Valuation of Pollination Services

Putting a dollar figure on the value of pollination services may be important, if, as many researchers argue, financing conservation by determining economic value is an effective method for protecting ecosystem services. Yet, as a result of our incomplete understanding of the entire complex process, the exercise has proven to be exceptionally challenging—how does one put an accurate price on a service that is a cornerstone for life on earth? As a result, attempts to create a mechanism for identifying an economic value for pollination services have been scarce in the U.S.47 This section lays out those existing economic arguments for valuing pollination services and then presents some additional indirect value considerations.

A. Economic Considerations.  Worldwide, at least thirty percent of 1500 crop plant species depend on pollination by bees and other insects.48 49 Historically, the U.S. agricultural industry has depended heavily on the honey bee for its pollination needs. Consequently, most of the few existing studies that evaluate the economic importance of pollination services focus on agriculture and the honey bee. For example, Morse and Calderone estimate the value of agricultural crop production due to honey bee pollination was $14.6 billion in 2000.50 Morse and Calderone recognized that native pollinators made a significant contribution to crop values, but did not attempt to estimate this figure. A more recent study by Losey and Vaughan put a value of just over $3 billion on the pollination of U.S. fruits and vegetables by native insects.51

A decline in pollinator activity is, in fact, not a hypothetical scenario. Decreases in services have already caused problems for some crops. For example, in early 2004, California almond growers realized there were looming honey bee shortages and scrambled to get sufficient hives for their crop. Despite preparing for the 2005 bloom, serious bee shortages forced almond growers to pay rental fees of upwards of $100/hive and even to import honey bee colonies from Australia in order to save their $2.5 billion crop.52

The significance of pollinators to the agricultural industry is not the only aspect of pollination services that has economic value. In fact, pollination services can be linked to many other parts of present day economies. For example, most flowers use size and color to attract pollinators and humans have placed a high value on their uniqueness, beauty, and aroma. As a result, the production of cut flowers and potted plants for the florist trade, and use of plants for perfumes, shampoo and other cosmetics have developed into multinational industries that rely to some degree on the services of pollinators. The pharmaceutical industry, cattle grazers, and people throughout the U.S. with small gardens in their backyards are also dependent upon and realize economic benefits from pollinators.53 54 In the Western U.S., federal agencies are using wildflowers for restoration and rehabilitation of degraded lands. Wildflower seeds are traditionally harvested in the wild, an expensive and time consuming process. The USDA Agricultural Research Service laboratory at Logan, Utah has been developing management techniques for commercial production of wildflowers using native bees. Production has already begun in several states.55

B. Noneconomic Considerations. Identifying economic value is not the only means for conveying the significance of pollination services and the relationships between pollinators and plants. With well over 200,000 flowering plant species dependent on pollination from over 100,000 pollinator species, pollination interactions have been a catalyst in developing, and are important to maintaining, the vast wealth of biodiversity on the planet. Consequently, pollination is a keystone process in both human-managed and natural terrestrial ecosystems. Without this service, many interconnected species inhabiting, and processes functioning within, an ecosystem would collapse.56 Flowers also produce the seeds and fruits that constitute the diets of many animal species. Pollinator declines can limit seed and fruit production and disrupt food supplies in natural communities. Pollinator-dependent plant communities help to bind the soil, reducing erosion that fouls creeks and impacts habitat for a wealth of aquatic life from salmon to mussels. Finally, pollinators have only recently been acknowledged for their contribution as consumers and distributors of energy-rich floral biomass. One study found that harvesting of plant primary production through collection of pollen, nectar, and resin by stingless social bees in Panama is greater than that of leafcutter ants, game animals, frugivores, vertebrate folivores, insect defoliators (excluding ants), and flower-feeding birds and bats.57