Protecting Our Pollinators

Jul 26, 2016

Highway signs across Utah feature a beehive, a symbol of the state’s official insect since 1983. But the honeybee is just one of more than 4,000 species of bees in the United States—and we know very little about most of them. That’s one reason why the Obama Administration created a task force to improve health outcomes for the nation’s pollinators.

The pollinator action plan outlines a robust research agenda for reducing environmental threats to pollinators including honeybees, native bees and Monarch butterflies. The report identifies priorities including establishing baseline conditions such as habitat and evaluating both the sublethal and lethal effects of pesticides. Theresa Pitts-Singer, an entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture ARS Pollinating Research Unit in Logan helped coauthor several chapters of the report, and she believes scientists are just getting started.

“We know a lot about a few species,” she said. “So we know a lot about honeybees. We know a lot about a couple of bumble bees. We know a lot about one species of the leaf cutting bee. But the other species that belong to those groups that might not even have the same nesting habitat, might now forage in the same season of the year, have a preference for different plants, we know very little about them.”

In Utah, the state’s $17 million fruit and alfalfa seed industries depend heavily on pollination by bees, however, it’s not just honeybees that need protecting. It just wasn’t until they started disappearing en masse that pollinator health became a national priority. The year was 2006 and Diana Cox-Foster, an expert of insect pathology, received an unsettling phone call from a migratory beekeeper in Florida.

“He had these colonies that just a few weeks earlier looked okay. When he went back there was only 10-20 percent left, and the ones that were left were in really bad shape,” she said. “It was like overnight somebody reached in and grabbed all these other adult bees out.”

The mysterious illness was colony collapse disorder (CCD), a syndrome that has not been traced to one cause, but is suspected may be due to numerous exposures to things like pathogens and pesticides that may make bees more susceptible to environmental stressors. Today CCD is not the primary killer of honeybees, but bee die offs remain high across the United States.

“Before CCD, hearing of like a 15-17 percent loss over winter was considered to be average. We’re now up to at least 42 percent loss rate annually,” Cox-Foster said. “If this was happening in other agriculture situations, you know, any sort of livestock it would be horrendous.”

As more honeybees are needed to support crop production each year, what if other bee species could take on some of the work? Theresa Pitts-Singer believes we are on the edge of some big changes.

“Mass propogating orchard bees I think is right on the cusp of happening, which we’ve needed for some years so that industry will be available," she said. "So now maybe we can raise enough bees to cut in half the number of honeybees you need in California. That’s release on the stress of those honeybees. I think a lot of the stuff that’s proposed is going to come to fruition.”

As part of the national effort to protect pollinators the Environmental Protection Agency has asked states to develop plans of their own. In June, the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food finalized its plan—the aim was to strike a balance between the health of pollinators and the crops of local growers.

“Honeybees are the backbone of agriculture and we’re increasingly asking them to do more and more. It’s quite clear that we need more than just the honeybee, we need other types of pollinating insects,” said Joey Caputo, honeybee inspector for the department.

Caputo says annual honeybee losses are still unacceptably high, he also says that everyone is doing what they can to reduce those figures.

Music by The Black Atlantic. Songs include Dandelion and Heirloom.