Thursday, March 12, 2009

University of Illinois scientists study, promote awareness of bees

University of Illinois scientists study, promote awareness of bees

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Few of the environmental changes now taking place have the potential to affect human existence as much as the continuing apparent decline in insects that pollinate plants, a group that includes both wild bees and domesticated honey bees.

Scientists at the University of Illinois have been busy working to understand the extent and causes of declines in bee populations to provide a foundation for acting to reverse them.

The U of I lab headed by entomologist Sydney Cameron is cooperating with Dr. Leellen Solter of the Illinois Natural History Survey and a team from the USDA Bee Biology and Systematics Laboratory in Logan, Utah in an effort to understand the extent and causes of decline in several species of North American bumble bees. According to Cameron, the U.S. is just beginning to collect the quantitative data required to determine the extent and potential causes of population decline in some of its species.

Over the past year Cameron, Solter and the Western team have compiled specimen records of more than 50,000 bumble bees from natural history museums in the west and Midwest, and they are initiating a similar effort in eastern states. [Photo by J.B. Whitfield: UI professor of entomology Sydney Cameron collecting bumble bees at Bluff Spring Fen near Elgin IL last summer.] The historical records allow them to compare current bumble bee distributions, determined from their ongoing surveys, with historical distributions established from the museum records. This effort will generate robust measures of the status of targeted species and the degree to which they have or have not declined over the last half century.

Within the next year they expect to complete their surveys of species distributions, along with extensive work on genetic diversity and pathogen prevalence across the U.S. in an effort to find out why some of our native bumble bees appear to be disappearing.

May Berenbaum, head of the U of I Department of Entomology, has been among leaders of the international effort to understand Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD. This malady, which was first recognized in Fall 2006, has caused large-scale losses of managed honey bees in Europe and North America. According to Berenbaum, although a definitive cause has not been pinpointed, investigators across the country have identified a wide range of stresses that may be contributing to losses, including extensive pesticide contamination of hives, pathogens new to the United States, and nutritional deficiencies associated with certain beekeeping practices.

Berenbaum adds that U of I investigators have recently identified a possible genetic marker for the condition, which may be a useful tool for beekeepers in reducing colony losses.

In addition to their scientific efforts, researchers at the U of I are also active in efforts to engage the public on the subject of bees and other pollinating insects.

Coming up on April 4th professor of entomology Gene Robinson and others will conduct a one-day course on bees and beekeeping. Participants in this course, whether they are beginners or advanced beekeepers, will learn about everything from bee biology to mite control, sting allergies, and queen rearing.

As spring progresses, the public will be invited to check out the newly established “Pollinatarium” on the U of I campus in Urbana, which is billed as “the first free-standing science center in the nation devoted to flowering plants and their pollinators.”

People are also invited to join the “Bee Spotter Network” a Web-based effort through which individuals are helping scientists establish baseline information about the numbers of bumble bees and wild honey bees in Illinois.

More information about all three of these efforts is available through the University of Illinois’ Department of Entomology Web site at