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Bee mites (round red spots) are just one of many sources of stress on honeybees, whose numbers plummeted this winter.
Trouble in pollen nation
Bee shortage renews appreciation for hard-working insect
By Deane Morrison
April 11, 2007
After a long trek from Minnesota in a flatbed truck, the honeybees arriving in California's Central Valley are stressed and hungry. They don't like being crammed together with lots of others of their species, yet pollinating California's almond crop requires a million colonies worth of bees. The hard labor of honeybees usually goes unnoticed and unappreciated by most Americans, but when the bees suffered steep mortality this winter--up to 80 percent of colonies lost in some beekeeping operations--the threat to the nation's food supply sent tremors through both producers and consumers. "For large monocultures of crops, you have to have honeybees," says Marla Spivak, an entomologist with University of Minnesota Extension. "We rely on honeybees to do the big jobs. Without honeybees and other bees to pollinate crops, grocery shelves would have about one-third fewer fruits and vegetables, and many flowers would not set seed." Honeybees aren't native to the United States, but were imported from Europe as early as 1622. Representing just a few of the 3,500 or more bee species in the Americas, they tend to pollinate a wide variety of plants and produce much more honey than other species. Their high sociability allows them to be transported long distances in large hives. Besides honeybees, the United States is home to many bees that live in the ground, as bumblebees prefer to do, or in other structures such as wood.
Without honeybees and other bees to pollinate crops, grocery shelves would have about one-third fewer fruits and vegetables, and many flowers would not set seed.Given the honeybee's crucial importance to agriculture, scientists like Spivak are hard at work trying to improve bee health. This year's devastation is worrisome in part because its cause is still unknown. In many hives, large numbers of adult bees simply disappeared without a trace, leaving larvae and pupae but no dead bodies to be examined for disease, pesticide residues or other agents. And, unfortunately, the list of factors afflicting bees is long.
Like bees? Spare those
Bees must have access to a variety of plant pollens to get all the amino acids and other nutrients they need, and weeds like dandelions, creeping charlie, and roadside plants are bee favorites. So before you spray that dandelion or rip up that nameless flowering weed, consider that you may be robbing your neighborhood bees of a food source.
A good reason to love
If you grow juicy big tomatoes, thank the bumblebees in your neighborhood. Only they can pollinate tomatoes because the tomato plant won't release its pollen unless its pollen-making anthers (the orangish cones in the middle of the flowers) are shaken. Honeybees just roll around on the flowers, but bumblebees grasp the anthers with their mouthparts and vibrate their wings, triggering a cascade of pollen.