Archive for the ‘pollinators’ Category

Honeybee health: Driving problem is not climate or pesticides but the deadly Varroa mite

Hank Campbell | March 14, 2023

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Credit: Gilles San Martin via CC-BY-SA-2.0
Credit: Gilles San Martin via CC-BY-SA-2.0

Some food grown in the US, especially high-cost luxuries like almonds, are pollinated using bees. Since bees are most often rented and transported for such purposes, keeping them alive is important to owners and growers. As their value for higher-cost foods has grown, so have bee numbers; they are up 85 percent in the last 60 years. You would just never know it if your source is Greenpeace, so when you use verbiage identical to Greenpeace press releases in an academic paper press release your work is going to be suspect. And that is a paper on bee deaths we’ll discuss today.

No matter how much effort is put into prevention, bees die. A lot. Some years more than others, and when that happens environmentalists promote campaigns against weedkillers and other agricultural tools, but the number one killer of bees is not climate change or land use, it is parasites. Bees live in a small enclosed space and diseases can devastate them in a short amount of time. The only way to prevent losses of 50 percent or more is with modern medicine against pests like varroa mites and others. Parasites are all three of the top three reasons bees die of external causes.

There are other factors, severe weather will cause more deaths, and for the few bee species that can be estimated (7 out of approximately 25,000 – that’s right, we don’t even know how many bee species exist) land use changes can be implicated. If someone tries hard enough, they can even find a way to “correlate’ farming to dead bees.

That is not the goal of a recent paper, but they use flawed ‘false equivalence’ to enable that, by acknowledging mites but then putting farming and weather events right next to them. I like bees, I want them to stick around, but no one is helped if pesticides are given false equivalence with the pests they kill in bee deaths.

Farming is a non-existent peril for bees outside the statistical noise range but even weather events are not worth mentioning beyond creating an average. Yes, hurricanes sometimes happen but listing those alongside the top killer is a way to boost their credibility the same way as if a journalist talks to an expert on climate change and then drops in a denier for ‘balance.’

Credit: Overturf et. al.

if they invoke global warming, hurricanes, and pesticides in their false equivalence with mites, how do I argue they may be going after farming? The authors use pleas for action by Greenpeace that have no evidence basis – a manufactured claim that one third of the world’s food, 100 crops, etc. need bees or we are doomed. It was entirely made up. USDA knows it, scientists know it, everyone who reads Google outside the first 20 results knows it. But the authors ignore USDA data showing pollinators are only involved in about $15 billion of food and instead blindly repeat the Greenpeace claim that it is 1,000% greater.

Here is the science truth. The 12 crops that provide 90 percent of our food are not pollinated by bees. Some are wind pollinated, some are self-pollinated or propagate asexually or parthenocarpically – they don’t need fertilization. Not by bees or the tens of thousands of flying insects that would take their place if that one species of bees disappeared tomorrow.

Only 13 crops need bees. Will the food system collapse without…almonds? You are literate to know science does not matter in press releases, but press releases matter to journalists, and therefore the public.

The authors seem to believe 40 percent losses are alarming. The science community certainly don’t. Especially not since periodic die-offs much greater than that have literally been noted for as long as records of bees have been kept.

Bees are not vital pollinators for 100 vital crops or even 10 percent of food. They are not even declining. We have to look at their methodology a lot more critically when they make breezy statements that a USA Today fact checker would have asked them to cite.

Greenpeace did not invent that business about 100 crops from nothing, it was an unsubstantiated claim in a 1976 Pollinator Handbook, but everyone knows better by now, but that is no excuse. The general rule on old literature is that if you don’t accept claims that a low-fat diet will make you lose weight, also believed in 1976, don’t accept claims on other things because it matches your bias.

Back to the paper. The authors used survey claims of losses by beekeepers – unfortunately that is the best we can do – and combined those with publicly available data on land use, weather, and farming, and rightly agree that mites are a problem but strangely declare that pesticides and climate change are also big culprits.

Yet the data don’t show it.

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How they seem to show it is statistical manipulation but don’t let that part alarm you. Statistical ‘manipulation’ and even ‘trick’ does not carry the colloquial negative connotation those terms have in culture. If you have data created using different methods you have to make them relevant to each other. There is no meta-analysis without manipulation so it’s important. Shedding light on arcane parts of data is a positive force in statistics, but if someone is averaging and upscaling to show a result they perhaps wanted to show it is more like data dredging or HARK-ing; Hypothesis After Results Known. A real no-no.

Credit: Sketchplanations.com

I am not sure how to feel about their data period. Mostly, why? USDA has been surveying beekeepers since 1986 but this analysis only goes back to 2015. Using recent results may be causing sampling bias. They included a hurricane event – since bees only live a few weeks why a hurricane should he included to implicate weather in a long-term decline is unknown – and they touch on culture and accept they have no way to know how competent beekeepers are, but still wave it away in their press kit.

That cultural confounder, which finer resolution upscaling can’t help with, is that beekeeping became a fad.

