Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Save the Bees!

Pollination is the most spectacular and beautiful process ever evolved from nature. I mean sure, it is simply the transfer of pollen from the anthers of a flower to the stigma of the same flower or of another flower. But in all honesty, it is so much more.

Louie Schwartsberg is a famous cinematographer who focuses on the pollination behaviors of multiple pollinating organisms. In his film The Hidden Beauty of Pollination, he shows exactly why pollinators are equally as majestic as the nimble ballerinas in Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. Watch at the 3:00 minute mark in Louie's TED talk to see a part of his film.

In the winter of 2006, a strange phenomenon occurred within the honeybee populations in the United States. Without any warning, millions of honeybees disappeared from their respective hives. Not only were there no bee carcasses to be found, but also it was the worker bees that were disappearing. The lack of worker honeybees developed unstable honeybee hives, thus starting the most serious, die-off of honeybee colonies across the country. Scientists have called this occurrence Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which has resulted in a loss of 50-90% of individual beekeeping colonies across the United States (Chen 2007). Indicated by Reed Johnson from the South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, CCD is also characterized by delayed robbing and slower than normal invasion by common pests such as wax moth and small hive beetles. The hindrance to the invasions by these pests indicates there could be a parasite or disease affecting the honeybee populations.

Dennis vanEngelsdorp is an acting state beekeeper for Pennsylvania's Department of Agriculture. He is studying CCD and an outspoken advocate for urban beekeeping. He gave a TED talk, in which he says,

“Pollinators are canaries in the coal mine, and their disappearance is a referendum on the state of our environment -- a reminder of the brilliant and frightening interdependence of our ecosystem.”

Dennis makes a point that this recent bee phenomenon is a warning of danger or trouble yet to come. Similar to the canaries that warned miners of hazardous gases such as carbon monoxide, the disappearance of the honeybee is a sign that our ecosystem is in peril and that we as scientists have to do something about it!

Before we get into the research that has been done to determine what is causing the die-off of the honeybee, let us first get a firm understanding of Colony Collapse Disorder. First of all, CCD is an idea; it is a combination of unanswered guesses for why the bees are disappearing. To reiterate, Colony Collapse Disorder is a syndrome that is characterized by worker bees abandoning their hive. This is a recent phenomenon where large numbers of honeybees mysteriously die off due to unexplained factors. Some ideas for why the bees are disappearing include malnutrition, pesticides, parasites, and possibly climate change. For example, researchers believe the reason honeybees are decreasing in survivorship is due to the loss of variation in their food. Scientists have found that bees fed pollen from a range of plants showed signs of having a healthier immune system than those eating pollen from a single type (Osgathorpe 2011).

A lot of the prairie lands and old growth forests are being lost due to increased development of pastures and urban areas. The loss of biodiversity in plant life can be fatal for honeybee populations. The BBC wrote an article on the loss of biodiversity and how it maybe linked to the honeybee decline. The main issues they bring up in this article is that in contemporary society, the world has large areas of monocultures, which has been a fairly major change in what pollinating insects can forage for. I mean, just imagine, it was only 50 years ago that the agricultural industry safeguarded their crops by growing more than one crop in a field, as insurance against pest outbreaks or severe weather. Indirectly, this was helping the bee populations, since they were pollinating more than one species of crop during this period. In fact several agricultural scientists have arrived at a general consensus that modern agriculture confronts an environmental crisis. A growing number of people have become concerned about the long-term sustainability of existing food production systems. Modern agricultural techniques bring up a whole other can of worms, but it still shows that bees can be affected by the monocultures our country is built upon.

Scientists theorize that Colony Collapse Disorder may cause the next big extinction. This is because honeybees pollinate and pollination is an essential part of a stable ecosystem. Bees fly from stamen to stamen to collect pollen, to then spread to neighboring plants that can then accept the pollen, which allows the plants egg to develop into a source of food or shelter. This life cycle is vital for not just humans, but for all living organisms. To have a healthy terrestrial ecosystem, the plant, soil, and atmosphere must have beneficial or at least commensalistic interactions. In a community with CCD infected honeybees, there can be significant loss of plant life. For example, detritivores exist within a community to decompose dead material and this decomposition resupplies the soil with nutrients. If after a generation or two of lower honeybee populations, there would be less pollinated flowers, thus less fruit. In a local population sense, this would mean there would be a lower amount of fruits to decompose by the detritivores, which overall means there are fewer nutrients returned to the soil. That is just one simple example, but to imagine a whole country without pollinating bees would impact many other factors nationwide, such as photosynthetic levels. This is due to fewer seed set and plant growth, thus less carbon dioxide being converted into oxygen and organic compounds. In the big scheme of things, this would affect the atmosphere and the soil. It is hard to believe that every single thing in this world is connected, but these are just two examples that show that even a honeybee can affect the terrestrial environment.

