Want to know more about your native pollinators in North America? There are lots of resources!
A year or so ago I recommended this beautiful ebook as a FREE download: Bee Basics: An Introduction to Our Native Bees. It’s still available! One of the authors of that publication is back this year with a new book, this one aimed at a slightly younger audience. The new eBook by Beatriz Moisset: “Beginners Guide to Pollinators and other Flower Visitors” is available FREE during National Pollinator Week. (You can also find it on Barnes and Noble and iTunes.) This eBook is a quick guide to distinguishing types of insect visitors to flowers.
Xerces has quite a few amazing book-length resources, and the best of them is Attracting Native Pollinators. (Not free, alas, but well worth the price, and supports this great non-profit.) Conserving Bumblebees is also available as a FREE download, or as a print book. I have mentioned before the wonderful online Xerces Pollinator Conservation Resource center, that lets you find FREE resources by region of North America about plants, creating nest sites, and other ways to promote your local species. The US Forest Service also offers a FREE guide to Bumblebees of the Eastern States, as well as one for the Western States.
If you want to learn more about being a beekeeper, living in the country, and letting nature define the rhythyms of your life, you just can’t do better than Sue Hubbell’s “A Book of Bees.” Kirkus described it as a mix of “memoir, nature journal, and beekeeping manual.” Hubbell’s writing reminds me of another great country life writer, Anne Dillard. (If you haven’t read Dillard’s An American Childhood, read it now!)
If you want a more detailed discusson of pollination, but also a good read, I recommend “The Forgotten Pollinators” by Buchmann and Nabhan. This winner of several science writing awards discusses the relationship between plants and the many different animals they depend on for reproduction. Unfortunately, many endangered species are rare plants depending on rare insects–not a recipe for a stable ecosystem.
What books have I missed? Please let me know in the comments!
A photo has been circulating this week that suggests that this is what our grocery stores will look like without bees:
Is that true? Is this our life without bees, come the future Beepocalypse?
A fruit is, essentially, a delicious plant ovary with embryos (seeds) inside. It’s how plants reproduce. Bees and other pollinators serve as plant sexual surrogates by spreading pollen (plant sperm!) around to flower ovaries. A fruit tree flower has to be pollinated to “set fruit” or begin to create the plant embryos that will become apples.
Some fruits are self-pollinating, and can fertilize themselves without any bees involved. The Navel Oranges seen in the photo above are a good example of a fruit that can self-pollinate. Most fruit trees–pears and apples in particular–are self-sterile for their own pollen. If you plant all Royal Delicious apples, for example, you won’t get fruit, with or without bees. Just as we don’t often marry our cousins, apple and pear trees require cross-pollination with “pollinizer varieties” that are not closely related to produce a full crop of fruit.
So it’s certainly true that loss of bees and other pollinating insects would limit our fruit choices. But what would happen if bees went away all together?
Actually, we already know what raising fruit without honey bees looks like. In a remote area in China, humans pollinate 100% of fruit trees by hand. Armed with pollen-loaded paintbrushes and cigarette filters, people swarm around pear and apple trees in spring, replacing bees as pollinators. The reason why they do that, though, is more complex than just “the bees died.”
There’s a fair amount of data about the history of human pollination, and the reason it happens in China has as much to do with economics and apple biology as it does with missing bees. In the early 1990s, farmers of marginal lands in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region–an area spanning parts of Nepal, China, Pakistan, and India–realized that apples could be a major cash crop. Their land was mountainous and hard to farm, so tree fruits were ideally suited to the region. A major shift occurred from subsistence farming to fruit crops. The payoffs were large–in some areas, farmers quadrupled their income. Now they had cash on hand to send kids to school and build roads. Quality of life improved.
With that early success, farmers found that certain varieties of apples and pears sold better than others. As new orchards went in, more and more of the same cultivars of apples were planted. And that is when things started to go wrong.