Since the surge of Greenpeace claims that bees are keeling over en masse, there has been a surge in amateur beekeeping. Which has meant a surge in bee deaths by amateur beekeepers who buy into ‘power of nature’ mythology that they can just put up a hive and Gaia’s supernatural abilities will kick in. Which is completely false. With a surge in amateur beekeeping there has also been a surge in deaths due to overuse of needed chemicals to cure diseases – and deaths due to not using chemicals at all. Are new beekeepers going to blame their own incompetence? I have no idea, but if an aggressive statistician looks at a map and sees a farm near where a bunch of bees died, it is easy to correlate the farm to the deaths rather than nature or even misuse of chemicals by a beekeeper. It is also the completely wrong conclusion but it can be gained with statistical significance. Upscaling and statistical tricks magnify incomplete national data in that instance, while a neutral examination would catch that bees dying from truck accidents on the way to an almond farm did not die due to pesticides used by the farmers at the almond farm even though a statistician can claim they are ‘linked’ because of geography, especially if the resolution is only by state.

Statistics can link anything to anything, that is why their claims are only exploratory. In the real world, science and evidence is what matters. Evidence shows that bees are not in decline, our food supply is not at risk, and the top killer by far is mites, with other pests way behind, and chemicals that are not misused are down in the statistical noise area.

Credit: Giuliade via CC-BY-SA-4.0

As an observational paper, this is fine, even their press release concedes that ‘other’ is a large killer compared to things like pesticides. They know they are working with limited data, much of it is subjective and changes from year to year, and they need to make a lot of assumptions to try and get it all similar enough to make sense. But for 13 years prior to COVID-19 we warned about the problems of statisticians and epidemiologists and even some biologists creating ‘red meat’ papers for anti-science activists, because it could cause real harm (and did) when it came to vaccines and trust in our food supply.

Expect to see this paper trotted out in the same way. It is not going to be compelling to the science community but for Pesticide Action Network and others, it is pure honey.

Hank Campbell founded Science 2.0 in 2006, and writes for USA Today, Wall Street Journal, CNN, and more. His first book, Science Left Behind, was the #1 bestseller on Amazon for environmental policy books. Follow Hank on Twitter @HankCampbell

A version of this article was posted at Science 2.0 and is used here with permission. Any reposts of this article should credit the original author and provide links to both the GLP and the original article.Check out Science 2.0 on Twitter @science2_0

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Evidence for Biodiversity Insurance Hypothesis: More Species Are Indeed Beneficial


As part of a study on the diversity of wild bee species involved in pollinating fruit crops over multi-year periods, a group of researchers mapped the timing of peak abundance for each species. One of the more than six dozen species of wild bees to visit eastern watermelon fields was Agapostemon texanus, sometimes known as the Texas sweat bee (male shown here). (Photo by Thomas Langhans via Flickr, republished with permission)

By Leslie Mertz, Ph.D.

Leslie Mertz, Ph.D.

Greater biodiversity yields greater ecosystem resilience. Despite the overwhelming acceptance of this concept, called the “insurance hypothesis,” validation for it has been sparse. A detailed study of wild bee species in fruit crops, however, has provided clear data showing that diversity in these vital pollinators is necessary for consistent flower cross-fertilization over multiple years.

“It’s a little surprising to me: This is one of the more talked-about ideas dealing with sustainability, biodiversity, and ecology,” says Rachael Winfree, Ph.D., professor of ecology, evolution and natural resources at Rutgers University. “But people haven’t really tested it empirically all that often—actually collected the data to see how it plays out—and that is exactly what this paper did.”

Winfree is a co-author of the study, published in August 2022 in Nature Ecology & Evolution. It tracked which wild bee species were doing the pollinating in two common fruit crops and found that species not only rotated during a single season but also varied from year to year.

closeup image of face of a Habropoda laboriosa bee. face, eyes, and legs below are near black, while thorax in background is blonde in color. bee is photographed in front of an all-black background.
closeup side view of a bee with rusty brown eyes and legs and yellow-and-black striped thorax and abdomen. photographed against an all-black background. at the rear end of the bee, two narrow bristled appendages extend backward, below the stinger. as the USGS Been Inventory and Monitoring Lab caption on Flickr notes: "What are those? No one seems to know but all the Triepeolus have modified their sixth sternite in this way."

“This is actually evidence that, yes, biodiversity really does matter. You do see fluctuations from year to year, so diversity does provide insurance for the pollination services the bees provide,” says Natalie Lemanski, Ph.D., who conducted the analytics side of the research as part of Winfree’s group and was the study’s lead author. Lemanski is now assistant professor of biology at Ramapo College of New Jersey.

For the study, the researchers identified which wild bee species were visiting blossoms over a three-year span on 16 blueberry farms in the eastern U.S. and 36 watermelon farms in the western U.S. as well as over a six-year span on 25 watermelon farms in the eastern U.S. That involved a great deal of meticulous identification work, but they took it one step further. They also wanted to know how much pollination each species was supplying, so they collected individual bees, allowed each to pollinate a virgin flower, and then counted the number of pollen grains deposited.

“So, if a single bee of this species deposits five pollen grains on average, then we can multiply that by how many visits this species is making in a given time period and use that to estimate the amount of pollen being delivered by a species in the field,” Lemanski says.

“That was quite time-consuming work to do and probably a big part of why we don’t have more of these types of longer-term datasets,” she says. “But, if you don’t look over the long term, you might be missing the fact that different bees might be important in different years or even in different parts of one year.”

