October 10, 2014
A lot can happen in five minutes. I can set my timer and stare into the big face of a sunflower, on the alert for pollinators. I can count the pollinators. I can try to identify them. Was that a sweat bee? A polyester bee? Maybe even a bumblebee, but probably not a honeybee. I can watch pollen-heavy bees fly away, and when my timer rings I can log my data with the Great Sunflower Project.
I joined the Great Sunflower Project a few years ago. It’s a virtual community of gardeners, beekeepers, and amateurs like me who sign up to track pollinator visits to their sunflowers and submit the data online. This spring, the project asked that all participants use only one cultivar of sunflower (Helianthus annuus) for the experiment: the Lemon Queen. I enlisted my eight-year-old garden helper to help with the planting, and by summer we had a crop of Lemon Queens in the front yard, all facing south, bent over with their own weight.
The Project website promises that the records are being converted into valuable datasets about how our pollinators are doing across the U.S. Of course, there’s a lot of selection bias in a survey like this—it’s a volunteer study, so some regions will be over-represented while others are under-represented. (If nothing else, the project will tell us which states have residents who are enthusiastic about doing a project like this.) That said, counting bees as they practically stumble away from the flower, weighed down by the pollen that they’re bringing home to babies, is a good way to pass the time. (Pollen is for babies; nectar is for drinking.) So far, the project has published state averages for reported pollinator sightings. Maryland’s hourly average is 10.3 bees per hour per sunflower.* My own counts range from about 20 to 50 bees per hour per Queen. Clearly, my garden has the good stuff.
One of the things I like about this project is that it gets people to pay attention to the much-neglected populations of wild, native bees. The media reports regularly on colony collapse disorder (CCD), the troubling and mystifying decline of honeybee populations since 2006 that some have dubbed “The Beepocalypse.” Honeybees are domesticated pollinators, non-native to North America, brought here in the 1600s to pollinate our crops. For 400 years, genus Apis has been working very hard to feed us, and bee-people like to say that bees are responsible for every third bite of food.
Since 2006, researchers have been theorizing about the cause of CCD and it often seems that a class of pesticides known as neonicitinoids are the favored culprit. But there’s no real agreement on any of it. (**Read more about CCD below.)
But there’s a world of pollinators beyond the domesticated honeybee. These native species include the bumblebee, genus Bombus, many kinds of sweat bees, Lasioglossum and Halictus, and thousands of other bee species, as well as butterflies and birds. Their numbers are declining right along with the honeybee population. (The monarch, in particular, is imperiled, with a 90 percent decline in the last 20 years).
In June, President Barack Obama issued a presidential memorandum urging a federal strategy to protect our pollinators, and it includes not just honeybees, but native pollinators such as butterflies, native bees, birds and bats. Here’s what the memo says about natives: “The loss of native bees, which also play a key role in pollination of crops, is much less studied, but many native bee species are believed to be in decline. Scientists believe that bee losses are likely caused by a combination of stressors, including poor bee nutrition, loss of forage lands, parasites, pathogens, lack of genetic diversity, and exposure to pesticides.”
In February of this year a study published in Nature found that the UK’s wild bumblebee population is just as plagued as the honeybee population, and that they’re disappearing at a similar rate. And this month a story in Science argues that the decline in wild pollinators will have an especially devastating effect in resource-poor parts of the world: in those vulnerable parts, the most nutrient-rich foods depend on pollination.
The domesticated honeybee population may pull through, as this TIME magazine story suggests, thanks to heroic and costly measures taken by beekeepers. It’s the wild bees that won’t fare so well. Thousands of species of native pollinators are suffering already. From the story: “Bumblebees have experienced recent and rapid population loss in the U.S., punctuated by a mass pesticide poisoning in Oregon … that led to the deaths of some 50,000 bumblebees.”
For now, the honeybees are getting most of the attention. I’ll keep my eyes on the neglected natives and plant milkweed and Lemon Queens and whatever else the wild ones might like. At the Great Sunflower Project, they sign their emails “Bee well.” Let’s hope so.
*The Great Sunflower Project also has maps showing the use of four types of neonicitinoids across the U.S., and it links to the USGS maps that track the use of about 500 pesticides. The Project still doesn’t have enough data to draw conclusions about the effects of all the different neonicitonoids, but they say they’re picking up the signal of pesticide use and can show that the bees per hour in backyards that are near areas where there is a lot of spraying of neonictinoid pesticides are much lower than areas where there is little neonictinoid use.
More on Honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder
**Theories about the cause of CCD abound. Possible causes include pesticides, parasites and disease (including tracheal mites, foulbrood bacterial infection, Nosema fungus, Israel Acute Paralysis Virus, and Varroa mites), and loss of habitat (prairies and wetlands). Some say the cause is stress—from environmental changes, from malnutrition, or from genetically modified organisms that they feed on. Others suggest that the culprit is a dastardly practice of feeding honeybees high fructose corn syrup instead of their own honey. And then there’s this latest harsh winter, here in the U.S. and in the UK, that may have killed off one-third of the honeybee population in Scotland and even more in the Midwest.
As people started to worry more about CCD, “Beepocalypse” became a more commonplace term. Concerns about food supply, especially almonds, and food prices have been increasing over several years. Estimates about expected losses to important crops make the news regularly. Two years ago, this website, “Rapture is Imminent,” included CCD as a contributor to the end times, which the site says are nigh, and declared pesticides the cause.
End-timers are hardly the only ones focusing on pesticides as the cause. The class of pesticides getting the most attention is the neonicotinoids, which have been banned in the EU in an attempt to halt CCD. This Bloomberg News story from May 2014 addresses the role of neonicotinoids on colony collapse disorder. While there’s still no absolute proof, it seems likely that pesticides have some role as the final straw as honeybees do battle against mites, foulbrood bacterial infection, fungi and.
Some reports indicate that honeybees are dying at such a high rate that they will not be able to survive long-term. This spring, there was a morsel of good news (although it’s still bad news overall); the rates of decline seem to be decreasing slightly, and no one knows why. As one entomologist in this story is quoted saying, “We’ve gone from horrible to bad.” Representative Earl Blumenauer (D–Oregon) has introduced a bill to ban neonicotinoids, HR 2692, The Save American Pollinators bill. Here’s the May 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and here’s a news release on that “unsustainable decline.”
In the EU, where the use of neonicitinoids has been banned, there’s backlash. Here’s an interesting story from The Guardian about one of the effects of the EU ban: farmers of rapeseed are saying that their plants have been plagued with flea beetles, and some farmers report a 30 percent decline in harvest.