Earlier this year, Walmart filed a patent application for drones that are designed to pollinate crops by carrying pollen from one plant to another, detecting flower locations with sensors and cameras. More recently, there has been a surge in news articles analyzing the concept of “robobees,” which is also being researched in labs around the world, from Harvard to Russia’s Tomsk Polytechnic University. Although several organizations are exploring this concept as a way to address the alarming decline in honey-bee populations, it seems highly unlikely that robotic pollinators could actually provide a solution.
First, in crop plants alone there are myriad varieties of flower shapes, sizes, and arrangements. For a sense of this diversity, just think of squash flowers, sunflowers, apple blossoms, and tomato flowers. Bees have coevolved with plants to collect and transport pollen efficiently. How many different types of drones would one farmer need? We are a very long way from having technology that will accomplish the task that bees already perform.
And the problem is more complex than just crops. At least 85 percent of all terrestrial plant species either require or strongly benefit from some form of animal pollination, and the idea of robotic pollinators ignores the many wild plants in meadows, prairies, hedgerows, and forests. Focusing solely on crop pollination and failing to take the pollination of native plants into account may well lead to a deterioration in the plant communities that make up the very fabric of our environment.
Many pollinator species have suffered serious declines in recent years. Unfortunately, most of our landscapes offer little in the way of appropriate habitat, forage, and housing. Even the most beautiful gardens are not always healthy ecosystems. Design choices, plant selections, and maintenance practices can make a huge difference in creating your own healthy ecosystem, filled with life. As a garden designer, I use this landscape plan for many gardens to attract the greatest varieties of pollinators.
A burly bumblebee nose dives into the unfurling gold petals of a California poppy and vanishes. I lean ever closer until I’m a foot away. The bee spirals up and out, bearing pollen on her legs. Off she hums to the next flower, almost bumping into the honeybees plying the summer morning air.
Pollinator Partnership tells us, “National Pollinator Week is a time to celebrate pollinators and spread the word about what you can do to protect them.” Eleven years ago, when colony collapse was at its peak and the end of civilization was near, the US Senate approved “National Pollinator Week” unanimously. Unanimously! Has the US Senate ever approved anything else by undissented decree? That’s a hundred out of a hundred. Congratulations to them for collaborating, for once, on something important. They wanted every American to recognize the pollination services provided by birds and bees and beetles and bats.
I just published this letter with Toby Smith and Romina Rader, in response to an opinion piece in Science back in January. The original paper argues that high densities of honey bees can harm wild pollinators (this can happen in some contexts).
It also suggests that a first step toward a conservation strategy for wild pollinators is that crop pollination by managed honey bees “should not be considered an ecosystem service” because those services “are delivered by an agricultural animal and not the local ecosystems”.
This highlights a common misinterpretation of what ecosystem services is all about. Services are delivered by interactions between species (including Homo sapiens) and their environments at multiple scales, not individual organisms or natural ecosystems.
(click to enlarge to full size) The British Black Bee (Apis mellifera mellifera), or European Dark Honeybee, was common until the beginning of the 20th Century. Fully adapted for the cooler climate she was responsible for the pollination of the wild flowers you see in the British Isles today. Sadly a virus practically wiped the […]
Summer is in sweaty swing and the garden accompanies that dance with a blooming boogie-woogie. Wildlife rely on the warm season’s bounty of summer flowers and resulting seeds and fruits. In addition to contributing to plant procreation and augmenting biological diversity, these wild critters–winged, feathered, furred, and scaled–add beauty, complexity, and life to the garden. […]
National Pollinator Week is June 19 – June 25, but summer is an odd time of year to celebrate pollinators. The big honey bee migration to California’s almonds ended in March. Bees, birds, bats, and butterflies have finished their work on spring fruit trees. Sure, zucchini buds beckon, but even Dipteran pollinators (flies) slacken visits to […]
It’s the middle of the night, you’ve driven miles outside of town. You’re a nomad, traveling around the country, staying out of the public eye. Out of sight, out of mind. This is how Dan Wyns (a faculty research assistant and ex-commercial beekeeper) describes the reality of beekeeping: a merging of agriculture and science. “Part farmer, part carpenter, part biologist, part machine operator.” He explains. This image sparks the imagination, but this is not what many people think of when they think beekeeper. This idea is not what has caused an undeniable spike in hobbyist beekeepers in recent years.