The three- and six-year datasets provided a clear picture of the changeover in wild-bee pollinators. On the blueberry farms, the number of species needed to maintain a threshold level of pollination was 47 percent  higher over a three-year span versus a single year. On watermelon farms, the number of needed species was 62 percent higher over three years versus one year, and 219 percent over a six-year span versus a single year. Lemanski speculates that longer-span datasets would likely reveal that even more species engage in pollination.

Portrait photo of Natalie Lemanski, Ph.D.
Rachael Winfree, Ph.D., and Neal Williams, Ph.D., kneel in front of a wire fence in a grassy field on a sunny day. in front of Williams, at right, is a potted plant with small purple flowers.

Although the study didn’t investigate the specific causes of species variability, many things can account for differences over a season or over years, and that includes climate change. “Climate change can make a difference in a variety of ways. One way is just through more extreme weather events that may favor certain species over others,” Winfree says. “Whenever the environment you’re living in gets more variable, it tends to be the case that you benefit from having a lot of different species, because chances are you’ll have some that are okay with the current environment, and some that aren’t.”

This study underlines why detailed, multi-year studies, as well as careful analytics, are critical to understanding ecosystem function, Lemanski says: “Going out into the field in your cargo shorts and boots is an important part of ecology, but finding patterns in data is also a huge part of ecology work, and looking at the data over years and in new ways can give you new insights. Absolutely.”

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Greater bee diversity is needed to maintain crop pollination over time

Nature Ecology & Evolution

Leslie Mertz, Ph.D., writes about science and runs an educational insect-identification website, www.knowyourinsects.org. She resides in northern Michigan.

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Honeybee self-medication

Caroline Ash

Plants generate a range of toxic metabolites, many of which are intended to deter insect pests. Pollinators are also exposed to these so-called xenobiotic compounds in nectar and pollen. Some of these chemicals can confer benefits to pollinators against pathogens, but it is a question of getting the dose right. Compared with other insects, bees lack the genetic capacity to fully metabolize xenobiotics, so Motta et al. investigated whether the bee microbiome could supply the missing functions. Honeybees feeding on almond blossom ingest the cyanogenic glycoside amygdalin when foraging. The authors found that microbiota-depleted bees metabolized amygdalin to the more toxic prunasin, which accumulated in the insect’s gut. Bees with a full complement of gut microbiota, including one called Bifidobacterium wkB204, can fully degrade amygdalin by means of a glycoside hydrolase 3. Host and microbiota thus join forces to maintain levels of a potential toxin at tolerable levels to ward off parasites.

eLife 11, e82595 (2022).

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Europe Launches Initiative to Save PollinatorsThe newly-proposed strategy aims at stopping the decline in pollinators by creating a ban on some pesticides and passing new agricultural measures.
By Paolo DeAndreisFeb. 4, 2023 18:04 UTC

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European regulators have launched a new initiative that will update E.U. strategies to halt the steady decline of pollinator insects.According to the European Commission, bees, butterflies and hoverflies are among the most quickly-disappearing insects on the continent.Introducing its new initiative, A new deal for pollinators,” the E.U. governing body acknowledged the growing number of European citizens and associations warning against the loss of pollinators and asking for decisive action.”

See Also:Report: Mediterranean Agricultural Biodiversity at Risk

The new proposal’s main goal is to reverse pollinators’ decline by the year 2030.The initiative builds on three main pillars. The first will focus on the conservation of pollinator species, the identification of their habitats and the establishment of ecological corridors for pollinators.

Pollinatorbriefs-world-europe-launches-initiative-to-save-pollinators-olive-oil-timesA pollinator is an organism that helps in the transfer of pollen from the male parts of a flower to the female parts, facilitating fertilization and reproduction in plants. Some common examples of pollinators include bees, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, and bats.

The second pillar will aim at restoring degraded habitats and boosting pollinator-friendly farming through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This E.U. multi-year strategy manages funds and compensates farmers who meet certain environmental standards.The third pillar will focus on mitigating pesticide’s impact on pollinators. The Commission provided examples of how to implement this pillar, such as creating legal requirements to use integrated pest management strategies in European farming operations.Other actions might address additional test methods for determining the toxicity of pesticides for pollinators, including sub-lethal and chronic effects.”The Commission explicitly cited its recent proposal for the sustainable use of pesticides. That proposed regulation would drastically reduce the use of pesticides in the European Union. According to the Commission, its implementation is crucial to restoring pollinator-friendly farmland.On top of this, the E.U. Commission noted that the new initiative would also aim at restoring habitats for pollinators within cities.More generically, the new initiative will aim at tackling the impact on pollinators of climate change, invasive alien species and other threats such as biocides or light pollution.”To assess the pollinator decline and investigate its causes and consequences, the Commission noted that the proposed initiative paves the way for more research and novel monitoring systems capable of improving loss assessment and habitat mapping.The decline of pollinators poses a threat to both human well-being and nature. The loss of pollinators undermines long-term agricultural productivity, further exacerbating a trend influenced by other factors, notably the current geopolitical situation with Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine,” the Commission noted.Introducing the new initiative, the Commission emphasized that four of five European crops depend on pollinators. Its contribution to the E.U.’s agricultural output is estimated to be at least €5 billion per year,” the Commission wrote.Most of the essential benefits that pollinators provide remain unquantified, such as their contribution to nutrition security and health, or to maintaining ecosystem health and resilience by pollinating wild plants,” the document stated.While asking European citizens to cooperate in raising public awareness, the Commission will also support member countries who define national pollinator strategies in line with the new initiative.The regulation update comes on the heels of several other European pollinator-protection strategies, such as the E.U. Biodiversity Platform, which includes measures and goals focused on protecting pollinators. The Commission also included the new initiative in the Nature Restoration Law presented last June. Under that law, national strategies to protect pollinators must be included in each nation’s broader National Restoration Plans.

