To Bee or Not To Bee. Wait, What?
Spring has sprung across the Northern Hemisphere, but it doesn’t necessarily seem so in some parts of the U.S. While the West is experiencing hotter than average temperatures, with triple digits already reached in Arizona during the early days of May, much of the Plains, Midwest and East are colder than normal for bees.
In spite of the weather, blooms are beginning to bud, and farmers are planting their crops. Bees awaken from hibernation, emerge from huddled masses in hives or are birthed during the spring thaw, and they all need food in abundance. Bee survival hinges on food availability, healthy colonies and successful reproduction.
We rely on bees to pollinate approximately 35% of our global agricultural land and around 75% of our total food crops. Pollination is required for the survival of 90% of earth’s wildflowers; thus, ecosystem health and biodiversity depend on bees too.
The threats to bees aren’t news, but this year’s weather, along with other new discoveries and developments, have implications for the outlook for bees in the coming year. The new normal for climate chaos is creating weather patterns that could impact the availability of pollinating plants, while Trump has given approval for continued use of neonicotinoid insecticides, or “neonics” for short, and a virus has been killing bees in large numbers.
It isn’t all bad news for bees, though, as scientists have discovered an adaptive behavior that helps bees access pollen, and a rare species thought to be extinct has been spotted.
“Weather” or Not Bees Thrive
The colder temperatures seen across large swaths of the country can be blamed on warmer temperatures in the Arctic that lead to the breaking up of the spring polar vortex. This allows for some of that cold air to escape the northern latitudes, making its way south to the U.S. This is a new trend that won’t likely go away anytime soon, as climate chaos continues.
In addition to warmer than average temperatures in the West, persistent drought exists in many of the same areas. NOAA reported drought conditions in 14.8% of the contiguous U.S., and April’s precipitation totals did not improve the situation. On the other extreme, higher than normal precipitation totals were seen in April in the Southeast and in other smaller pockets.
These types of weather patterns have an impact on flowering plants, potentially affecting when and how many will bloom this year. The world’s bees are struggling for a number of reasons, and the unpredictable weather patterns that climate change causes do nothing to improve their situation. There is some interesting news, however, in regard to the resilience and tenacity of honeybees.
Scientists have discovered a behavior in bumblebees that is helping them gain access to pollen that is not readily available when they need it. Land cover change, resulting in habitat loss, and climate change conspire to reduce the number of pollinating plants. When bumblebees awaken early from hibernation, they begin looking for flowering plants to gather pollen. Not enough pollen spells trouble for bees.
It turns out that some clever species engage in a behavior that provides them with access to pollen more quickly than waiting around for the bloom or going further afield to hunt for plants that have already opened. These bees take a bite out of their problem. Damaging a plant that has yet to produce flowers induces it to bloom more quickly. Bumblebees are nibbling on plants to encourage quick blossoming, sometimes up to a month sooner than the plants would have opened left to their own devices.
Findings reported in Science indicate that the original discovery came about during laboratory experiments on plants and pollinators. Interestingly, the scientists attempted to replicate the bee behavior, but they were not as successful in producing the same responses in plants as were the bees. This is likely indicative of an additional factor involved in the bee bites, such as a chemical component in saliva, that was not reproduced by the scientists.
Subsequent studies found the same behavior in more than one bee species in the wild, meaning this activity occurs naturally and was not just a consequence of lab conditions. There is still much to be learned about this behavior, such as whether it is more widespread, what causes the early flowering when bees bite and which plants are more likely targets of this behavior.
Even so, the discovery offers a glimmer of hope. Perhaps their adaptive capacity is greater than we realize, providing the world’s bees some resiliency in the face of climate change. We should not look at the discovery as a miracle for pollinators. They still need us to alter our own behaviors, but maybe there is the reason for a little optimism in the possibility that the intelligence demonstrated in this particular bee activity might buy them more time for us to do our part.