Within the last decade, media has latched onto bees, creating a story about the extinction of bees. One fascination is Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, which was spotted around 2006, and quickly made the news. These sudden reports put bees in the spotlight, and this spotlight inspired average people; there’s nothing like a sob story to get people to take interest in an issue, and this interest soon became a trend. Bill Catherall is just one example of someone who was captivated by the news, which was one of the motivations for him to begin beekeeping in 2012. Catherall is now the president of the Portland Urban Beekeepers, an organization that aims to support both honeybees and native bees in the Portland, Oregon area. Catherall is only one of many that can confirm the sudden spike in beekeepers, “Portland beekeeping is exploding, our club almost doubles in size every year. A lot more people are in it to save the bee.” This is where many beekeepers begin: by joining local clubs, and caring for a single hive, of up to 80,000 bees .
There are three types of beekeeper: the hobbyist beekeeper, the semi-commercial beekeeper and the commercial beekeeper. Beekeepers are sorted by size and agenda, not skill level. In fact, there is a wide range of skill levels across all types of beekeeping. Commercial beekeepers keep bees as a job, this is how they make their living. According to Wyns, commercial beekeepers are also the smallest group there are only 2,000 commercial beekeepers, but, they keep thousands of hives and are responsible for about one-third of food production. The hobbyist beekeeper, or the small-scale beekeeper, keep bees as pets in their backyard. They have a small number of hives for personal enjoyment, and nothing else. This is the most common group, and the group that was inspired by the media to take up beekeeping. Semi-commercial or sideliners, fall into the middle and keep several hundred hives. At this level beekeeping is more than just a hobby, often semi-commercial beekeepers do make some money off of their bees, but they do not depend on it.
So, news teams caught wind of the struggles that were being faced primarily by commercial beekeeping , the public read these stories and became worried. This prompted individuals to begin keeping bees, and the pendulum swung upwards. But the media may have deceived us all. Dr. Michael Burgett, professor emeritus and published entomologist disagrees with the media’s claims, pointing out that “The death of large numbers of bees in an area didn’t start in 2006, there have been lots of instances in the past where large numbers of bees have died.” Dr. Burgett also pointed out that Aristotle wrote about the subject of bee die-outs and diseases 2,000 years ago, bringing to light that this is neither a new, nor surprising phenomenon, in his opinion. Bees have always bee important enough to pay attention to, and now is no different.
Overtime beekeeping has become an essential part of human life, even if you do not keep bees yourself, the pollination industry is a $15 billion industry (in 2000) in America alone  it is responsible for 35% of the food that we consume daily . According to Burgett, it’s not a beekeeping industry, its industries: the pollination industry, and the hobbyist industry. Because of the importance, and size of the pollination industry, this is where the news is focusing, but the media does not understand how this industry works. Pollination is done on a contract basis. Farmers hire hives from commercial beekeepers all around the country. Each hive cost about $50, and stays in the crop from 3 weeks to 2 months, depending on the need of the crop. Every year the bees begin their journey in the almonds in California. In late January, about 2 million beehives are shipped from all over America to California for almond pollination. All commercial hives are fed syrup and protein pellets to give them the energy that they need to begin pollination after the winter. After the almonds, bees are driven around the country on palettes to pollinate tree fruits, then blueberries, then vegetable crops, and so on until September, when there is nothing else to pollinate. At this point, the bees are fed more syrup and protein pellets, the hives are inspected, and treated if needed. This is to prepare to the bees for winter, the hives will sit until they are needed for pollination again, and the bees will stay inside the hive to keep warm, and eat reserves.
Because of the reality of commercial pollinators trucking their bees around the country, feeding them syrup, and keeping them from sickness with the use of chemicals, it is easy to see how one could blame the pollination industry for the sudden decline in bees. But this is not the case. While commercial beekeepers are losing more hives by sheer numbers, hobbyist beekeepers lose more hives by percentage. Burgett emphasized how the success of a beekeeper depends on their experience. “Commercial beekeepers cannot afford to lose hives, so they have a higher learning curve.” He says, “I have no worry whatsoever about the extinction of honeybees. I have no worry whatsoever about the extinction of commercial beekeeping. Simply because the need is so great.”
