Western honeybee, Apis mellifera.
Image: William Connolley.
When I was in graduate school, I nearly decided to study social bees for my dissertation work, but in the end, I decided to pursue my greatest passion, birds. However, despite this, bees have long been a favorite animal of mine, and if I had my own place to live, I would be keeping social and semi-social bees of various species, particularly native species.
But it looks like the nation's bees are not doing very well: something is killing them. The domesticated western honeybee, which does much of the pollintation of crops, has been dying out mysteriously, as have native bee species.
Honeybees are not natives. The country already had about 3,500 species of pollinating bees before Europeans brought honeybees in the 1600s. But because honeybees produce honey and can be managed so easily, they have become a mainstay of U.S. agriculture.
Honeybees pollinate more than $15 billion worth of U.S. crops, including fruits such as apples, and nuts such as almonds. Grass crops, such as corn and wheat, are pollinated by the wind, but most need bees.
Unfortunately, the previous 20 years have been characterized by plenty of honeybee woes, including two mites that kill them and a predatory beetle that attacked the honeycombs of weak or dead colonies.
As workers open the hives to check them, "the picture's not so good," said Jeffrey S. Pettis, a leader in bee research at a U.S. Department of Agriculture lab in Beltsville, Md.
Pettis said bees often had some winter loss, but this level of death was unprecedented.
"Every day, you hear of another operator [losing their bees]," said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, acting state apiarist with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. "It's just causing so much death so quickly that it's startling."
There are several diseases that could be responsible for the deaths; the varroa mite has long caused problems for beekeepers by weakening the bee's immune system might have allowed a new virus or fungus to take hold. Another problem could be pesticides, which bees are especially sensitive to.
"Part of the problem is that today we develop these big monocultures of corn or peas or cabbage," said Maryann Frazier, an apiculture (beekeeping) expert at Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences. "They wipe out the diversity of nectar sources and reduce nesting sites for wild bees. And we use, unfortunately, a lot of pesticides to keep the insects we don't want from eating these crops, which also works to eliminate the pollinators."
Large beekeepers are paid to bring their bees into an orchard or fields on tractor-trailers to ensure that the blooming crops are pollinated. They drive their bees from the southern USA to the north, stopping at each destination for several weeks. Research suggests that the stress of moving bees long distances could be a factor in the die-offs, but smaller beekeepers with stationary hives worry the problem will extend to their colonies as well.
No one knows what will happen to the bees this year.
"Are we going to see this same thing, this collapsing disorder, in these bees? We don't know," Frazier said. "It's very possible this may extend to our nonmigratory population. We just won't know until spring."
Agricultural production depending on chemical warfare with herbivorous insects was due for some payback. No farmer can use native bees, wasps and flies for pollination services who sprays pesticides through the growing season. Those farmers are also likely negligent in preserving any habitat for native pollinators to nest and reproduce. How sad that farmers and orchardmen have become so dependent on insecticides that they have to wedge in pollination from hired bees during a brief respite in their war against the natural world. I would advise anyone who can to garden some native wildflowers and then watch how quick and efficient local bees, wasps and flies can be in cross-pollination. I have watched leaf-cutter bees sprint around the composite flowers of Gaillardias (a daisy-like wildflower) while taking nectar and gathering pollen on their hairy abdomens. A European honeybee looks postively slothful in comparison. Even very tiny pollinating insects waste no time in moving from flower to flower. In the Houston springtime my nectar garden also serves as a pickup joint for solitary bees, where they consummate their brief romances on top of larger composite flowers. It actually generates easily-audible noise as chitinous bodies couple on the blossoms. The problems with domesticated bees are, I suspect, proximately caused by Monsanto-style agricultural practices and the maintenance of a monoculture of agricultural crops highly vulnerable to a runaway population of pests, the latter reinforcing the former. It's time ot bring back the native pollinators.
Our family has Orchard Mason bees and domestic bees (if Carniolans can be called domestic, hee hee! some races of domestic bees are pretty cranky)...but we also are quite proud of our various other native bee species. Leaf cutter and carpenter bees, several kinds of bumblebees etc.
My dad told me about once when he was working in the small forest on his property that a lot of very tiny little bees flew out of an old stump and stung him - little tiny stings, but they definitely meant business. He thought they might have been green in color.
Once when sitting in a meadow, I noticed a small, blue-black bee going under the moss on the ground. I believe she had a nest there (I did not pull up the moss to see).
Grrlscientist, I would like to learn more about the native bees of PNW, specifically Western Washington, including bumblebees, solitary bees and possibly learn what the teeny bees and the mossy bees are....can you recommend a resource?
While on one my weekly bird counts last Friday I found what I suspect is an active wild honeybee hive. Many bees coming and going from a hole in an oak tree on the south edge of a greenspace bordering Lake Washington in Seattle. I was able to see individual bees via binocs as they flew in and out of the hole. Very honeybee like, though I admit my bee ID skills are minimal. The returning bees laden with pollen. Some of the wild hazlenut catkins are producing pollen right now. Not sure what else. I'll keep watching.
News reports have me concerned about the fate of the honey bee -- so unappreciated by so many. Hopefully the work of Walter Rothenbuhler at Ohio State University is continuing, as he took that turn to bees which you describe led you to birds -- an important place for each of you.
The University of Arizona has a serious program studying native bees. Dr. Stephen Buchman, co-author of THE FORGOTTEN POLLINATORS (you should order the book) has various publications and other information on the Internet. If you do a search on native bees, you will see a lot of material. Also read BUMBLEBEE ECONOMICS, a substantive and clever book on native bumblebees.