouse production and in a number of outdoor crops where honey bees are not the most effective pollinator. Like blueberries and cranberries.”

Thorp is the patriarch of a rag-tag group of scientists who have pioneered research on non-honey bees that just may hold a solution to the world’s pollination problems. For those who don’t own boxes of pinned and labeled bugs, it may come as a surprise that most of the world’s bees don’t live in hives or make honey. In fact, California alone has some 1,600 species of native bees, with names like the blue orchard bee, the squash bee and the teddy bear bee (this is not counting wasps and yellow jackets, which many bee researchers sarcastically call “ants with wings”).

Read Erik Vance’s full story, accompanied by a slide show of some of California’s native non-honey bee species (all photos by Rollin Coville), on the UC Research website.

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