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USGS Pollinator Science

Monarch butterfly perched on purple flowers
Monarch (Danaus plexippus)

Pollination by bees, birds, butterflies, bats, beetles and other animals provide vital ecosystem services. Pollen moved within or between flowers by pollinators leads to plant fertilization:  fruit and seed production.  Wherever flowering plants flourish, pollinators are hard at work. USGS and partners study wild native and managed bees, monarch butterflies, and other pollinators to help sustain and keep ecosystems resilient.

Although we may not think about it often, pollinators are very important both to ensuring that crop plants produce full harvests and in maintaining or increasing biodiversity.  Do you enjoy a hot cup of coffee, a juicy peach, an-apple-a-day, almonds, rich and creamy dates, a handful of plump cashews, or vine-ripened -- sun-kissed, plump tomatoes?  If so, you depend on pollinators.  Without the assistance of native and managed pollinators, most plants cannot reproduce.

Animal-mediated pollination is essential to nearly 1,000 plants grown for food, beverages, fibers, spices, and medicines on which we depend (Source:  The Pollinator Partnership, online October 29, 2014).  Declines in the health and population of native pollinators could pose a substantial threat to biodiversity, global agricultural economics and food supplies, and to human health.

Pollinators benefit more than just crops. Pollinators also support the maintenance of biodiversity in the ecosystems they inhabit and are known as keystone species in many terrestrial habitats. Biodiversity of pollinators in agricultural systems is critical to pollination, and likewise, pollination is critical to maintaining biodiversity in these systems.  We support efforts to increase access to information about the taxonomy, biology, ecology, conservation status and threats to wild native and managed pollinators, pollinator-dependent species, and pollinator habitats in the United States.  

Queen bee surrounded by other worker honeybees in a hive.
The bee marked in yellow is this hive's queen. There is usually only one queen in a hive, which the worker honeybees feed, follow, and protect.

The USGS works to provide the science decision-makers need to support pollinator conservation. We are working closely with our federal, state, and other partners to model and better understand pollinator habitats and habitat requirements, and inventory native bees and other pollinators in protected areas, forests, and other land types throughout the United States. We are pioneering genetic studies of bees to better track where they’ve been and what plants they’ve visited and/or pollinated.

The USGS pollinator-science portfolio focuses on ecosystems, population ecology, movement ecology, conservation genetics, ecosystem services, fire ecology, toxics and pesticides (neonicotinoid insecticides).  Ecosystems Mission Area scientists study pollinator species, habitats and conduct specialized inventories.  USGS Ecosystems science provides vital information to key decision-makers across the landscape.  While the importance of a healthy pollinator population to agriculture is clear, pollinators are just as important to sustaining functioning ecosystems and the food supply for wildlife.

USGS has the scientific expertise to help address pressing scientific questions, conducting complex pollinator-related research on topics such as:

  • Monitoring, identification, taxonomy, and trapping techniques for bee inventories (Patuxent Wildlife Research Center)
  • Assessing the value of USDA Farm Bill lands as pollinator habitat (Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center and Fort Collins Science Center)
  • Fire ecology, bee distribution across forest habitats, habitat requirements of native bees  (Great Lakes Science Center)
  • Invasive species plant-pollinator mutualism in Hawaii (Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center)
  • Movement and habitat use studies of migratory pollinating bats (Fort Collins Science Center)
  • Rare and invasive species in a changing climate (Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center)
  • Plant - Pollinator Networks (Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center)
  • Toxics and pesticides
  • Climate and land use change
  • Pollinator and plant-pollinator association data management
Society needs healthy bees and other insects to pollinate crops, but land use changes that decrease flower abundance can affect bee health and pollination services. Midwestern states are losing native grasslands and conservation lands that historically have provided abundant flowers for pollinators.

The Department of the Interior (DOI) has an obligation to understand and improve the condition of native pollinators on federal lands. DOI manages about 500 million acres - or one-fifth of the surface land of the United States, which offers tremendous opportunities for the conservation of pollinators in North America.  On June 16, 2014, Secretary Jewell signed the National Pollinator Week Proclamation, acknowledging the importance of pollinators and scientific research; the proclamation calls on the American public to join DOI in recognizing the value pollinators play in healthy ecosystems.

On June 20, 2014, a Presidential Memorandum on pollinator health directed federal agencies to expand efforts to promote pollinating species.  USGS served as the lead Bureau within DOI to implement the Memorandum, leading to development of a National Pollinator Health Strategy to focus on understanding, prevention, and recovering from pollinator losses.  The Pollinator Research Action Plan, distributed on May 19th, 2015, addresses elements such as:  

  • Federal research activities
  • Data collection and sharing
  • Health of honey bees
  • Identification of existing and new best practices
  • Increasing and improving habitat
  • Public education
  • Public-private partnerships
  • Status of native pollinators
  • Strategies for native seed availability
  • Targeting resources

USGS Pollinator Resources and Information



USGS Native Bee Inventory

Macro image of a carpenter bee (Genus Xylocopa)
Carpenter bee (Genus Xylocopa). For this image and many others, check out the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab's Photostream.

The USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Program designs and develops large and small scale surveys for native bees. As part of that program, the researchers develop identification tools and keys for native bee species. One aspect of creating those tools is creating accurate and detailed pictures of native bees and the plants and insects they interact with.


Did You Know?

1 of 4 bites of food people take in is courtesy of bee pollination.

75% of flowering plants rely on pollinators.

$15 billion: The amount, in dollars, the pollination increases crop values each year in the United States (Source: USDA).

Several native North American pollinator species are federally listed as endangered

Western honey bee (Apis mellifera) on butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) flowers.
Western honey bee (Apis mellifera) on butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) flowers.


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Page Last Modified: Tuesday May 19 2015