Spring is planting season for farmers, and a majority of them rely on a concoction of chemicals to ensure their crops grow quickly and remain unharmed by weeds and insects. The problem is that the safety of the current arsenal used in the U.S. is questionable. For people, the environment, and the bees. In America, that fact has not stopped the use of neonicotinoid insecticides in agriculture and other uses.
Neonics have been in wide use globally for approximately 10 years. The insecticide is used on agricultural crops. As well as on ornamental landscaping plants. In spite of the proven toxicity of the chemicals to mammals, vertebrates, and invertebrates. Even when treatment occurs long before a plant’s flowering. The plant absorbs the chemical into its system.
As such, the chemicals are present in pollen and nectar and are consumed by foraging bees. Neonics that find their way into the soil are then absorbed by plants in future crops for up to several years. The impacts on bumble, honey, and solitary bees are cause for concern.
Four types of neonicotinoid insecticides are highly toxic to bumblebees. When they ingest plants containing neonics, fertility rates, food consumption, and foraging activity are all impacted. Worker bee and colony survival decline, even when the chemicals are consumed at sublethal levels.
Honeybees are likewise highly vulnerable to toxicity from the consumption or contact of plants containing the same four insecticides. This results in issues with navigation, learning, and the ability to taste. It results in leading to decreased productivity for the hive. There are lethal impacts for larvae exposed to the toxins as well. Larvae survival rates decline, and those that do pupate end up with olfactory issues as adults.
The impacts for several species of solitary bees are equally detrimental. Mortality rates increase for alkali and alfalfa leafcutters who forage on alfalfa plants that contain a dusting of neonics. The reproductive success of the red mason bee declines. And the maturity rates for the larvae of the blue orchard bee are slowed.
The tendency for these chemicals to persist for years in the environment will only compound the issues from annual applications. The EU has banned the use of neonics. The EPA acknowledges the high degree of risk in the use of insecticides. But Trump gave the go-ahead to continue use, with few restrictions, earlier this year.
Should the substance be banned here, as, in the EU, it would still take several years before it would cease to pose a threat to bees.
As if the threat from neonics isn’t enough, honeybees have another worry. They are experiencing a pandemic of their own. There is a virus that is killing off bees in large numbers. The virus, known as the chronic bee paralysis virus (CBPV). It causes trembling and an inability to fly prior to death about a week. After showing symptoms and can lead to colony collapse. The virus itself is not new to bees, but, up until recently, it had been relatively rare.
The recent wide-spread infections are seen more frequently in apiary bees than in wild bees. It is especially prevalent in colonies where professional beekeepers import queen bees to replenish hives. This is likely due at least in part to the difference in hive size between industrial operations and small-scale apiaries or wild beehives. With larger hives comes more bees and increased contact between bees.
Another potential cause for the rapid spread of the CBPV is through the global trade of bees. Bees are being carted around the world to different pollinating “jobs,” and queen bees are traded for restocking hives. With so much movement, the virus’s reach can quickly go far, just as we’ve seen with our own pandemic. Bees with the virus are also contagious for six days prior to showing symptoms. Which can lead to the spread among and between colonies.
With so many species of bees in peril and warnings of continued threats. It’s always nice to get some good bee news. The blue Calamintha bee is a rare species of bee previously found only in four areas in Central Florida. Scientists feared that the species had gone extinct, as the last sighting was four years ago. That is, until recently.
A researcher discovered a single bee while hanging a bee condo in Florida. Since that initial discovery, the bee species have been spotted in seven new locations. Where it had not been previously known to exist. This is providing scientists the opportunity to study the species’ unique foraging behaviors and find potential methods to increase conservation potential for the bee. Which is listed as one of Florida’s species of greatest conservation need.
Bees are big news for our world. Ecosystem and human health depend on the health of bee populations, along with other pollinators like butterflies and bats. Earth’s bees face threats from climate change, disappearing habitats, chemical toxins, and diseases, but there is evidence in a newly documented behavior and a reappearing tenacious species proving that bees are more resilient than we previously knew.