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Honey Bee Heat Warms Up Fellow Pollinators for Early-Season Blooms


An incubator that draws excess heat from a honey bee hive warms up managed Osmia lignaria bees so they can pollinate early-blooming fruit trees such as cherry, apple, and almond. A new study shows the hivetop incubators are effective, with little effect on the honey bee hive temps below. Shown here is a hivetop incubator atop a honey bee hive, with a small exit hole from which O. lignaria bees can be seen emerging.

By Paige Embry

Paige Embry

Honey bees (Apis mellifera) are the go-to pollinator for early-blooming fruit trees like cherries, apples, and almonds, but they aren’t the best pollinator for these crops. That title belongs to Osmia lignaria, often known as the blue orchard bee or BOB.

In the chilly days of early spring, BOBs fly more hours than honey bees and go out when it’s colder. They carry pollen, dry, in hairs on the underside of their abdomen where it may easily rub off when they flop into flowers, while honey bees carry pollen in tidy packets on their hind legs. BOBs are also flitters, moving from tree to tree rather than just working one plant like a honey bee often does—promoting the cross-pollination needed for some of these trees.

Lindsie McCabe, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service who led a recent study on practices for deploying Osmia lignaria bees for pollination in orchards. Here, McCabe pauses next to a O. lignaria nest box during the season after bloom and bee foraging. In the next box, tunnels with “mud caps” are nests filled with immature O. lignaria bees.

Lindsie McCabe, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, says, “Honey bees are very, very methodical in how they collect pollen, and blue orchard bees are just like, ‘I’m going to get all into this flower and rub it everywhere.’” What that behavior means is that several hundred female BOBs can pollinate an acre of early fruit as effectively as thousands of honey bees.

Part of the reason honey bees continue to dominate is that how to use them is well-established, while how to use BOBs is still a work in progress. A study published last week in the Journal of Economic Entomology focuses on a way to streamline one aspect of blue orchard bee management—waking them up from their winter’s sleep.

BOBs spend the winter as adults in cocoons in a hibernation-like state called diapause. Managed BOB cocoons are kept in cold storage and need to be warmed up before the bees will emerge. An easy, standardized way to do that hasn’t been developed. For example, one grower warmed the bees in her house. Two days usually worked, but when they wouldn’t rouse one year she stuck them in the bathroom with a space heater set to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. It worked, but bees in the house seems like an unlikely method to promote widespread BOB use.

Plus, any method of warming bees inside means they are then thrust out into the cold. “This can cause a problem sometimes,” says McCabe, “especially when you get cold snaps in the orchard or in the western U.S. when it gets really cold at night. … It seems to take them longer to emerge when they don’t have heat below them.”

a bluish-gray bee lands just to the left of the center of a white flower with a pink center.
A small, bluish-gray bee perches on a white flower at the end of a tree branch. in the background (though out of focus) more flowers in the tree can be seen, as well as a bee nest box hanging from a low branch.

Since the flowering season for these trees is short, having the bees ready when bloom begins is critical. McCabe and colleagues tested a device to make waking BOBs up easier and more predictable: an incubator that sits on top of a honey bee hive.

The device is called the Hivetop Incubator (HTI). Wonderful Orchards, which previously experimented with using BOBs for almond pollination,⁠ owns the patent for the HTI. Honey bees keep the core temperature of their hive in the 90s Fahrenheit (mid 30s Celsius). Naturally, heat is lost. Since the two pollinators are often used together, that radiating heat can provide steady warmth for incubating BOBs.

The researchers conducted experiments in Utah and Washington State. The Utah experiment focused on potential adverse impacts to the honey bees from having the incubator (and BOBs) sitting on top of their hive. Half the hives had incubators on top, half didn’t. The researchers found that the internal temperatures of the two groups were “not significantly different.” They also tracked various parameters of colony health (bee health, brood quantity, percentage of empty cells, amount of stored food) and found no adverse impacts.

Lindsie McCabe, Ph.D., wearing a pink and white plaid shirt and gray pants, squats behind a stack of two honey bee hive boxes, atop of which is an open hivetop incubator filled with cocooned adult Osmia lignaria bees. McCabe holds out her right hand to show an emerged adult bee that has landed on her hand.
wide view of several honey bee hive boxes in an orchard of trees with white flowers. at left is a taller stack of hive boxes, while at right is a low stack. atop each is a hivetop incubator, a wide box about 1-2 inches tall.
a wide, shallow box is shown with the top panel removed. the inside is lined with a light gray foam material, and in the box is a loose pile of bluish-gray balls, which are actually cocooned adult Osmia lignaria bees near ready to emerge.

