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Bees 2
Creating wild bee habitat on farms can be as simple as letting a small area of land remain wild, which provides bees with a familiar sanctuary amidst rows of crops. Credit: Neal Williams / UC Davis

We need bees to pollinate crops, but getting people to conserve them is actually a complex problem to solve. Why is it so hard? Yolo County in California’s central valley provides a clue: over 500 farmers manage 100 crops that vary in their market value and dependence on bees. Conserving bees in this landscape is a socio-ecological Gordian knot. One farmer could provide habitat for bees, but because bees don’t respect borders, others nearby could benefit.  There is thus a potential spatial misalignment in supply and demand for bees, farmers acting in their own self-interest may do so in a way that is detrimental to all impacted by their decision – a situation known as the tragedy of the commons. Groups of individuals working together could potentially solve this common-pool resource problem but they must be well-informed on how benefits flow from one individual to another and how costs of actions are distributed among participants, knowledge that is often missing.  Our research combined knowledge of wild bee ecology, crop value and dependence on wild bees with patterns of land ownership in Yolo County to reveal benefits to all landowners if one landowner chose to create a wild bee pollinator enhancement.  Using a previously published crop pollination service model, we created an enhancement on each landowner’s property by virtually converting the current piece of land to ideal pollinator habitat and using the model to estimate the change in crop yield and value for all landowners. We found that only 12% of owners in Yolo County would have positive net private benefits (yield benefits outweigh costs of the enhancement and lost revenue). However, if one were able to include newly revealed external benefits that nearly 60% of owners should provide habitat for wild bees-the landowners creating the enhancement would lose $1 million but generate nearly $2.5 million for their neighbours.  It is clearly in the best interest of farmers to work together and our research shows them how. To avoid continued tragedies, it is essential for future work to integrate land ownership with ecological studies to reveal benefits of nature that flow between individuals.