Feb 16 2011

Some Youtube treasures

It’s my intention to do a lot more video in the future, because more can be shown than is possible in still photos. Video is very difficult, espectially of fast-moving and spooky insects in the act of pollinating flowers.

Meanwhile, from time to time, I discover some very well done videos online. One needs to be careful of online resouces. Some are quite amateurish or worse, give innacurate information. Here are some that I find are good enough to recommend to this blog’s readers:

1.  Bee Pollinators of Southwest Virginia Crops:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l_etyEdu9fQ
There is sheer beauty in this video of honeybees, bumblebee queens & workers, bumblebee and halictid bee buzz pollination, orchard mason bees, digger bees, mining bees, longhorned bees, small and large carpenter bees, and squash bees mating.

There’s even a bumblebee “giving the tarsi” (the possible insect equivalent of “giving the finger”). One can watch this several times, and see new things in each viewing. This is also an excellent way to begin learning to identify common groups of bees. 
By Virginia Tech Entomology Department

2. Pollination Methods: Cucurbits:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V5a-coN2Xgg&NR=1
This video starts off somewhat slow, but don’t get bored by the lengthy description of the various cucurbit species. It morphs into a good illustration of one means of hand pollination – a technique that may be quite valuable for gardeners who lack bees. Then it shows how hybrids are created, and shows the modern technology of “seedless” triploid hybrids.  Finally it ends with a clip on how to save cucumber seeds.
By the University of Wisconsin, Madison

 3. Honeybee collecting pollen:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JD1u86rWx38&NR=1  Few people realize that honeybees make an active choice when visiting flowers. This may be based on the resources of the flowers, or, more likely, on the needs of the hives.

To collect nectar, or to collect pollen is the choice. Worker bees that are collecting nectar take longer in each flower, probing the flower’s nectiaries with their tongues for sweet droplets which they carry in their crops back to the hives. Bee that are gathering nectar will accomplish some pollination by accident. 

But other bees make the choice to deliberately gather pollen, likely because there is quite a bit of open brood in the hive that requires the pollen for protein for its development. This is the subject of this shore clip.

These bees do not probe with their tongues; rather they “doggy paddle” through the stamens to get as much pollen as possible to adhere to their fuzzy bodies. Then they comb this polle into their pollen baskets and carry it home.
Bees that are deliberately gathering pollen are as much as ten times more efficient pollinators than those who are gathering nectar.

Beekeeper who provide pollination service try to manage the hives so that they maximize open brood at the time of the crop’s bloom. This provides incentive for the worker bees to gather pollen, and makes them more efficient for the farmers’ needs.

I am always looking for more good videos, so if you have an especially good site to recommend, please do!

Jan 21 2011

Honeybees have more pesticide protection than wild bees

Unfortunately those who keep and work with honeybees, and those who work with wild bees sometimes become such strong advocates that they divide into warring camps, when they have so much in common that they should be working together.

Honeybees have an industry organized around them; wild bees have some support groups, but they tend to be small. But the bees have very similar needs of habitat, parasites and pests problems, and especially pesticide practices of their forage areas.

I received a very strong objection from a wild bee advocate, to my statement that honeybees have more protection than wild bees. The advocate pointed out the various groups that have arisen to help protect the wild bees.

Because it was a private e-mail, I cannot post that person’s comments here, but perhaps I was not sufficiently specific in my statement, so I will post  a clarification: I’ve found that anyone who works in a public job (research, extension) is highly reluctant to take on pesticide misuse (job security perhaps?).  And the pesticide cops here in SC, very pointedly exclude wild bees from pesticide label protection.

On the other hand, beekeepers like myself have been active and vocal in trying to get enforcement of label directions. Any time there are crops or weeds in bloom in an application area, bees (of all kinds) are at risk, and the pesticide labels have specific instructions to not apply when bees will be damaged by the contamination of their food supply.

Agricultural advisors such as extension, and the pesticide cops themselves, usually do not base their bee protection advice on the pesticide labels.

Instead they suggest a “run-around” (ie. notify beekeepers) that enables pesticide users to evade the label directions – and offers NO protection at all for wild bees.