Clearing marginal forested lands for more agriculture destroyed nesting and food resources native pollinator species needed. The problem with insects as commercial pollinators is that they can’t just appear for 2 weeks, pollinate your plants, and disappear. They have to have something to eat the rest of the year, and a place to live. Clearing mountain forests got rid of habitat that pollinators needed.
Farmers planting new trees in their orchards made a logical economic choice: plant more trees that make marketable fruit. The consequences of that choice, though, were that fruit set was poor. Most of the trees they planted were the same variety, so were self-sterile.
So farmers added a few of what are called “pollinizer” trees–trees that serve as pollen donors. Pollinizer varieties usually don’t have pretty fruit, which means that farmers are giving up potential income if they plant them. The recommended mix of fruiting trees and pollinizer trees in orchards is 70:30. In most fruit orchards in this region, less than 10% of the trees were pollinizer varieties. Worse, you can’t just randomly pick two different kinds of apple or pear trees and have them be cross-fertile. (This compatibility matrix gives you a sense of just how complex choosing two pear cultivars to grow can be.) Your pollinizer variety also must bloom at the same time as your fruit variety–pollen needs to be used while it is fresh, and can’t be stored. So even with plenty of bees, fruit production was very low, and in some areas crops failed completely.
Another perfectly sensible economic decision made by farmers was to spray pesticides often to have better looking fruit, which commanded a better price. A perception that the problem with poor fruit production was caused by pest insects also encouraged more spraying. Just as in cultivar selection, this had unforeseen biological consequences. Poor pollination due to pollen incompatibility was made worse by killing off pollinating insects.
In 1999, the problem of poor fruit set was widespread throughout the Hindu Kush regions of Nepal, China, Pakistan, and India. Hand pollination was widely practiced through this region. However, by 2011, only apple growers in the Maoxian region of China were still hand pollinating. What was different about China that made hand pollination persist?
In Nepal, India, and Pakistan, the government and NGOs provided support to help promote using native pollinator species, as well as provided training and education about managing pollination. Planting of native host trees that provided nectar to support colonies through the harvest year was encouraged. Bees are now an important part of local economies, and hand pollination is now rare.
In China, officials promoted and offered training in hand pollination, rather than offering information about native pollinators. That’s not the only reason hand pollination persisted, though–100% of apple crops in the Maoxian region are pollinated by hand because it makes economic sense. By using humans as pollinators, the number of pollenizer trees that have to be planted can be minimized, and valuable land isn’t used up for non-productive trees. Fruit set is also much higher with human pollinators–every flower is fully pollinated and can become fruit. A person can pollinate 5–10 trees a day, depending on the size of the trees. Farmers pay their human pollinators US $12–19/person/day. The cost of renting a bee colony for pollination in 2010 was US $46.88/day.
Why are bees so expensive in Maoxian? Honey bees are still present–up to 50% of the fruit farmers surveyed in the Maoxian region in 2011 also kept honey bees! Bees are still viewed as primarily a honey-producing species in this region, so the connection between bees and pollination is not strong. Farmers in this region of China are uninformed about the effects of pesticides on bees–half of apple farmers surveyed did not know that pesticides would kill bees. The Maoxian region also sprays pesticides more often than other regions where pollinators have recovered. Most Maoxian beekeepers will not rent their hives to orchards, since the pesticide sprays continue during bloom season and they risk losing their entire hive.
One last additional factor is making things difficult for farmers: Global Climate Change. Frequent rains, low temperatures, and cloudy weather affect the number of days that plants flower and the times that pollinators can fly. Changes in flowering time also means that fruit trees and their local pollinators may not be in sync, which makes a mismatch between pollinator and plant timing more likely in an already strained system. Humans are more effective pollinators than insects under these adverse conditions.
What can North Americans learn from China’s pollination failure?
The story of hand pollination in China illustrates what a failure to understand natural ecosystem services looks like. Ecosystem services are things the earth does for us for free: Oxygen is produced; water is filtered; and plants are pollinated. When parts of an ecosystem are removed, it stops functioning the way it has in the past.