The researchers also looked at internal temperatures in the BOB incubators and emergence rates. Incubators on occupied hive boxes were approximately 7.8 degrees C warmer than those on empty boxes. Sixty percent of the BOBs in the warm incubators had emerged by the second day, a level not reached until the sixth day in the un-warmed incubators. Both sets of incubators had around 80 percent emergence after eight days.

At the Washington site, which was colder, 60 percent of the BOBs in the heated incubators had again emerged by the second day; however, it took eight days to reach that level in the unheated incubators. Also, after 10 days, 95 percent of the BOBs had emerged from the heated incubators, but only 65 percent from the unheated ones. At this site, the researchers also tracked whether bees spread throughout the orchard to nest or stayed near the incubation sites. Other than very close to the incubators (within 1 meter) the bees scattered randomly throughout the orchard. McCabe says that dispersed nesting leads to dispersed pollination, “so you don’t have these hotspots of pollination.”

The experiments showed the HTI to be highly successful, particularly in the colder Washington trial. McCabe says one thing they don’t know yet is whether the incubators might increase pathogen exchange between the two bee species. They’re looking into it. Nevertheless, the authors feel positive enough about the trial to write, “Our study supports the incorporation of the HTI into the best management practices for using O. lignaria in orchard pollination.”

Maybe someday soon HTIs will make BOB-waking easier (no bees in the bathroom), more reliable, and less jarring for the bees.

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Examination of Hivetop Incubator Efficacy for Emerging Osmia lignaria (Hymenoptera: Megachilidae) and the Impact on Apis mellifera (Hymenoptera: Apidae) Colonies

Journal of Economic Entomology

Paige Embry is a freelance science writer based in Seattle and author of Our Native Bees: North America’s Endangered Pollinators and the Fight to Save Them. Website: www.paigeembry.com.



Rearranging Nest Boxes Keeps More Blue Orchard Bees Around

April 3, 2017

Beyond the Honey Bee: How Pesticides Affect Solitary, Cavity-Nesting Bees

April 12, 2018

New and Easy Marking Method Tracks Bees Without Killing Them

June 21, 2018

 Research News

 apis melliferablue orchard beehivetop incubatorhoney beesJournal of Economic EntomologyLindsie McCabemanaged honey beesOsmia lignariaPaige Embrypollinatorssolitary beesUSDA-ARS

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A win for the bees is a win for everyone
The US Department of Agriculture has approved the first-ever vaccine for honeybees! Yes, you read that correctly. The vaccine protects against American foulbrood disease, a fatal bacterial disease that can destroy honeybee colonies — and thus threaten ecosystems that depend on the bees’ myriad ecological benefits. While it’s amusing to imagine a bunch of bee clinics with tiny little syringes and Band-Aids, there’s a much more practical way of administering this type of  vaccine. It’s mixed into “queen feed,” which the worker bees consume. The worker bees incorporate the vaccine into royal jelly, which they feed to the queen bee. Once the queen bee has consumed the vaccine-laden royal jelly, her offspring will all be immune as well. 

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Supporting Pollinator Habitats Through Operation Pollinator

By Caydee Savinelli, Ph.D.Editor’s Note: This Entomology Today post is a sponsored article contributed by Syngenta, a Gold Corporate Partner of the Entomological Society of America. The views presented in sponsored posts reflect those of partner organizations and not necessarily those of ESA. Learn more about Syngenta and the ESA Corporate Partner program.Biodiversity is essential for effective crop production and the health of our natural resources. It sustains the ecosystems that underpin fertile soils and plant pollination, helping farmers grow healthy food. Bees alone contribute nearly $20 billion to the value of crop production in the U.S. each year, and more than one-third of all crops depend on pollinators for propagation. Ensuring a sustainable food supply requires each of us to play a role in preserving our land and protecting pollinators and other beneficial insects and animals. Syngenta understands the importance of the interconnectedness of agriculture and nature and is committed to helping biodiversity flourish.Taking strides toward sustainable agriculture helps promote an industry that can successfully feed today’s consumers while also safeguarding pollinators and conserving the environment for generations to come. The Good Growth Plan highlights our ongoing commitments and initiatives to support farmers and the environment through 2025. And, through our Operation Pollinator program, Syngenta is focused on creating essential habitats to restore pollinators in agricultural settings, on golf courses, and within other landscapes.Operation Pollinator provides farmers, golf course managers, and other land managers with the tools and information needed to successfully establish and manage attractive wildflower resources that are crucial for bumble bees and pollinating insects while enhancing the visual appearance of the utilized land. The habitat provides nesting and food resources for bees, other pollinators, beneficial insects, as well as small mammals and farmland birds, enhancing overall biodiversity. It also provides important ecosystems services like pollination and pest control that improve crop yields, thereby securing both sustainable farming and environmental balance.The vast landscapes of golf courses, meanwhile, provide an ideal opportunity to preserve and enhance the essential habitat of pollinators and create pride for golf club members. With guidance from Syngenta, golf course superintendents can extend their environmental stewardship to make a positive impact on the environment. By establishing pollinator habitats in under-utilized land like out of play areas, run-off buffer zones, or roadway green spaces, positive benefits are achieved for multiple stakeholders including pollinators, golf course superintendents, and the environment itself.We can all do our part to protect pollinators and other beneficial insects by promoting more sustainable practices that diversify agricultural land, golf courses, and other landscapes. To learn more about pollinator protection and stewardship best practices, visit www.BeeHealth.org.