If honeybee populations continue to fall this could potentially cost billions of dollars in the agriculture industry. Honeybees have estimated value of about $15 billion dollars in the United States, and over $215 billion dollars worldwide. It is estimated that one-third of the food eaten by U.S. citizens is thanks to honeybee pollination, either directly or indirectly. Not to mention that honeybee pollination plays an important role in pollination of other plants that are vital to maintaining an ecological balance (VanEngelsdorg 2009).

Since 2006 scientists have been trying to find some explanation for the disappearance of honeybees, but even after 6 years the data has come out inconclusive. There are many suspected causes for CCD, such as malnutrition, pathogens, immunodeficiency, pesticides, and genetically modified crops. Most researchers agree that while the exact cause of CCD remains unknown, it must be multiple factors working together that are causing the most serious die-off of honeybees ever reported. Albert Einstein once said, “If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live. No more bees, no more pollination … no more men!” Nationwide there is an urgent plea for more funding and research to sustain the honeybee populations and now it rests in scientists hands to save the earth from possibly the next big extinction.

Work Cited:
1. Osgathorpe, L. M., Park, K., Goulson, D., Acs, S., Hanley, N. (20011). The trade-off between agriculture and biodiversity in marginal areas: Can crofting and bumblebee conservation be reconciled? Ecological Econmoics. 70 (6) 1162-1167
2. Johnson, Reed M., Evans, J. D., Robinson, G. E., and Berenbaum, M. R. (2009). Changes in transcript abundance relating to colony collapse disorder in honey bees (Apis mellifera). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, 106 (35), 14790-14795
3. Greenleaf, Sarah and Kremen, C. (2006). Wild bees enhance honeybees’ pollination of hybrid sunflower. Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 103 (37), 13890-13895.
4. Chen, Y. and Evans, J. D. (2007). Historical Presence of Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus in the United States. Virol, 251 (82) 207-217
5. VanEngelsdorg, Dennis, Hayes, J., and Petti, J. (2009). A Survey of Honey Bee Colonies Losses in the U.S. Between September 2008 and April 2009. Science, 318 (5848) 283-287

1 comment:

  1. I like the way this blog starts with captivating poetic images, like pollinators dancing around like ballerinas (great video link) and then moves into the nitty gritty scientific discussion.

    The discussion about the effect of reduced diet diversity on bee immune systems is very interesting. This is a very intriguing study. However, I'm not sure I would go so far as saying "The loss of biodiversity in plant life can be fatal for honeybee populations." It seems like this is a fairly strong statement based upon somewhat speculative linkeages... that is, the loss of biodiversity may make the bees more vulnerable (but to what degree?) but it is then other factors that are directly fatal, if indeed that initial lack-of-biodiversity-induced vulnerability is a critical prerequisite (maybe the fatality causing agent is sufficiently potent that even a biodiverse-feeding bee wouldn't withstand it). Nevertheless, it's a very interesting study and idea.

    The thing that is really bugging me (pun intended) about all this bee business: you state that "Colony Collapse Disorder" could lead to the next big extinction and you also provide Albert Einstein's quote about the disastrous consequence of bee loss. However, one of the things that struck me from the TED talk and your group's presentation today is the incredible diversity of bees. It was something I hadn't really thought about that much before. What I don't understand is this: if CCD is primarily a phenomenon of the European honey bee, a domesticated, introduced species, why -- in the midst of such incredible diversity of bees and pollinators -- would the collapse of a domesticated, introduced species lead to a collapse of ecosystems. I don't doubt the severity of consequences, but I feel that there a bunch of dots that aren't being connected in my mind or haven't been clarified. Is this because native pollinators were outcompeted or declined in numbers after European honey bees were introduced (and could natives then rebound after CCD)? Or is it because Apies mellifera is simply a more efficient pollinator (but then how were native systems pollinated beforehand)? Or is it not the native ecosystems that are at risk of extinction but all of the domestic crops that essentially co-evolved or were selected for dependence on the European Honey Bee? I'm perplexed. In any case, I want to learn more about bee diversity and how all these things link together.