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How to solve the problem of mooching bees

What if people invested cooperatively in ecosystem services like bee pollination, the same way that we collectively pool other resources?
August 19, 2020

Let the best of Anthropocene come to you.

Imagine you’re a farmer. Knowing that wild bees help out with pollination, and that they fare much better in natural or semi-natural landscapes than in fully farmed ones, you’ve set aside a portion of your fields to grow native plants where they can live. 

This, you think, is a kind, environmentally-friendly, and business-savvy decision—a triple win. But every day when you go out to check on the bees, they’ve bypassed your crops completely, and are busily pollinating your neighbors’ fields. Your bees, it turns out, are moochers.

This kind of thing happens more often than you’d think. In a new paper in People and Nature, researchers dive deeper into the issue, and present a possible solution: What if people invested cooperatively in ecosystem services like bee pollination, the same way that we collectively pool other resources?

For their study, the researchers modeled the cost of setting aside land for bee habitat, the “private benefit” reaped by the farmer who did so, and the “external benefit” experienced by that farmer’s neighbors. They then subtracted the benefits from the costs. They based the variables in their analysis, such as crop values and bee habitat costs, on real figures from Yolo County, California. Farmers in Yolo County grow everything from almonds to wine grapes

They found that “private costs of enhancements borne by landowners often exceed the benefits,” the authors write. In the models, only farmers with huge fields and highly pollinator-dependent crops were getting their money’s worth from giving some of their land over to bees. In contrast, “external net benefits… are always positive, because neighbors bear no enhancement costs.” In other words, when you make the generous choice to set land aside for bees, “it is often the collection of [your] neighbors that benefits,” rather than you. 

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But there were many cases, the researchers found, where the total benefits—yours and your neighbors’—outweighed the costs. In other words, if there was more cost-sharing too, everyone could come out ahead. Perhaps your neighbors could kick you some money in exchange for all the help the bees are providing. Or you could work together make a joint patch right on the border of your land. According to the researchers’ models, more than half of the farms in Yolo County could benefit from this kind of arrangement. 

As the researchers point out, such concerns aren’t unique to this prodigal bee scenario. A pair of households on a river, one upstream and one downstream, must work out fair rules for water usage.  Landowners may weigh the pros and cons of setting aside some of their property to safeguard endangered species in exchange for a tax break. 

It also provides an interesting framework with which to look at the many environmental entanglements we all find ourselves in. In many cases, the outcome is the opposite — private benefits outweigh private costs, while the external costs are huge. Think of factory farming, which creates cheap meat at the expense of animal welfare and public health. Or climate change: certain countries reap the rewards of inexpensive energy, while others are wind-battered, parched and flooded by the effects of their emissions. 

To make truly responsible assessments about what things cost, and what is worth it, we must take as many of these contingencies as possible into account. A small bee-centric case is a good first step. 

Source: Lonsdorf, Eric V. et. al. “Partitioning private and external benefits of crop pollination services.” People and Nature, 2020.

Image: Neal Williams / UC Davis

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