Problems with bees, agriculture, and pollination are deeply related to issues of habitat loss, global warming, and basic plant biology. Pesticides are a problem in bee deaths–for all bees, not just honey bees. But just getting rid of all pesticides will not solve our bee problems, and pesticides are only part of the story of human pollination.
In the most recent US honey bee reports from the winter of 2012-2013, 31% of hives failed in the United States. It wasn’t Colony Collapse Disorder or poisoning that was the problem, though–most of the bees starved. A summer of drought that reduced honey storage combined with odd winter weather stresses bee hives. It doesn’t help that corn, soybeans, and golf courses are not nutritious food sources for honey bees. We also know that incredible losses in native bee diversity are happening–in one study, 50% of Midwestern native bee species disappeared over a 100 year period.
Is China’s experience a picture of our future without bees? Probably not. But preserving our pollinators and pollinator habitat will be critical to keeping our food choices diverse. This Pollinator Week, consider planting some food for bees, or setting aside some nesting space for native bees. Check out this huge resource center for North American plant lists, nesting guides, and more.
Once again, It’s time to celebrate the little animals that… facilitate plant sex by moving plant sperm around.
I’ve discovered over time that a lot of people don’t actually know what pollination is, other than it’s something that’s needed to get fruit. That’s certainly true; apples, bananas, blueberries, melons, peaches, pumpkins, almonds, and a whole bunch of other plants need to be pollinated for us to get the food we like.
That’s the what of pollination. But the WHY seems to be left out. Plants need lovin’ too, and the options for them to get their freak on are somewhat limited. It’s tough to “throw a leg over” when you don’t actually have any legs.
Pollination = sex for plants.
There. I’ve said it.
Sure, you can toss your pollen out on the wind and hope it lands in the right place. And for a lot of plants, evergreens in particular, this works just fine. Most spring days my car looks like there was a pine tree bukakke fest.
That methodology results in a lot of wasted gametes (plant sperm) though, so for nearly all flowering plants, insects or other pollinators are needed for plant nookie. Think of bees and other pollinators as little flying plant wangs.
Most flowers contain both male and female sexual parts, and while plants can self-pollinate, it’s a lot more
enjoyable productive to have a second (or third…or fourth…) party involved. Cross-pollination also reduces inbreeding.
Plants attract insect pollinators with lovely colorful displays, special smells, and gifts of nectar or extra pollen that makes a nice snack. And in return plants receive a sort of sexual courier service. This partnership has been going on for over 100 million years, and has resulted in amazing modifications in both plants and animals.
Without pollinators, some of the finest things in life would not exist:
All brought to you by a bug-facilitated bonk.
The Xerces Society has many free and wonderful publications on how to plant habitat for pollinators. Why not check those out and establish a horizontal hula zone in your backyard? And don’t forget to give your sweetheart a bouquet of plant genitalia.
(yes, this is a repost of last year’s Pollinator Week essay, mostly because I didn’t have time to look up new euphemisms.)
Dr. Doug Yanega is the Senior Museum Scientist at the University of California, Riverside, and an acting Commissioner of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. His undergraduate and graduate degrees were under the tutelage of George Eickwort (Cornell University) and Charles D. Michener (University of Kansas), respectively, two of the world’s foremost bee authorities. Dr. Yanega has a broad background, and many of his publications deal with the natural history, pollination ecology, and taxonomy of bees.
Doug published this on Facebook, and I wanted this to get a broader audience, so invited him here for a guest post.
Back in 2006, a team of bee researchers put out a report regarding a phenomenon affecting honey bees commonly called “Fall Dwindle Disease”, in which they decided that this name was misleading, and suggested a new name for this syndrome – the name they suggested as a replacement was “Colony Collapse Disorder” (CCD). It’s worth reading it (at http://www.beekeeping.com/articles/us/ccd.pdf), not only to get some perspective on things, but because – amazingly enough – even though this is the document that first used and defined the term, virtually no one who has published on CCD has ever cited this document… not even the people who wrote it.