Ask any serious beekeeper, and he will tell you of times when his beehives were knocked out of productive service by a pesticide applied in violation of the label (whether or not he or she was notified of the application). Sometimes the entire field force of a hive is wiped out. Other times the adults do not die, but bring long lasting poisoned pollen back to be stored away in the hives, then fed to the young during the winter when the hives are extremely vulnerable, due to lack of fresh clean pollen being foraged. Thus a summer poison can kill a hive months later.

Now honeybee hives that had damage usually get the keeper’s best efforts at salvage/recovery, including feeding, removal of contaminated frames of pollen, and sometimes combining two or more hives – better one hive surviving, than two or more weak ones dying over the winter.

Wild bees get none of this help. If the adult bee is poisoned and dies, there will be no more nest building. If it carries contaminated pollen back to provision its young, the young will die, and there will be no next generation.

I am sure you understand that I am glad that wild bees are getting more, attention, and thus may be getting more protection. But all it takes is one severe “hit” at the wrong time to do some serious damage to a species in the area.

And I think you’ll agree that it’s easier (albeit expensive) to replace lost honeybees than to replace lost wild bees when they are destroyed.

That is why wild bee advocates and honeybee advocates need to join together. Whenever there is sloppy, careless pesticide applications that do not take the bee protection label instructions seriously, BOTH wild and domestic bees will suffer, but the wild bees will probably suffer more.

Note: A flow chart that organizes label directions to protect bees can be found at:  http://pollinator.com/pesticides/flowchart.htm

Dec 10 2010

Did you think beekeeping is impossible in the city?

Many cities do have ordinances that ban keeping honeybees, but there is a move afoot to rescind these restrictive rules that are based on phobias rather than fact.

Good beekeepers keep gentle bees, and they manage them in such a way that they pose  minimal hazard to anyone. At the same time they pollinate people’s gardens and they fill an ecological niche that could be just as well filled by much more feisty bees.

Years ago I recall that a swarm of Africanized bees apparently came into one of Florida’s ports and quickly multiplied. By the time it was discovered, there were eight descendent colonies – guess where they went? Of course, seven of the eight went to communities where beekeeping was banned.

The New York Times published an interesting article about the comeback of urban/suburban beekeeping today.

While the article is quite informative, there is one piece of poor writing that makes me shudder – the article refers to “pesticides and herbicides.” Since herbicides ARE pesticides, just like insecticides, miticides and fungicides, the article makes little sense, unless you would be the kind of person who would say, “Christians and Baptists,” or “wood and oak.”

According to the article, one city, Minneapolis, is pretty much restricting the hobby to people of means, by imposing a $100 fee per hive for the keepers. Other cities have more sensible requirements.

Much of the movement is in the form of beekeeping clubs, which help individual members learn the best management techniques for their unique environments. It’s all a move to go back to a more natural way of living.

Dec 4 2010

Best paper yet on Colony Collapse Disorder

Without any additions, clarifications, or critiques, I can freely endorse the linked article as the most balanced and comprehensive article I’ve seen on the subject of CCD:

Bees in Crisis: A comprehensive situation report: 


While this article specifically concerns honeybees, it is of great interest to those concerned about wild bee species as well. Honeybees have more research and more protectors, and may well serve as indicators as to what is happening with wild bees.

May 27 2010

Plan Bee

There are increasing numbers of articles on alternative pollinators in the media and I will be posting links to some of them on this blog.

One problem is that many articles are simply hype, of The-Sky-is-Falling type. I’m going to skip these. Other articles have a lot of useful information, but still are unbalanced. I will carefully chose some of these for the information they offer, but also want to give a caveat, when they are unbalanced.

A good illustration is an article which appeared yesterday in The Minneapolis Observer Quarterly, entitled The Secret Strife of Bees. The article is better than most public media articles, but the editors damage it, by adding a question at the top: 

“…to our mind, anyway, raised the question, why are we shipping bees across country when local native bees will pollinate our crops for free?”