There is a misconception that you can stick a beehive in your backyard, and have honey “on tap.” This is what Catherall first thought when he had the initial idea to begin beekeeping. Then he began doing research, during this time he was fascinated by bee biology, saying, “The honeybee biology is really exciting and interesting, because they are such a weird insect, they behave in ways that we don’t find normal, or natural.” Honey bees are eusocial, meaning that they have a complex social structure. Only a handful of animals share this type of complex hierarchy in their daily lives.
The honey bee hive is run entirely by female bees, which are sorted into subcategories: the queen, and the workers. Each worker has their own role, some collect pollen, some care for the brood (the larval stage in the bee life cycle), some make honey, and so on. Every worker in the hive is controlled by the queen, who emits pheromones which allows the hive to work as a single unit. Her pheromones control the workers mood, and makes the workers unable to reproduce. The queen has one other job: to lay eggs. Without a queen, the hive will slowly die off because the workers have a lifecycle of 2 to 8 weeks, while a queen can live for years. Every bee in the colony is a daughter of the queen bee, and every bee is related to her. Genetic diversity in the hive, and in bees is entirely related to queen bees.
In 1621 the European honey bee was brought to the colonies in Virginia by settlers to aid with food production. In Europe the honey bee was already an important part of the economy . This was the beginning of the genetic diversity bottleneck. Because the European honey bee is not native, and the only means of getting honey bees to the New World was by boat, not many hives were brought over. By 1856 bees were in every part of the United States . Soon after, the importation of honey bees into America was banned. The millions of beehives that are in America today are products of the hives initially brought over from Europe.
When a queen bee is created she must go and breed with male bees or drones in order to birth workers. The queen leaves the hive once in her life, and mates with many drones as she can store the sperm for later use . After, she returns to the hive and begins to lay eggs. Unfortunately, most queen bees are only at their prime for the first year or two, then they begin to lay less eggs; for this reason, many commercial beekeepers will “re-queen” the hive yearly. To do this, they buy a new, already mated queen from a supplier, and squish the old queen. This may sound harsh, but a hive cannot have two queens, because the bees are loyal to their queen, they will kill any new queen that enters. Next, the new queen is added to the hive in a cage, and the bees get used to her scent, and will accept her. They will only accept her if the old queen is gone, the new queen is then released into the hive to live her life for the next year.
Commercial beekeepers rarely breed queens, this is often done by an outside company. There are several problems with queen breeding that is leading to a problem in genetic diversity. Firstly, in the wild, a queen bee will lay 2 to 3 eggs that will become queens, but a breeder will create up to 5,000 queens from one mother bee. Catherall puts the largest problem best, “The genetics that are found in the breeders are very tight, there are about four or five different mothers, and that’s all. But in the wild, feral populations, there is a lot more diversity, in fact the genetics in the wild populations are different than the ones in the commercial population; showing that they are not interbreeding.” Because all of the genetics in bees are so close, commercial beekeepers could easily run into problems. Should a disease come to your hive, your bees genetics are so similar, that one thing could easily wipe out your business.Genetic diversity is the key to the survival of the species, and more genetics lead to stronger, healthier hives now and in the future . Genetically diverse colonies are stronger foragers, thus creating more food storage for the winter, and the ability to grow their populations, and swarm faster and more easily . Genetic diversity also leads to a boost in fitness, and thus higher survival rates for over-wintering. The more people keep bees, the more opportunity there is for genetic diversity, luckily, bees can be kept in almost every space imaginable.
In 2014, about 1,500 people kept bees in the city of London. Camilla Goddard was one of the first, she began beekeeping in the city around 2005. The beginning was rocky, as she struggled to find place where her bees would not be disturbed. But when beekeeping became fashionable, the city of London was just one city that embraced the trend, and began keeping bees within it’s walls . Wyns says, “It is definitely possible, in a lot of ways urban bees potentially can do a lot better than bees in agriculture. Because of the diversity, everybody has their flowers and vegetables, even in real true urban areas, inevitably there are flowers and trees in city parks, and people have their verandas with a couple plants on it.” Because bees can fly several miles away from the hive, they will find the flowers. Not only are there many of diverse forage opportunities, but there are also less pesticides used in urban areas due to the close proximity to humans, and the lack of a monoculture.
“It’s in that vein of self-sustainability, grow your own food. It all fits together.” Says Wyns, who believes that monocultures, and big agricultural farming is a big cause of the current struggles that honey bees are facing. The pollination of urban areas is the opposite of monoculture.