Caydee Savinelli, Ph.D., is stewardship team and pollinator lead at Syngenta in Greensboro, North Carolina. Email: caydee.savinelli@syngenta.com.

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Sunflowers Linked to Reduced Varroa Mite Infestations in Honey Bees


A new study indicates a benefit to honey bees of local sunflower cropland. Even low levels of sunflower acreage nearby correlate with reduced Varroa mite infestation in managed colonies, researchers found, and supplemental sunflower pollen helps ward off the mites, as well. (Photo by Lillian Wong via FlickrCC BY-SA 2.0)

By Paige Embry

Paige Embry

Varroa destructor is aptly named. It is a parasitic mite of Asian honey bees (Apis cerana) that jumped to European honey bees (Apis mellifera) and then romped around most of the world, wreaking havoc.⁠ In 1987 it arrived in the United States,⁠ where it wins the dubious award of being the most problematic of the honey bee’s many pests and diseases.⁠

Scientists long thought that Varroa mites were tick-like—blood-suckers that transmitted diseases—and that the bulk of the harm they caused came from the diseases they spread. Even without spreading diseases, Varroa mites damage bees because they don’t actually eat replaceable hemolymph (a bee’s blood-equivalent); rather, they eat its fat body. It sounds benign because the name is misleading. A bee’s fat body is a bit like a human’s liver. It plays a role in the bee’s immune system and its ability to survive the winter and detox pesticides. Any method of lowering Varroa loads would be a huge boon to honey bees and their keepers.

new study published in December in the Journal of Economic Entomology provides early evidence that the humble sunflower (Helianthus annuus) may provide some relief from those fat body-destroying mites.

Evan Palmer-Young, Ph.D.

The pollen and nectar of sunflowers (and some other members of the Asteraceae family) are protein-poor and generally considered a subpar source of nutrition for bees. From an overall health perspective, however, sunflower pollen and nectar look like great food because they may help reduce parasites. Evan Palmer-Young, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bee Research Lab in Beltsville, Maryland, is lead author on the new study. Previous experiments on bumble bees had shown that sunflower pollen strongly reduced infections by a specific parasite, so, Palmer-Young says, “We wanted to see whether honey bees might derive similar, infection-reducing benefits from sunflowers.”

The study covers four different experiments that looked at two parasites and several viruses, but only two experiments showed significant results. The authors sum up their findings: “Although we did not find significant effects of sunflower pollen on endopasrasites [Nosema ceranae] or viruses in laboratory or field settings, sunflower pollen was associated with reduced levels of Varroa mites in honey bee colonies.”

In one experiment the scientists provided supplemental pollen (sunflower pollen, wildflower pollen, or artificial protein patties) to field colonies of honey bees in late summer when Varroa levels often begin to rise. The colonies given supplemental sunflower pollen saw a 2.75-fold diminishment in Varroa infestation levels relative to bees receiving artificial pollen patties. (The group receiving wildflower pollen had more mites than the ones fed sunflower pollen, but the difference was not statistically significant.)

Perhaps the most significant finding was from the experiment that looked at the association of Varroa mite infestation levels and sunflower crop acreage. The scientists found that honey bees located near sunflower cropland had lower mite levels—even when the total land cover by sunflowers was scant (a median of 0.32 percent). Their models predicted that each doubling of sunflower acreage within two miles of an apiary would lead to a 28 percent decrease in mite infestation. The researchers note that this pattern is a correlation, and some other factors related to having sunflowers in the vicinity—different management practices by beekeepers or pesticide exposure, for example—may be the cause for the lower mite loads. Nevertheless, Palmer-Young says a big takeaway from the work is, “that sunflowers appear to be protective against a major threat to honey bees (i.e., mites), whereas the amount of U.S. sunflower cropland is declining—potentially limiting bees’ access to sunflower-associated benefits.”

Total crop area devoted to sunflowers in the U.S. has decreased by 2 percent per year since 1980. The authors note that market and policy shifts that led to changes in agriculture in the Dakotas played a role in that decline. In the 1980s, low-quality farmland was converted to (flower-rich) grasslands as part of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)—a change likely beneficial to bees of all sorts. Post-2000, both sunflower crop area and CRP acreage were replaced by corn and soybeans. The authors note, “Between 2006 and 2016, 53 percent of CRP land surrounding existing North and South Dakota apiaries was converted to crop production, but only 8 percent was used for bee-friendly crops.” This area hosts 75 percent of U.S. sunflower acreage as well as 40 percent of U.S. honey bees during the summer.

The authors write that they don’t have enough evidence yet to recommend specific changes in land use, but Palmer-Young says, “If sunflowers are as big of a factor in mite infestation as indicated by our landscape-level correlations … having a few more acres of sunflower within a mile or two of apiaries could bring colonies below the infestation levels that require treatment of hives with acaracides (i.e., mite-controlling chemicals).”

