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Archive for Thursday, August 2, 2007

To bee or not to bee?

One pollinator’s plight could be boon for other species

August 2, 2007

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Honeybees aren't as prevalent in the United States as they once were, and that could pose an expense to U.S. agriculture. They provide an estimated $14.6 billion dollars worth of free labor each year when they pollinate our gardens, orchards and crops.

Honeybees aren't as prevalent in the United States as they once were, and that could pose an expense to U.S. agriculture. They provide an estimated $14.6 billion dollars worth of free labor each year when they pollinate our gardens, orchards and crops.

Suggested reading

Rudolf Jander, a professor in Kansas University's ecology and evolutionary biology department, recommends the following books for readers who want to learn more about honeybees and other pollinators:

¢ "The Forgotten Pollinators," by Stephen Buchmann and Gary Paul Nabhan (Island Press, $25)

¢ "Crop Pollination by Bees," by Keith Delaplane and Daniel Mayer (CABI Publishing, $120)

We hear a lot lately about being stewards of the planet, not leaving a large carbon footprint and protecting species that can't protect themselves. We tend to take the side of the defenseless creatures, and frown at the politicians, consumers and developers assailing them.

Well, I heard about the honeybee and the terrible tragedies that will ensue if we allow it to disappear. I thought I surely would become a great champion of this little insect.

But now I'm not so sure.

Although the decline of the honeybee would be tragic to the supply and price of many foods at first, it might actually be a saving grace once the balance of pollinators evened out and some native species picked up the slack.

How could I possibly say such a thing?

Well, after talking with some professors and doing a little research, I've learned that the honeybee wouldn't even be in the United States without the efforts of man. Rudolf Jander, a professor in Kansas University's ecology and evolutionary biology department, has been researching social insects for 60 years.

"Before Europeans brought honeybees to the New World, all plants were successfully pollinated by native insects," he says. "The honeybee (hive bee) Apis mellifera is not a native bee to the United States. There are many native Kansas insects, mostly different species of native bees that pollinate native Kansas plants."

So why all the commotion over the little non-native honeybee? Because they provide $14.6 billion dollars worth of free labor each year when they pollinate our gardens, orchards and crops. The U.S. Senate is even getting into the act, passing two bills this year: The Pollinator Protection Act of 2007 and The Pollinator Habitat Protection Act of 2007. The primary fear driving these bills is that one-third of the U.S. food supply might be in danger of substantial losses if honeybees don't perform at their current rate.

Grunt work

I wasn't fully aware of how the typical honeybee lives. They basically reside in 18-wheelers and are trucked all over the country and let loose to work in fields. I find this sad - understandable, but sad nonetheless.

Deborah Smith, an associate professor in KU's entomology program who has been working with insects for 16 years, explains our reliance on the honeybee.

"Our native bees can and always have pollinated native plants we use for food; but many of our big crops are from Europe, Asia and Africa and pollinated by the honeybee," she says. "There is a problem of scale, too. There are few bees that can be raised in large numbers needed for commercial agriculture, and few that can be manipulated and moved around the way we move honeybees."

Honeybees used to be quite prevalent; we'd see hives literally growing on trees. They used to swarm all over my lamb's ear plants, but not this year. Now there are very few bees buzzing.

Julie Matchett, a Lawrence resident of 30 years, says she began noticing fewer bees three years ago, with this year being the worst.

"I'll see three or four now, but they used to be all over the yard and could be seen and heard without looking for them," she says.

Colony collapse

Researchers aren't sure of the reasons for the local collapse; however, in 1987, a mite called Varroa destructor turned up in a colony in Wisconsin. This microscopic baked bean-shaped menace sporting sharp fangs used to slurp tiny droplets of blood from unsuspecting honeybees. With those bites came diseases like deformed wing virus and acute bee paralysis virus, and within years colonies were vanishing. By 1994, an estimated 98 percent of the wild free-range honeybees in the U.S. were gone.

The honeybee is particularly susceptible to the Varroa epidemic because it has fewer immune system genes than other insects. The tenement-like conditions of being crammed tens of thousands strong into a hive only exacerbate the spread of the parasite.

Smith says the current "colony collapse syndrome" seems to affect mainly large commercial beekeepers.

"Small beekeepers and hobbyists are not heavily impacted," she says. "What has caused the decline is not known for sure, but possibilities include the accumulated stresses commercial bee colonies are subject to - pesticides, the Varroa mites and tracheal mites, the acaricides which are used to kill the mites and frequent moves to different farms for pollination. The earlier bee losses were due to Varroa mites and possibly imported bee diseases."

There are still huge numbers of domesticated honeybee colonies.

Native bees

But all is not lost. Native bees have been wonderful pollinators, and farmers can take measures to increase these populations near their fields, making up close to 30 percent of the work the honeybees had been performing. Scientists estimate there are 4,000 different species of wild bees that are native to North America. These bees nest in thick grass, soil and wood. Because they don't reside in hives, they're rarely susceptible to the spread of viruses that inflict domesticated bees.

By reintroducing native vegetation around tractor sheds, roads, highways and irrigation ditches, farmers could help bolster the wild bee population, therefore helping to pollinate large acres of crops.

It's interesting to think about which side of the fence to sit on. Do we embrace scientific research to discover medications that might help in the breeding of increasingly resistant honeybees? Do we accept the fate of the foreign honeybee as a worker who has tasks to perform for our increasing needs with a few lucky ones scattered in the wild?

Do we see the topic more like Matchett.

"The bee phenomenon may be, in part, a natural progression. I don't know," she says. "I believe a lot of what's happening in our world currently is due to blatant disrespect for the very earth that nourishes us, and greed."

Or do we possibly let the problem, which might be a matter of natural selection and a survival of the fittest, roll off our backs and listen to the advice of KU biology professor Rudolf Jander: "The honeybee's decline is not the biggest threat to our food supply. Terrorists certainly constitute a bigger threat."

Sources: www.slate.com, National Geographic News

- Jennifer Oldridge, a Kansas University graduate, is an avid gardener who previously operated a landscaping business.

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