To which I responded: Be careful of not reversing cause and effect! The reason honeybees are trucked for pollination is that local native bees were NOT doing the job. And the reason for that is two fold:
1. Fields and orchards are getting every larger, leading to a massive bloom all at once. The rest of the season, the area has no feed for bees, and even may be toxic to bees, because of pesticide use.
2. Wild bee populations are in worse shape than honeybee populations in many areas. The honeybees may well be the indicator of the problems that face all bees. But wild bees have no human keepers to defend and care for them, so they are even more vulnerable to pesticide misuse. Indeed, here in South Carolina (and I presume in many states), the pesticide cops specifically exclude wild bees from consideration in any pesticide enforcement.

Honey bee pollination has filled in the gap. Actually many of our food crops originate in the same home areas as honeybees, so they are ideal pollinators. Native bees can be better for some native plants like squash – IF they are present.

Commercial beekeepers have a struggle, if they try to make their living on honey production, which is viable only in some areas of the US, and which is in competition with cheap foreign imports.

Pollination cannot be imported, and there is a huge demand for it – which makes pollination service a better business model for commercial beekeepers. The bulk of our agricultural pollination is done by a few hundred beekeeping operations (mostly families), and we would face some severe food shortages if they ceased doing what they do.

Beekeepers have, at least for now, solved the pollinator shortage by becoming migratory, following the bloom from south to north, much as the combines follow the harvest for grains.

Visit this article at: The Secret Strife of Bees

A better and more comprehensive article can be found in an article entitled Plan Bee at the Audibon Magazine.  The article still lacks some balance, as there is an underlying assumption that honeybees will disappear and wild bees will save the day. This fails to recognize that honeybees are the de facto workhorses of American agriculture, and will be so for the foreseeable future. Wild bees are needed to supplement this, no doubt, but are unlikely to replace honeybees.

Honeybee keepers are staying on top of the situation, and becoming ever better at their craft. Many of the better keepers are untouched by Colony Collapse Disorder. At the same time, we are just in the beginning stages of learning how to use wild bees in agricultural pollination – and in many cases we have a long way to go to make them cost effective.

Advisors who tell farmers that wild bees will take care of their pollination needs run a big risk. I’ve seen massive and costly crop failures from lack of pollination when the wild bees did not come to save the day. I’ve seen farm bankruptcies that I believe were largely caused by lack of pollination.

So read the Audibon article to glean the valuable information contained, while remembering that they are tending to demean honeybees just a bit too much, and to laud wild bees just a bit too much.

Categorical statements that are made are not always true. For example it is stated that honeybees will not work tomatoes. I have seen honeybees work tomatoes and I know some pollination was accomplished. I will agree that they are not reliable at visiting tomatoes, nor are they the most effective pollinators. I just want to add some truth to balance the hype.

It is also said that honeybees do not buzz pollinate. Likewise that is not true, though they use a different mechanism. Honeybees will clasp a flower then actually “fly” while holding the flower, in order to shake pollen loose. Folks who claim honeybees do not buzz flowers have not been watching honeybees for long.

Another misleading point is that tomatoes self pollinate. Actually they are very poor at self pollinating, as anyone who has tried to raise them in a greenhouse can attest. Tomatoes self pollenize; they are self fertile; but they need aid to move the pollen, so they do not self pollinate.

Wind can provide the motion to shake the pollen free and move it to the stigmas, but of course the best pollinator is a bee which can create resonance with the flower’s natural frequency. This will release large quantities of pollen from the anthers.

Some of this may be confusion of terms. To pollenize is to provide pollen. The pollenizer is the daddy, the sire, or the “John” if you wish. To pollinate is to move pollen from anther to stigma. A pollinator is the agent that does such movement; the artificial-insemination technician, if you are a breeder; or the “pimp” (if you in another field).

So plants are never pollinators, unless they actually bring together the anther and stigma to move self fertile pollen.  Some legumes like peanuts actually do this. But it is rare in the plant world and does not happen with tomatoes. Likewise, bees are never pollenizers; they cannot produce pollen.

Again, I encourage readers to glean the good information available and balance it with other good information and reason.

So I say “Full Speed Ahead!” to the restoration of wild bees , and the study of their use as valuable pollinators, while also adding a “Hurrah” for our honeybees without which we would suffer some serious food shortages.