Nature, Science

Viruses Trick Bees into Pollinating Infected Plants

The cucumber mosaic virus tricks bees into moving it from plant to plant.
A bee pollinates a cucumber flower. Photo: Shutterstock

Bees fly from plant to plant, taking pollen from one to another in the process. Of course, we’ve known this for a very long time, which is why we refer to them as pollinators. They also contribute greatly to about 75 percent of the crops we grow, which is why so many people are concerned about declining bee populations around the world.

It turns out that bees also move viruses from plant to plant, or at least the cucumber mosaic virus (CMV) which result in plants that have smaller, less tasty yields.

The bees are dupes in this process, though. The virus changes the chemical makeup of the volatiles, the particles that produce smells, so that the bees are more attracted to the infected plants. This works for the plants and the virus, as they both get to breed and spread. The bees don’t seem to be affected by the virus.

But, scientists think that if we can find a way to similarly trick bees by making them prefer modified crops, they might pollinate them more, which would result in larger crop yields. The trick is to not rely on the virus, but to find a way to either make the plants smell better, or get the bees to come to the plants in the first place.

Scientists have isolated the factor of the virus which reprograms the plant’s DNA, so with that information, we might be able to do the same without needing the virus. This could be a more ecologically friendly way to increase crop yields than relying on pesticides to keep out unwanted insects. In fact, plants use smell to both attract pollinators and to keep predators away, so maybe we could find a way to modify existing plants to attract more bees and fewer pests.

Environmental Hazards, Nature, Science

Honey Bee Crisis Threatens Crops, Plants, Food Supply

Honey bees arrive at a hive entrance. Bees are approaching a critical population size called the Allee Effect.
Honey bees arrive at a hive entrance. Bees are approaching a critical population size called the Allee Effect. Photo: Björn Appel | Wikimedia.

A new study on the collapse of beehive colonies proposes a new culprit: the Allee Effect. The collapse of numerous beehives around the world has led to a crisis in agriculture and other sectors. Bees are essential to the pollination of crops and other plants. Their absence would lead to critical food shortages. Scientists have become concerned about the issue.

Colony collapse disorder has been attributed to a number of factors, such as pollution, parasites, viruses, fungi, and compromised nutrition. As those factors continue to be investigated as potential causes, two researchers from Idaho have discovered another important factor: critical population size.

The hive life of bees is so intertwined that should a hive suffer a significant loss of workers the whole community collapses. The queen cannot produce enough eggs to keep the colony functioning, and there aren’t enough workers to tend the eggs find food. The result is hive collapse, where bees either die off or leave to find a new home.

That’s where the Allee Effect comes in, named for an ecologist working in the 1930s who suggested that there could come a point for any species where it reaches a critical population size.

At this size, the population is too small or too spread out to survive. Individuals cannot mate, group predators cannot hunt, and the loss of that species becomes inevitable. This is what seems to be happening to bees. When an infection or some other problem hits a hive, bees are rapidly affected and workers die, the hive drops below its critical population.

Researchers suggest that steps be taken to support beehive populations by making sure they have access to food and aren’t impacted by pesticides. Keeping bees safe from environmental threats could go a long way towards keeping their hives from collapsing.

Business, Conservation, Nature, Uncategorized

Relocating Feral Beehives May Save Our Ecosystem

Feral bees are removed from homes and transplanted to hives in order to protect the endangered bee population and local ecosystems.
Feral bees are removed from homes and transplanted to hives in order to protect the endangered bee population and local ecosystems. Photo: American Honey Bee Protection Agency.

Bees are what are known as a keystone species in many ecosystems. They help pollinate plants that wouldn’t be able to breed without their help. No bees means no flowers, means no fruit, and so on down the line.

Basically, without bees, whole ecosystems struggle or die. So, despite the fact that they can be annoying or even a danger to people, we need to keep the bees around.

And, lately, things have been difficult for bees globally. In addition to huge die offs in recent years thanks to colony collapse disorder, changing climates have resulted in smaller hives in places like Texas.

So when bees build a hive in somebody’s house or on their property and become a potential danger to people or pets, it’s important that those bees are removed but not killed. Most people would turn to an exterminator, but in parts of Texas, they have another option.

The American Honey Bee Protection Agency is a small non-profit run by Walter Schumacher, who started the group back in 2008 in order to change the world. He has five removal teams that visit homes and other locations in order to remove dangerous hives and relocate them to controlled environments, which are safer both of people and bees.

The group also works for donations, like when they removed a huge hive in Pleasant Grove, Texas for $150, where for-profit removal services might charge as much as $1,000 for the same job. They also sell honey produced by the bees they’ve relocated to help generate income.

Not only are Schumacher and company helping the bees and the people who need them removed, they’re doing valuable ecological work. Bees are essential to the ecosystems they live in, and they’re also very fragile insects. While scientists continue to study what is causing massive die offs of bees around the world, the American Honey Bee Protection Agency is on the group helping out.

Climate Change, Conservation, Eco-friendly, Environmental Hazards, Nature

Some Bees May Be Addicted to Nectar Containing Pesticides

Bees on a honeycomb
Researchers have found that bees can become addicted to nectar made with pesticides containing a nicotine-like ingredient.
Image: Shutterstock

Researchers at Newcastle University and Trinity College Dublin have discovered that at least some bee species have a preference for nectar containing pesticides. Specifically, they prefer nectar containing neonicotinoid pesticides. Bees cannot taste neonicotinoids that end up in their food and so do not avoid these pesticides like they do with some others. Unfortunately, the neonicotinoids have an effect on bee brain chemistry similar to nicotine’s affects on human brain chemistry.