To anyone acquainted with scientific research or journalism, the idea of using a term that was recently defined and NOT citing (or at least reading) the original definition goes completely against what anyone would consider to be proper research. Basically, not doing one’s homework. Yet, this is precisely what has happened with this document. It can’t even be retrieved from the website on which it originally appeared, but if you’ve read it, you’re now better educated on the history of CCD than many of the scientists and journalists and beekeepers who have published on CCD in the past 7 years.
Why do I stress this so much? It’s quite straightforward: most of the scientists and journalists and beekeepers who have published on CCD in the past 7 years have either stated or implied that CCD is something that had never existed prior to 2006. And yet, the original paper defining CCD spelled out that it was an existing condition that they were simply coining a new name for, in the hope that the new name would be less misleading. Oh, the irony. Even more baffling is that it’s not like this information was totally lost or hidden – it’s been visible in the Wikipedia article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colony_collapse_disorder), with a citation, for all this time, so anyone in the world who simply Googled “Colony Collapse Disorder” could find this reference, since the WikiP article is the first link shown.
It gets even better: in both 2007 and 2009 another paper pointed out that there were at least 18 historical episodes of similar large-scale losses of honey bees dating back to 1869, at least several of which had symptoms similar enough that they cannot be ruled out as being the exact same ailment. Yet, how often have you seen any of the scientists and journalists and beekeepers acknowledging that any theories about the cause of CCD need to accommodate the evidence for similar bee crashes that pre-date neonicotinoid pesticides, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), migratory beekeeping, cell phones, genetically modified crops, or any of the other human-made “causes” that have been run up the proverbial flagpole?
Once again, there are an awful lot of people who are not doing their homework (admittedly, it is a big body of literature, but we’re talking about papers *central* to the issue). That 2009 paper also included the following statement, and I’ll quote it because it’s so important:
“Of the more than 200 variables we quantified in this study, 61 were found with enough frequency to permit meaningful comparisons between populations. None of these measures on its own could distinguish CCD from control colonies.”
Of the 61 variables quantified (including adult bee physiology, pathogen loads, and pesticide levels), no single factor was found with enough consistency to suggest one causal agent. Bees in CCD colonies had higher pathogen loads and were co-infected with more pathogens than control populations, suggesting either greater pathogen exposure or reduced defenses in CCD bees.” Yes, this study did actually look for connections to pesticides, Varroa mites, beekeeping practices, and other things, and no such connections held up to scientific scrutiny.
Here’s the thing about this: if you look at a lot of what you see these days, be it in the scientific literature or in the media, people are running around looking for things that kill honey bees, and when they find something that does so, they often make this GARGANTUAN leap to claim that since X kills honey bees, and since CCD kills honey bees, then X must cause CCD. Logic fail, anyone?
Does anyone seriously dispute that neonicotinoid pesticides are capable of killing honey bees? No. Does anyone dispute that Varroa mites can kill honey bees? No. Does anyone dispute that Nosema (a microsporidian fungus) kills honey bees? No. Sure, there are some ridiculous claims that no one in the scientific community WOULD stand behind (e.g., cell phones or chemtrails), but, by and large, most of the things that any one team of researchers or another puts forward as THE cause of CCD are things that, in and of themselves, are perfectly plausible as significant sources of bee mortality. But that DOES NOT mean that any of them is causally linked to CCD.
Why not? Go back and read the papers I linked; (1) there’s a list of symptoms that characterize CCD, which are not universally present in these various “smoking gun” studies, and (2) they’re talking about something dating back to the 1800s. Did they have neonicotinoids or HFCS back in 1869? In 1969? If not, then those studies fail to do what ANY genuinely scientific hypothesis needs to do: offer an explanation consistent with ALL of the evidence (Occam’s Razor, anyone?).
In effect, what is happening is that researchers are studying one possible factor at a time, and seeing only a tiny part of the whole picture. It’s the parable of “The Blind Men and the Elephant”, where each one describes only that which is in their range of perception, instead of examining ALL of the evidence (including reading ALL of the literature) and coming up with a theory which explains all of it. We’ve got a pile of incomplete theories all competing for the media spotlight, each with its own proponents, and sometimes with a non-scientific agenda.
