Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What We Eat...And How It's Pollinated

Preface: I write this little column for Roundup's local paper, the Roundup Record, each month. It is called "What We Eat....". Thought I'd post it here as well.

Last week, in the garden that borders my still-empty vegetable beds, I spotted the cheerful face of an intrepid johnny-jump-up blooming up at me. What a wonderful sign of the Spring that has finally arrived. Amidst the blue skies and sunshine that heralded the first days of the new season, it was not difficult to imagine the summer temperatures that will soon be upon us. It will not be long before multitudes of flowers are buzzing with another one of warmer weather's mainstays: the honeybee.

Honeybee on a cucumber blossom
Often seen buzzing amongst summer blooms, honeybees can easily be differentiated from wasps because wasps have a smooth, hairless body. The hair, or fuzz, on a honeybee's body functions to collect pollen, as they buzz from flower to flower. Another difference between honeybees and wasps is that honeybees are only able to use their stinger once. When a honeybee stings, barbs on the stinger cause it to remain embedded in the target, and it will rip from the honeybee's body when it flies away. This ruptures the bee's abdomen and causes death. This is why, unless they've been stepped on, or are defending their hive and queen, a honeybee is unlikely to sting. It costs them their lives. This is in contrast to wasps, which are often seen gathering on picnickers' soda cans and food. With smooth stingers that do not get left behind, embedded in their victims, wasps can sting repeatedly without lethal consequences to themselves. They will often do so to defend “their” sugary drink from the human that is disturbing them.

The honeybee is an integral part of human food production, and not just because of its honey. As a worker honeybee goes about its work foraging nectar for its hive, it accumulates pollen on the fuzzy hairs that cover its body. By flying from bloom to bloom, the bee distributes that pollen, fertilizing the flowers and allowing for seed formation and fruit production. If a flower on a plant dependent on cross-pollination does not receive a visit from a pollen-bearing insect, such as the honeybee, it will wither and die without producing seeds or a fruit. It is estimated that one third of the food that we consume comes from plants that depend upon insect pollinators such as the honeybee. Some familiar pollinator-dependent crops are melons, cucumbers, almonds, peaches, pears, strawberries, alfalfa, cherries, apples and blueberries. Honeybees also play a central role in our country's economy, as they pollinate billions of dollars of U.S. crops each year.
Honeybee on an onion flower

Unfortunately, North America's honeybees are in grave danger. A new and mysterious malady dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has recently devastated what was already a dramatically declining honeybee population. Since the disorder, whose causes are poorly understood, came to light in or around 2006, 30-40% of the United States' bee colonies have suffered colony collapse, which is characterized by the sudden desertion of a hive by its bees. Much research has been done on CCD, but concrete answers about the malady have proved elusive. Efforts are hampered, in part, because the bees disperse from the hive before death occurs, making affected bee bodies difficult to obtain for study. In 2010, entomologists at the University of Montana and Montana State University, working collaboratively with Army scientists, discovered that a fungus,Nosema ceranae, present in conjunction with an invertebrate iridescent virus (IIV), causes a “one-two punch” that was found in every CCD-killed colony the group studied. This is a positive development, but the scientisits themselves declare that their conclusions are not the final word, and that more research is needed.

Even before CCD came onto the scene around 2006, the National Resource Council had estimated that, between 1945 and 2005, honeybee colony numbers nationwide had already declined by over 40%, from 5.9 million to 2.4 million colonies. They had also predicted that “if honeybee numbers continued to decline at the rates documented from 1989 to 1996, managed honeybees would cease to exist by 2035.

A number of factors likely contributed to the dramatic, pre-CCD decline in recent decades. Habitat loss due to sprawling development and the introduction of parasitic bloodsucking mites have played a significant role, as has the widespread use of pesticides, such as Sevin, which are known to be highly toxic to honeybees. Insecticides are particularly damaging, because they can kill bees in more than one way. One is when the foraging bee makes direct contact with a lethal dose of insecticide. The second, more insidious way, is when a worker bee is not immediately killed by the poison, and it transports insecticide-contaminated pollen or nectar back to its hive. There the toxin can weaken or be lethal to the entire colony. It is also thought possible that bees weakened by exposure to toxins are more susceptible to Colony Collapse Disorder.
Honeybee on a cosmos flower

If you would like to help save our pollinators, there are a number of things that you can do. First and foremost, you can eliminate the usage of pesticides and other toxic chemicals that are known to be lethal to honeybees. You can also plant diverse flowering plants that are bee favorites, increasing their habitat and foraging options. Try to always have something blooming so that as one food source passes, another is beginning to flower. If you are a landowner, leaving even small areas of your property in a wild state gives pollinators areas to nest. Learn to differentiate between honeybees and wasps so that you do not accidentally mistake the former for a pest. You can also find local beekeepers and support them by purchasing their products. If you would like more detailed information about how to help our pollinators, or if you are interested in becoming a beekeeper yourself, you can visit these websites: http://ag.montana.edu/plantgrowth/beekeeping.htm; http://www.bees-on-the-net.com/montana-beekeepers.htmlhttp://agr.mt.gov/crops/bees/apiary.asp