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March 15, 2018

Honeybee pollinating a Carpobrotus edulis plant

A honeybee pollinates a Carpobrotus edulis plant.

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Biologists at the University of California, San Diego, released an unprecedented study integrating data from around the globe that shows honeybees are the world’s most important single species of pollinator in natural ecosystems and a key contributor to natural ecosystem functions. It is the first quantitative analysis of its kind.

The results of the report, which merges information from 80 plant-pollinator interaction networks, clearly identify the honeybee (Apis mellifera) as the single most frequent visitor to flowers of naturally occurring (non-crop) plants worldwide. Honeybees were recorded in 89% of the pollination networks in the honeybee's native range and in 61% in regions where honeybees have been introduced by humans.

One out of eight interactions between a non-agricultural plant and a pollinator is carried out by the honeybee, the study revealed. The honeybee's global importance is further underscored when considering that it is but one of tens of thousands of pollinating species in the world, including wasps, flies, beetles, butterflies, moths and other bee species.

"Biologists have known for a while that honey bees are widespread and abundant -- but with this study, we now see in quantitative terms that they are currently the most successful pollinators in the world," said Keng-Lou James Hung, who led the study as a graduate student in UC San Diego's Division of Biological Sciences. He’s now a postdoctoral researcher at the Ohio State University.

The study, which was supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation, was conceived as a result of collecting preliminary data for an NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement grant (DEB 1501566, "The effects of pollinator diversity loss on plant-pollinator interaction networks and native plant reproduction in scrub ecosystems of Southern California") from NSF's Division of Environmental Biology. Once the grant was funded, data collected as part of the grant were included as part of the meta-analysis.

To learn more about this research, see the UC San Diego news story Worldwide importance of honeybees for natural habitats captured in new report. (Date image taken: 2013; date originally posted to NSF Multimedia Gallery: March 15, 2018)

Credit: James Hung/UC San Diego

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