Thursday, November 01, 2007

Honey bees and other pollinators in trouble

Honey bees and other pollinators in trouble

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When entomologists want to dramatize the critical role that bees and other pollinators play in our lives, they sometimes turn to descriptions that could provide the opening for an episode of The Twilight Zone.

Picture if you will a world without bees. It is a world without apples, almonds, blueberries, cranberries, kiwis, melons, or squash--a world without scores of other fruit, vegetable and nut crops. It is a world where important forage crops like alfalfa don’t grow. Worst of all, for some, it is a world without chocolate or coffee.

The thing is, this nightmare scenario really isn’t so far fetched.

You may already know that times have been tough for honey bees since the 1980s. That’s when a parasitic mite that devastates honey bee colonies was accidentally introduced to the U.S.

You may also know that this past year has marked a dramatic turn for the worse. Beginning last winter, a phenomenon that came to be called “Colony Collapse Disorder,” or CCD, has led to steep losses of managed bees in more than 20 states. About one fourth of all beekeepers in the U.S. have been affected and, on average, affected operations have lost a staggering 45% of their bees.

Researchers have recently isolated a virus they think may lead to CCD by sorting through the genetic material of bees from afflicted colonies and comparing it to that of bees from healthy colonies. It may interest you to know that this genetic detective work was made possible by the sequencing of the honey bee genome, a huge accomplishment which was completed just last year and spearheaded by University of Illinois professor Gene Robinson.

Identifying the virus at the root of CCD does not mean a treatment for the disorder is around the corner, and continued losses of honey bees seem likely.

The large-scale loss of managed honey bees is cause enough for alarm on its own. Unfortunately, scientists believe the decline of managed honey bees is being matched by a decline in wild pollinators around the world. Chief among these are wild honey bees and bumble bees. But other wild pollinators in decline include many insects, such as butterflies and moths, as well as some hummingbirds, bats, and other animals.

A 2006 report on the status of pollinators in the U.S. issued by the National Academy of Sciences [report in brief] and headed by University of Illinois professor May Berenbaum emphasized that good information about populations of wild pollinators simply doesn’t exist, so it is difficult to even track declines.

Politicians may be waking up to this issue, as evidenced by the establishment of “National Pollinator Week” back in June. Ordinary citizens have a role to play as well. First, we can modify our gardening practices to eliminate any unnecessary use of pesticides, and favor the use of native wildflowers in our landscaping. Second, people who wish to be even more involved can join the Bee Spotter network just established at the U of I. The Bee Spotter network is designed to engage citizens in the scientific effort to establish baseline information about the numbers of bumble bees and wild honey bees that are out there.

Since most bees in central Illinois won’t be active again for some months, let me encourage you just to check out the Bee Spotter web site at Then as the weather warms up and bees become active next spring I’ll revisit this issue with more detail on what we all can do to help keep bees buzzing.