Scientists found that bees preferred nectar laced with neonicotinoids, leading them to argue that the bees are, in effect, addicted to the chemicals. As with nicotine in humans, though, these chemicals have negative effects on the fitness of individual bees and on entire colonies.

Neonicotinoids have been questioned as a culprit in mass bee die-offs in recent years, and in April 2013, the EU issued a temporary ban on the use of pesticides containing neonicotinoids, pending further research. They are still in wide use in the United States, though, and if more detailed research doesn’t come out in the near future, they might end up being used in Europe again as well.

These pesticides can decrease foraging range, which can result in insufficient food for colonies, beginning a downward spiral toward colony collapse. They can also end up on plants that were not intentionally treated with such pesticides, making them an even larger part of bee diets. As bees continue to eat nectar containing these chemicals, they will continue to suffer its effects to greater degrees.

Bees and other pollinating insects are essential to the healthy reproduction of many plant species, and mass die-offs of bees can have huge ecological impact. The agricultural industry alone values such insects at around €153 billion a year globally. Beyond money, though, wildflowers and trees that cannot reproduce without the help of insects could be negatively affected, upsetting local ecosystems at a grand scale.

Conservation, Eco-friendly, Green, Nature, Sustainability

Flower Bombs for Bees

Seedle packages
Seedles offer a way to regrow the wildflower habitats that support the dwindling bee population.
Image: GrowtheRainbow.com

What began as a kind of guerrilla gardening has become a full-fledged plan to repopulate the country’s bee population.

“Guerrilla gardeners” have been known to throw balls of seeds and fertilizer into fenced-off spaces, often urban and neglected, to make things greener. Now, a California company called Grow the Rainbow is officially selling seed bombs, called Seedles, in an effort to support the dwindling bee population.

Grow the Rainbow began as a Kickstarter project and science experiment by Ei Ei Khin and Chris Burley, who wanted to find a way to spread bee-friendly wildflowers throughout their community. After raising $11,000, they decided to put up a website and offer Seedles for sale, with a goal of growing one billion wildflowers through their product.

Scientists aren’t entirely certain what’s causing the decline in bee population, but many suggest it has something to do with the loss of bees’ preferred wildflowers and habitat. Because of this Grow the Rainbow encourages customers to spread the organic, non-toxic Seedles in hopes of regrowing that habitat.

Seedles are mixed with one of six specific regional climates and growing conditions in mind. For example, the Midwest mix could include wild perennial lupine, lemon mint, and butterfly weed. Seeds are rolled in organic compost. Then a non-toxic color powder is added for fun. According to the Grow the Rainbow website, all you have to do is throw the ball on the ground—no digging necessary. In milder climates, fall is the best time to plant. For slightly cooler climates, the site recommends waiting until just after the last spring frost.

Khin and Burley hope to incorporate Seedles into the building of more sustainable food options by partnering with local food companies and raising awareness about the connection between bees and food.

A pack of 20 seedballs can be purchased on the Grow the Rainbow website for $13.00.

Environmental Hazards, Environmentalist, Wildlife & Animal Rights

Plight of the Bees

bee colony
The plight of the bees
Image: Shutterstock

I recently visited the Puyallup Fair located in Washington State and spoke with some beekeepers about the plight of the bees.  One of my fears was hearing all about colony collapse disorder where entire bee colonies abandon their hives.  I was interested to hear what the beekeepers had to say about this.  One basically attributed it to two different problems.

The first problem is pesticides on plants.  He spoke about the sweet old lady with the prize roses.  He said, “You want to know why they’re prize roses the size of basketballs?  It’s because she sprays an entire cloud of poisonous pesticides that kill off all the pests.  However, what do you think it does to the bees?  They get sick and bring that illness back to the hive, and all the other bees get sick.”  Many point the finger at Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds which are pesticide-resistant and laden with dangerous chemicals such as neonicotinoids like clothianidin.

He said the other problem we are facing is a lack of diversity for breeding queens.  An old act that was called the Honeybee Protection Act actually did the exact opposite of protecting the honeybees.  It limited the number of bees that could be imported from overseas.  The hypothesis was, if limited, they could not accidentally import other predators such as tracheal mites.  However, those invaders got here anyway.  The bees didn’t.  It just ended up limiting honeybee diversity instead.

What’s the good news in all of this?  People are taking notice.  A new piece of legislation called the Save America’s Pollinator Act, H.R. 2692 has been proposed.  This comes on the heels of 50,000 bees dying in a Target parking lot in Oregon after spraying it with pesticides. John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced the proposed nationwide ban on neonicotinoids.  If passed, it would be a big victory for the bees.

In other news, Washington State University researchers are compiling a bank of bee semen.  This comes from specially selected U.S. and European honey bee colonies and is cryogenically frozen.

Along with the creation of the bank, they will use “genetic cross-breeding methods to produce more diverse, resilient honey bee subspecies that could help thwart the nation’s current colony collapse crisis.”

There’s hope for the bees yet.