Beekeepers agree that the current public interest in bees is a good thing. The more people who keep bees, the greater the opportunity that bees will outlive these problems . Hobbyists become very attached and protective of their bees, which is one way that this will help the bee population . Even if you’re not a beekeeper yourself, education and awareness is the key. People who begin beekeeping pay attention to the bees by planting more bee friendly flowers, and avoiding pesticides in their own gardens. There is no argument that European honey bees are facing more challenges than ever, but with the spotlight on bees, “the future looks rosy to tell the truth” says Burgett. There is more research, more interest, and more information about bees than ever before.
Wyns paints a picture of the future, saying, “It’s pretty cool to be standing on the rooftop of some giant building in the middle of a metropolitan area looking at the skyline playing with bees. I think that there’s potential there.”
1. ”Honey monsters; Urban beekeeping.” The Economist 12 Apr. 2014: 27(US). Academic OneFile. Web. 21 May 2016.
2. Chadwick, Kristi. “McFarland, Rob & Chelsea McFarland. Save the Bees with Natural Backyard Hives: The Easy and Treatment-Free Way To Attract and Keep Healthy Bees.” Library Journal 1 Jan. 2016: 123. Academic OneFile. Web. 2 May 2016.
3. Genersch, Elke. “Honey Bee Pathology: Current Threats to Honey Bees and Beekeeping.” Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology 87 (2010): 87-97. Web.
4. Mattila, Heather R., and Thomas D. Seeley. “Genetic Diversity in Honey Bee Colonies Enhances Productivity and Fitness.” Science 317.3836 (2007): 362-64.
5. Sammataro, Diana, and Jay Yoder. Honey Bee Colony Health: Challenges and Sustainable Solutions. Boca Raton, FL: CRC, 2012. Print.
6. Shimanuki, H. “Beekeeping.” Dictionary of American History. Ed. Stanley I. Kutler. 3rd ed. Vol. 1. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003. 436. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 1 May 2016.
7. Wilson-Rich, Noah, Kelly Allin, Andrea Quigley, and Norman L. Carreck. The Bee: A Natural History. Lewes: Ivy, 2014. Print.
Catherall, Bill. Interview. 14 May. 2016.
Burgett, Dr. Michael. Phone Interview. 18 May. 2016.
Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? (Matthew 6:26)
Imagine the mathematics of a nectarivorous hummingbirds’ metabolism, as it busily accumulates food energy form flower nectar, as it visits one flower after another. The flowers are benefiting the high-energy hummingbird – yet the hummingbird itself, by pollinating one flower from another, is also benefiting the flowers, helping them to successfully reproduce. There is a balance in all of this.
“The rate at which such a flower supplies its nectar has to be carefully controlled [i.e., fine-tuned by God]. If the plant is miserly and produces very little [nectar], a bird [such as a hummingbird] will not find it worthwhile calling. If it is too generous, then the bird might be so satisfied after its visit that it will not hurry to seek more nectar elsewhere and so fail to deliver the pollen swiftly. Many [flowering] plants have arrived [i.e., have been made by God to arrive] at such a perfect compromise [i.e., mutualistic equilibrium] between these two extremes that the hummingbirds pollinating them are compelled to keep continuously active, rushing from one flower to another, getting just enough each time to fuel their high-energy flying equipment with just sufficient calories left over to make the trip [metabolically] profitable. At night, when they cannot see to fly and the flowers have closed, the birds have no alternative but to shut down all their systems [“torpor”], lower their body temperature and, in effect, hibernate until dawn.” [Quoting David Attenborough, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF PLANTS (Princeton University Press1995), page 119.]
In a recent article of the CHESAPEAKE BAY JOURNAL, wildlife biologist Kathy Reshetiloff stresses the importance of animals that pollinate plants: “Pollinators are nearly as important as sunlight, soil and water to the reproductive success of more than 75 percent of the world’s flowering plants. They are crucial to the production of most fruits, nuts and berries that people and wildlife depend on. More than 150 food crops in the United States depend on pollinators, including blueberries, apples, oranges, squash, tomatoes and almonds. Worldwide, there are more than 100,000 different animal species that pollinate plants. Insects [like bees] are the most common pollinators, but as many as 1,500 species of vertebrates [like bats] also help pollinate plants.”(1)
And truly, the role of pollinators is critically valuable for flowering plants to successfully produce the next generation.
