It is not easy coming up with things to write about. At Carolina Native we write newsletters, post on social media, supply content for our website and a lot more. After all that I need to come up with something appealing and interesting for another edition of Native Tongue. Good thing I have lots of resources, including Google Alerts, to keep me loaded with fresh ideas. When a recent article appeared in Forbes magazine, “Why Protecting Pollinators Today Will Secure Our Food Supply for the Future,” I was intrigued. There was some interesting stuff about pollinators and tequila. But I knew there had to be an angle involving lots of money if Forbes had an interest in pollinators. Sure enough, pollinators are responsible for $20 billion in food-related products. Honeybees are responsible for $15 billion in the U.S. alone. As I did more research, that seemed to be very conservative. And since we all know that native plants are the key to the ultimate survival of native pollinators, Forbes and others will realize that, too.
There are over 4,000 species of native pollinators in the U.S. How can we find a way to put a valuation on the pollination work they do? Then we add in all the services that honey bees provide, what does all of that add up to? These ecosystem services need to have a method of evaluation. I am certainly not an economist, but I do understand enough about the financial side of business to recognize that there is a value to the ecosystem services all bees provide. An article in Ecological Economics “Valuing Pollination Services to Agriculture” provides a logical method to do this.
The 2007 article looks at the value of native bee and honey bee pollination of watermelon crops in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. These are old numbers. Watermelons are totally dependent on insect pollination to produce a crop. In the field study of watermelon, it was observed that a total of 6,187 bee visits (2,359 by honey bees and 3,828 by native bees) were made on a test plot. Overall, the testing results indicated that native bees provide 91% of the pollination services. In reading through the whole article, the bottom line is this: after subtracting the costs of variable inputs to production, the estimated annual net income value of the watermelon crop in New Jersey and Pennsylvania combined is $3.63 million a year, leading to estimates of $2.25 million for the pollination services provided by native bees and $1.38 million year for honey bees. Because without the bees there is no crop. Consequently, the services pollinators provide are now free. The article points out, if the cost of honey bees continues to rise and their survival is in question, preserving, protecting and creating native pollinator habitat is vitally important to have these crops.
If we extrapolate these types of figures to other bee-dependent crops, we get some real numbers. Approximately 35% of all crops in the U.S. are pollinator dependent. A recent article from Bayer adds some more numbers to the equation. Every season, pollination from honey bees, native bees and other pollinators deliver billions of dollars in economic value. Between $235 and $577 billion worth of annual global food production relies on their contribution. And 87 of the 124 leading crops used for human consumption in the world benefit from insect pollination. Bayer even put a market value on pollinators. Market cap on honey bees: $20B, native bees: $4B, even the little midge that pollinates coca beans: $5.7B. For a little perspective, John Deere’s market cap is around $5.1B.
By finding a way to value these services also allows us to estimate the costs and benefits of conserving habitat for pollinators in and for agricultural systems. The 1993 EPA document “Habitat Evaluation: Guidance for The Review of Environmental Impact Assessment Documents” gives us some suggestions. In it the EPA states, “The definition of habitat in this document is based on ecosystem values and functions.” Later in the document it says, “For practical reasons, rarity is often the criterion by which a habitat’s value is determined. However, in assessing the value of a habitat, rarity, ecological functioning, regional diversity, and other important attributes also should be considered.”
So as the value of native pollinators continues to go up, the determination of the value of their habitats will, too.
Pollinators are worth a whole lot of money. Billions and billions of dollars. Forbes knows, Bayer knows, and as more attention is focused on our environment, there will be continued financial awareness. Native pollinators are a huge part of the billion-dollar equation. They require native plants and habitats for their survival.
Bill Jones is president of Carolina Native Nursery in Burnsville, North Carolina, a specialty grower of native shrubs, perennials, ferns and grasses. www.carolinanativenursery.com