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A honey bee gathers pollen from a newly bloomed flower on Bain Avenue in Toronto on March 15, 2012.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Wild thing. You make my crops spring.

An international study involving a University of Calgary researcher has found that managed honey bees aren't nearly as successful at pollinating as their uncultivated cousins.

"It seems to be more about quality than quantity of pollen that's delivered," said Lawrence Harder, professor in the department of biological sciences in the University of Calgary's science faculty.

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Researchers examined data from 41 different types of crops in 20 countries to determine if adding extra regular honey bees would help with pollination.

"We're talking about things like tomatoes, apples, cherries and coffee. They're things that kind of make our diets interesting," Dr. Harder said.

"It's a common practice to add honey bees to the field. We looked at the extent to whether more honey bees would be good and if honey bees aren't good would having more wild insects be better?"

Dr. Harder said the results show that adding extra honey bees was only helpful in 14 instances, but there was an improvement every time wild bees were introduced.

"The evidence says we couldn't do much better by adding more honey bees but we could do much better if somehow we could get better service out of the wild insects," said Dr. Harder, who noted managed honey bees are just one of 20,000 species.

The study is published in the journal Science.

Flowers from most crops need to receive pollen before making seeds and fruits – something aided by insects that visit flowers. Pollinators – including bees, flies, butterflies and beetles – usually live in natural or semi-natural habitats such as the edges of forests, hedgerows or grasslands. As the habitats are lost, the abundance and diversity of pollinators continue to decline, Dr. Harder explained.

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The loss of wild insects in many agricultural landscapes hurts harvests around the world, so there's an urgent need to help protect natural habitat, he said.

"Paradoxically, most common approaches to increase agricultural efficiency, such as cultivation of all available land and the use of pesticides, reduce the abundance and variety of wild insects that could increase production of these crops."

Dr. Harder said one simple way of helping would be to leave natural land surrounding fields. It would provide a constant food supply and also serve as a nesting site for buzzy bugs.

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