They’re using a single name, CCD, but may be using it to describe a pile of entirely different ailments. Even worse, there are fringe theories and fuzzy thinking and red herrings abounding, and the public can get easily confused – for example, not realizing that there are some 20,000 species of bees in the world, and only ONE of them is affected by CCD (yes, some other species of bees are dying off, but it’s a different set of things that are responsible).
What may well be a complete and sensible theory is out there, however, and it is referred to above, and hinted at elsewhere (mostly by folks who were involved with the original CCD work) though it has not yet been fully explored or elucidated to everyone’s satisfaction; I’ll highlight again the phrase “reduced defenses in CCD bees.” Way back when this whole thing came to everyone’s attention, Diana Cox-Foster and the other researchers made observations suggesting that CCD might be the result of bees with a compromised immune system.
For those of us who remember when AIDS first came to public attention, there are some striking parallels, and it wouldn’t be all that surprising to ultimately find out that CCD is something that works in much the same way. That is, if you have bees with a compromised immune system, then they could become vulnerable in such a way that a whole range of things that normally might NOT be lethal, are suddenly lethal.
Honey bees are exposed to all sorts of pathogens, chemicals (including not just pesticides, but HFCS, and mite-killing agents used by beekeepers), and other stress-inducing factors on a routine basis, and the levels of exposure to these factors are normally not enough to kill off healthy colonies. But if they are NOT actually healthy, and instead are immuno-compromised, then those same levels of exposure might trigger something catastrophic. Recall that the HIV virus does not itself kill people; the causes of death in AIDS victims are a variety of other diseases that would ordinarily have been fought off by the immune system. If no one had ever discovered the HIV virus, we would be seeing evidence of people dying from all sorts of other things, and likely pointing blame at each factor independently, while missing that there was something connecting them all.
Sound familiar? There is (and has been, all along) evidence that CCD is contagious, yet how often is that discussed? That evidence needs to be accounted for, along with all of the other patterns we’re seeing. There are people looking for viruses and other pathogens that could be at the root of CCD, and some tantalizing results have appeared – though such announcements haven’t been definitive, and (perhaps more importantly) haven’t gotten more attention than the incomplete (but more sensational) theories have gotten.
Not only would it be nice if more of the people who reviewed papers trying to link various things to CCD asked pointed questions like “How well can this theory explain similar bee dieoffs in the previous century?” or “How well can this theory explain the patterns of contagious pathology seen in CCD-affected apiaries?”, but it would also be far more professional and appropriate to do so, given that the scientific method is not based on cherry-picking of evidence, or sensationalism. I’m prepared to find out that I’m wrong, but I want to see some real evidence, for which there is an unambiguous and coherent explanation.
A reasonable question you could ask is “Well, even if we accept the idea that there’s an underlying pathogen, why is this all happening now, and to this degree, and over this length of time? If this is the same disease we’ve seen outbreaks of spanning several decades, why does this seem so much worse this time around?” I can offer two observations: (1) the way the modern news media network seeks out and reports on stories is VERY different, as is the level of environmental concern among the general public, and even if the exact same thing DID happen in the 1960s, it would not have made international news headlines; and (2) there are, quite simply, MORE potentially harmful things that honey bees are exposed to now than they were in the past – meaning that if the diefoffs are more widespread, more severe, and more prolonged, it should not be all that surprising.
A reasonable course of action, to my mind, is acknowledging that we aren’t likely to find that any man-made factors are the true cause of CCD, devoting energy to looking for contagious pathogenic agents, and taking a closer look at genetic diversity in honey bees themselves (e.g., are there strains that are resistant to CCD?), while at the same time working towards reducing the exposure and impacts of man-made factors that are capable of harming bees (but without BLAMING them in the process, or overreacting). Does every potentially harmful thing need to be banned outright, or just used more prudently? Is there a level of exposure to neonicotinoids that is not harmful? Can beekeepers simply use less HFCS, or less or different acaricides, or make other changes to their practices that will result in fewer bee deaths? Answers may not be simple, nor black-and-white, but real science rarely is.
