In some cases, native bees — which often don’t have tidy pollen pouches on their legs — are messier than honey bees, and thus better at spreading pollen around. In other cases, natives just shake more loose. In fact, tomato farmers may see 50 percent more tomatoes that are twice as big if they get regular bumble bee visits.

“We’ve known for a long time that native bees can be effective pollinators. The problem in my mind is: Can we take that information and implement it?” says Gordon Frankie, who has studied native bees at UC Berkeley for several decades.

So why the global obsession with the one species that makes honey? For one, honey bees have hives, which makes them easy to keep and transfer en masse. For another, some native bees are picky about which flowers they prefer and where they live. As a result, commercial pollination is almost wholly dependant on honey bees.

“We are very much reliant on honey bees, for almonds for example. They require a huge number of pollinators,” says Claire Kremen, UC Berkeley conservation biologist and lead author of the 2002 PNAS paper.

Almonds may be the most bee-dependent crop in America. Without pollinators, the trees simply cannot create fruit. Every February, almond farmers pay $300 per acre for beekeepers to pollinate their land — a price that has tripled since the 1990s.

So in 2003 Kremen teamed up with the Xerxes Society, a non-profit group that many call “Audubon for invertebrates.” Together, Xerxes and UC scientists have been making the case across the country that while native bees can never replace honey bees, they may provide a crucial insurance policy.

To employ native bees, farmers must lure the insects onto a farm field with hedgerows of specific flowers they know the bees like. It’s a similar strategy to the one employed by organic farmers who invite predatory insects like ladybugs to rid their crops of pests.

“We’re all worried about colony collapse disorder,” says “Farmer Al” Courchesne of Frog Hollow Farms. “If native bees could step up and provide a service to ameliorate that difficulty, that would be a very big deal.”

Frog Hollow, a small organic farm in Brentwood, Calif., is partnering with Frankie in a 10-year experiment to attract native bees. Meanwhile, Kremen and Neal Williams at UC Davis are working with 30 farms ranging in size from 2 to 80 acres. The goal of all this work is not to replace honey bees, but to pinpoint which native bees are effective, what they can offer and how to lure them into visiting and pollinating.

“Putting hedgerows around a very large 300-acre monoculture is like putting a Band-aid on a wound that needs a tourniquet,” Kremen says. “But it doesn’t have to be an either/or kind of thing.”