Yet not all pollinators serve the same flowering plants, so pollination is another one of the countless examples of God’s variety. “Different types and colors of flowers attract specific pollinators. Hummingbirds are attracted to scarlet, orange, red or white tubular-shaped flowers with no distinct odors. Bats are attracted to dull white, green or purple flowers that emit strong, musty odors at night. Bees are attracted to bright white, yellow or blue flowers[,] and flowers with contrasting ultraviolet patterns that have fresh, mild or pleasant odors. Flies are attracted to green, white or cream flowers with little odor[,] or dark brown or purple flowers that have putrid odors. Butterflies are attracted to bright red and purple flowers with a faint but fresh odor. … Beetles are attracted to white or green flowers with odors ranging from none to strongly fruity or foul.” [Quoting biologist Kathy Reshetiloff.(1)] In other words, the “courier service” of pollination may be provided by bugs, bats, birds, or other beasts.(1),(2)
But what is “pollination” and how does it facilitate reproduction of flowering plants? “Pollination occurs when pollen grains [male gamete-bearing particles] from a flower’s male parts (anther) are moved to the female part (stigma) of the same species. Once on the stigma the pollen grain grows [i.e., extends] a tube that runs down the style of the [plant’s] ovary, where fertilization [i.e., joining of male and female gametes] occurs, producing [fertilized] seeds. Most plants depend on pollinators to move the pollen from one flower to the next, while others [i.e., other types of plants] rely on wind or water to move pollen.” [Quoting biologist Kathy Reshetiloff.(1),(3)]
All of this is wonderful information, but the obvious question remains – how does that fascinating process – that occurs daily around the world – fit the journal article’s title, “If You Like Plants, Bee Grateful for Pollinators This Month”? The information surely proves that we should appreciate the genius of the pollination process, as well as the variety of details that accompany it in its multitudinous applications, — but word “thankful” presumes that someone is due our gratitude, i.e., that we should express our appreciation for pollination to that someone who deserves to be thanked for arranging pollination to work, worldwide, as it does.
Yet Kathy Reshetiloff’s CHESAPEAKE BAY JOURNAL article never mentions who should receive our thanksgiving, for the many magnificent and beneficial services that these pollinators provide. But are we really expected to “thank” the pollinators themselves – the hummingbirds, bats, bees, and beetles? (Doing that would be like ancient polytheism, although the pagan animism mythology of today’s anti-creationists usually goes by the Darwinist mantra “natural selection”.)
Obviously, we should be thankful for pollinators – especially if we like to eat on a regular basis! But the One Who is rightly due our gratitude should be rightly identified. Accordingly, there is “something wrong” with the “picture” portrayed in the above-quoted CHESAPEAKE BAY JOURNAL article, because something most important is missing – in fact, it is the Someone Who is not mentioned, but Who should be: God, the author and sustainer of all pollination arrangements.
It is God Who feeds the birds (Matthew 6:26) — sometimes using the pollination process to do so, — and it is that same God Who feeds us, both physically and spiritually (Acts 14:17; Matthew 4:4).
Kathy Reshetiloff, “If You Like Plants, Bee Grateful for Pollinators This Month”, Chesapeake Bay Journal, 26(4):40 (June 2016).
“Most insects have a highly developed sense of smell, so they can be attracted by perfume. Many also have excellent vision. Their eyes, however, are very different from ours, being made up of a mosaic of several hundred tiny elements. Each of these receives a narrow beam of light and registers no more of it than its intensity, but all together they produce a complete if somewhat granular picture. And there is a further difference – in the perception of colour. At the red end of the spectrum, the insect eye is not as sensitive as ours. Most insects are unable to distinguish between red and black as we can. At the other end [of the spectrum], the blue end, they are very much more sensitive than we are and can detect ultra-violet colours that are totally invisible to us.” [Quoting David Attenborough, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF PLANTS (Princeton University Press, 1995), page 98.] Besides bugs, other pollinators include mammals, especially bats, — yet pollination is performed even by pygmy possums, lemurs, rock mice, and shrews [Attenborough, pages 121-124], and birds, such as hummingbirds, sunbirds, and honey-eaters [Attenborough, pages 114-121], and even reptiles, such as gecko lizards [Attenborough, pages 112-113].
“Wind is a very efficient transporter. It can take the tiny dray grains as high as 19,000 feet and carry them for three thousand miles or so away from their [plant] parents.” [Quoting David Attenborough, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF PLANTS (Princeton University Press, 1995), page 98.]