Palmer-Young provided a poetic summary for the paper:

Fields of sunflower blooming in sight
yield for many a bee a delight.
But with bright yellow joy
Displaced by corn and soy,
Honey bees could lose balm for their mites.

In other words, if additional research supports sunflowers as an anti-parasitic for Varroa mites, don’t be surprised if beekeepers start tossing out sunflower seeds everywhere they go.

Read More

Sunflower-Associated Reductions in Varroa Mite Infestation of Honey Bee Colonies

Journal of Economic Entomology

Paige Embry is a freelance science writer based in Seattle and author of Our Native Bees: North America’s Endangered Pollinators and the Fight to Save Them. Website: www.paigeembry.com.

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Megan Vetter, president of Nebraska Beekeepers Association holding a honey bee frame from a honey bee box


Bees play an integral role in pollinating important crops in Nebraska.

Holly Wortmann | Jul 22, 2022

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The honeybee is vital to Nebraska’s agricultural industry. No other insect is more managed or relocated for specific pollination, nor does any other insect pollinate such a wide range of plants.

Honeybees pollinate more than 90 cultivated crops with a combined value of $10 billion annually, according to the Nebraska Department of Agriculture (NDA). Nebraska crops that are dependent upon bees for pollination include alfalfa, vetch, sweet clover, sunflower and other seed crops.

Many fruit and vegetable crops also benefit from bee pollination, including watermelons, cucumbers, cantaloupe, pumpkins, apples, cherries and pears. Wildflowers that cover woodlands and meadows also depend on honeybee pollination. Plus, they provide honey and wax — products used in many households.

For Megan Vetter, the desire to add honeybees to the farm went beyond the honey that bees provide.

“In 2016, I was home with little kids helping my husband, Curran, on our Vetter family’s fifth-generation farm west of Aurora, Neb.,” she says. “I wanted to diversify, so I planted fruit trees, a vegetable garden, native sunflowers, and even turned a border area into native wildflowers. I researched the benefits of pollinators and found they’re the No. 1 resource for having good gardens.”

All in

Megan wanted to learn all that she could about beehive management before the bee packages arrived. She enrolled in a beginning beekeeping class, offered by Central Community College on the Grand Island campus. “That’s when my hobby started to snowball,” she jokes.

Along with her husband and children, Phoebe and Michael, the family now runs Vetter Bees. They sell local, fresh honey and lotion bars. “Our motto is ‘Happy Bees Make Vetter Honey.’ And the bees — they’re our wild pets,” Megan says.

In 2020, Megan went from beekeeping student to educator, now teaching in the same setting where she learned the basics of beekeeping. “I’m just finishing my second year teaching the beginning beekeeping class at Central Community College, so you could say that I’ve come full circle,” she says.

Today, Megan is president of the Nebraska Beekeepers Association, a nonprofit organization. The group’s aim is to educate beekeepers, large and small, throughout Nebraska. NBA works closely with Great Plains Master Beekeeping, as well as the University of Nebraska Bee Lab, as a resource for educational materials and field training activities.

“Nebraska Beekeepers has a booth at the Nebraska State Fair, selling Nebraska honey, wax products and honey ice cream. The state fair booth is our major fundraiser for the NBA’s youth scholarship,” Megan explains. “Each year, eight to 10 youth are accepted into the program, encouraging young beekeepers to start a new hive. The students build their own hive, participate in field activities and are paired with an experienced beekeeping mentor.”

This yearlong program helps youth have a better understanding of the value of honeybees to the environment and food chain. It has been successful in providing a base for future generations of beekeepers in Nebraska.

On the rise

Craig Romary, NDA environmental programs specialistmonitors BeeCheck for the state — an online mapping service designed for reporting field locations of commercial apiary sites for pesticide applicators. An apiary is a place where bees are kept, sometimes called a bee yard.

Nebraska beekeepers have registered 720 apiaries in BeeCheck. Romary says the actual number of beekeepers is expectantly higher. “Since registration of hives on BeeCheck is voluntary, those numbers likely do not account for all of the state’s beekeepers, including the hobbyists,” he says.

USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service reports 39,000 colonies and more than 1.8 million pounds of honey production in Nebraska last year based on self-reporting producers. The number of beehive colonies reported are on the rise from 2021, which is good news for the state’s most important pollinator.

If you want better yields for your crops, orchards and gardens, Megan recommends planting a variety of forages for the healthy bee. “Perennial fall flowers such as asters and native sunflowers give the bee storage right before winter,” she says. “And in the spring, maple trees offer early nectar and pollen sources. A bee will travel up to 7 miles for food, gathering pollen and nectar. Water sources are also good for healthy bees.

“One in every three bites of food is pollinated by bees,” she adds. “From almond orchards in California to the apple orchards in the Northwest and across the Dakotas, to alfalfa and blueberries in the Upper Midwest, there’s a nationwide circular movement of bees. The best-looking food in the store’s produce department — apples, strawberries, pumpkins — they’re all pollinated by bees and hundreds of smaller pollinators. The impact is great on all persons. We must protect and conserve our pollinators and educate each other about the survival of the bee for all humanity.”

Bees close to home

If you are interested in keeping bees on your property, there are things to consider.

Basic beekeeping is having new, viable queens, feed (natural or artificial), sound equipment and disease-free hives (good medication program or integrated pest management).