[P.S. from Doug - the day after I first posted this on Facebook, the USDA released this PDF, in which the pre-2006 existence of CCD is once again not mentioned, despite having nearly all of the original co-authors among the 175 conference attendees. This is remarkable, and makes me wonder if people are intentionally trying to distance themselves from the original definition of CCD. It’s almost like someone publishing a paper coining the term “lung cancer” and then other people coming along and using that same term for every other known form of cancer, to the point where the original concept has been forgotten entirely.
The report states explicitly that honey bees are suffering from multiple different things, which I can’t dispute, and “CCD” is (at this point) being used as a blanket term for things that may have genuinely separate causes – but this is a practice I don’t like. If we KNOW there are multiple causes and multiple effects, then it confuses the issue to lump them all under a single name, and you’re going to have serious problems coming to solid conclusions about treatment, prevention, and epidemiology, not to mention communicating with the public. I’ll give just one example to make my point: several studies show that parasitic Varroa mites are strongly linked to CCD, and several other perfectly valid studies show that CCD can kill bees that have no Varroa mites. The net effect is that all we can say is “Beekeepers should prevent their bees from getting Varroa mites” – which is something everyone has known for decades. But if it turns out that some of the chemicals used to kill Varroa mites also weaken the bees, then by failing to tease apart the different contributing factors, we’ve made a vague recommendation that might have negative consequences. I’m not saying teasing these things apart is easy – experimental research on honey bee pathology is incredibly difficult, because it’s nearly impossible to get large numbers of replicates, or establish proper controls for all variables – but I still think that we should TRY to keep the different causes separate, and maybe we can some day figure out what the original CCD was.
It’s Spring! I’ve seen a few queen bumble bees out and buzzing around in my yard. Bumbles are one of the first pollinators out in the spring, and the fuzzy adorableness of their bodies does help retain heat.
(Pro Tip: From the shocked looks I’m getting, I guess not everyone stops to talk to foraging bumblebees. Huh. You may wish to learn from my fail on this one.)
Bumble bees are some of the first bees to fly in spring; they will fly in cooler temperatures and at lower light levels than many other bees. Cold, grey morning? Not a problem for a bumble! This makes them invaluable native pollinators.
Bumble bees have a slightly different life cycle than other native bees. While most native bees overwinter as pupae and emerge as adults in the spring, Bumble bee queens emerge as adults in the fall and search for overwintering sites, burrowing into leaf litter or loose soil to hide for the winter. Don’t rake your yard bare! That’s good winter shelter.
I love Rusty’s description of a queen bumble as analogous to a chicken. Because she builds her nest very early in spring when temperatures are still quite low, she incubates her eggs!
While the bumble bee queen hibernates she is neither eating nor working. Her depressed rate of metabolism allows her to live for long periods while burning very little fuel. In the spring, she must work hard. She begins by finding a suitable nesting spot. Next she builds a “honey pot” from wax and will use it to hold a small store of honey. She will also collect pollen, and make a pile of pollen mixed with honey called “bee bread.”
Here is where it gets weird. Much like a chicken, the queen bumble bee will lay her eggs on the pollen and then sit on them to keep them warm. During the development of the young bumble bees, the queen will eat the honey she stored in her pot. The first batch of young bees will be mostly workers—bees who can take over the household chores and foraging while the queen continues to lay eggs. Later in the season, she will lay some eggs that become queens and drones. These bees will be the ones that are responsible for the next generation.
This video about bumble bees has the feel of a school info film, but lots of great images of how a queen bumble bee creates her nest in the spring.
There is a handy guide to identifying your bumble at Xerces as well.
Other Bumble reads and videos:
- Thermal imaging of a queen bumble!
- Bumble bees at risk
- Want more tips to promote these gentle giants among bees? You can download a FREE guide to conserving bumble bees from Xerces!
- Tons more native bee infosheets and downloads at Xerces