“Sometimes that first year can be a tough one,” Megan says, “but I recommend taking a class a year before starting. Beekeeping is a multiyear project and does take time, especially in the fall. Budget for the cost of beekeeping upfront, which could run up to $250-$300 for one hive. Most importantly, join a beekeeping community. It’s a good family to be part of.”

For more information on beekeeping and how to get started, visit nebraskabeekeepers.org.

Wortmann writes from Crofton, Neb.




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The finding challenges a century of research identifying bees as the only key clover pollinators

yellow underwing moth on a red clover flower at night
Many moths are nocturnal pollinators of plants. But the insects, like this Mythimna farrago, weren’t known to be regular visitors of red clover flowers until now. JEFF KERBY

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By Jake Buehler

JULY 26, 2022 AT 2:23 PM

Bees aren’t the only insects pollinating red clover. Moths do about a third of the flower visits after dark, new research suggests.

The findings, detailed in the July Biology Letters, come as a surprise, since almost all the credit for pollination of red clover has gone to bees. The discovery highlights what researchers may be missing during the night shift of plant pollination, including a previously unknown benefit the moth pollination bestows on the clover — a boost in seed production. 

This work may help deepen scientists’ understanding of the pollination services provided by nocturnal moths, says Daichi Funamoto, a pollination biologist at the University of Tokyo who was not involved with the new study.

For about a century, the general understanding of clover pollination has been that bees — and bees alone — are the key insect players. Clover is a “valuable agricultural plant and has received a lot of study,” says Jamie Alison, a pollinator ecologist at Aarhus University in Denmark. “Yet none of those studies have said anything about the possibility of moth pollination.”

Alison and his colleagues discovered moths’ pollination role while studying how plants and their insect pollinators respond to climate change by potentially moving uphill. To track pollinator visitation to grassland plants, the team set up 15 time-lapse cameras in the Swiss Alps. 

From June to August 2021, the cameras monitored 36 flowers of red clover (Trifolium pratense), an important crop used as forage for livestock. Such cameras are very useful for monitoring sites that are difficult to reach daily, Alison says. 

Nine of the cameras took images in a slice of the afternoon and again at night, while six of them continuously captured photos every five minutes. The technology provides substantial practical benefits.

“You can’t feasibly have someone stand there for 24 hours and record consistently what is visiting a flower,” Alison says. “Fortunately, you can do that with cameras.”

The method also allowed Alison and his colleagues to investigate nighttime visitors. In all, the team collected more than 164,000 photos of red clover flowers, with 44 of these images capturing visits by insect pollinators. Most of these nectar-seekers — some 61 percent — were bumblebees (Bombus). But a substantial proportion — 34 percent — were moths, mostly large yellow underwings (Noctua pronuba), visiting in the early morning hours. Butterflies and either a wasp or another bee species rounded out the other 5 percent of visits.

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Moths are well-known as habitual pollinators of many other plants, but their role in clover pollination seems to have been overlooked, Alison says (SN: 6/27/17). He and his colleagues also investigated how many seeds the clover blossoms produced, finding that nighttime visits from moths added to seed yield.

It’s clear “the role of nocturnal moths as pollinators of crops has largely been neglected,” Funamoto says. “I think future studies will reveal many plant species that are thought to be dependent on pollination by diurnal insects are indeed pollinated by nocturnal moths, to some extent.”

Alison and his team are now looking to replicate their observations at different latitudes in Europe to confirm that N. pronuba moths pollinate red clover in other places. The researchers also would like to equip cameras with artificial intelligence–driven programs that are trained to identify and swiftly categorize the type of pollinator making a visit.

“The future isn’t just cameras,” Alison says, “but cameras should be a big part of it.”

Questions or comments on this article? E-mail us at feedback@sciencenews.org

Editor’s Note:

This story’s image caption was updated July 27, 2022, to remove the implication that the insect shown was a large yellow underwing moth.


J. Alison et alMoths complement bumblebee pollination of red clover: a case for day-and-night insect surveillance.  Biology Letters. Vol. 18, July 2022, 20220187. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2022.0187.

About Jake Buehler

Jake Buehler is a freelance science writer, covering natural history, wildlife conservation and Earth’s splendid biodiversity, from salamanders to sequoias. He has a master’s degree in zoology from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

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Laboratory study might provide new explanation for colony collapses

Honey bee life spans are half what they were in the 1970s

Honey bee landing on a watermelon flower


The longevity of honey bees has fallen by 50% over the past 5 decades, New Scientist reports. When a hive doesn’t have enough worker bees, it’s less likely to survive over the winter. For this reason, commercial beekeepers now typically lose 30% to 40% of their colonies each year—significantly more than in previous decades. Shorter life span could be a reason, according to a study published this week in Scientific Reports. For the study, researchers took bee pupae from a colony, reared them in an incubator, and then kept the adult bees in custom cages. The bees lived an average of 18 days; that’s versus 34 days, according to publications from the 1970s. Shorter lives mean less time collecting pollen and nectar, and thus smaller reserves of honey to help the bees survive to the next spring. The researchers speculate that breeders may have accidentally shortened the potential life span while they were improving disease resistance, because shorter lived bees might be less likely to spread disease, New Scientist reports.

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