Tag Archives: pollination

A quarter of all known bees “haven’t been seen” since 1990 — and this is bad news

The number of bees recorded has declined sharply since the 1990s, according to a global analysis of bee populations. While this does not necessarily mean that all of these species are extinct, it could indicate that they have become rarer — rare enough that no one can find them in the wild on a regular basis.

Image credit: Flickr / Peter Miller

Wild bee pollination is key to the reproduction of hundreds of thousands of wild plant species and is crucial to yields in about 85% of food crops. Declines in the abundance and diversity of bee species have been reported at all levels — local, regional, and country levels — on different continents.

Argentine researchers Eduardo Zattara and Marcelo Aizen looked at how many wild bee species are observed each year as recorded in the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), a platform in which people can record sightings of bee species. GBIF groups data from a widely diverse range of data sources, localities, recording strategies and geographic areas.

Their findings showed that 25% fewer species were reported on GBIF between 2006 and 2015, compared with the records available before 1990. This is especially worrying as the number of bee records in the database has actually increased by around 55% since 2000, so the decline isn’t because of a lack of observations, the researchers explained.

“With citizen science and the ability to share data, records are going up exponentially, but the number of species reported in these records is going down,” Eduardo Zattara, the lead author and a researcher at the Comahue University in Argentina, told The Guardian. “It’s not a bee cataclysm yet, but what we can say is that wild bees are not exactly thriving.”

The declines weren’t evenly distributed across bee families, the study showed. Sightings of rarer types of bees fell more sharply than those of more common families. Records of Melittidae, a bee family found in Africa, dropped as much as 41% since the 1990s, while Halictid bees, the second-most common family, have declined by 17% during the same period.

The study has some limitations. Most notably results are subject to some uncertainty due to the variety of data sources included on GBIF. This makes it impossible to reach definitive conclusions on individual species, the researchers said. Still, even considering possible distortions on the data, the trend seen in the study is clear and matches other previous and narrower reports over the challenges faced by bees.

“Given the current outlook of global biodiversity, it is more likely that these trends reflect existing scenarios of declining bee diversity,” the researchers wrote in the study. “In the best scenario, this can indicate that thousands of bee species have become too rare; under the worst scenario, they may have already gone locally or globally extinct.”

Bees and other pollinators are facing many challenges all around the globe. They’ve lost habitat due to agriculture, resource extraction, and urban development and are also affected by air pollution and pesticide misuse, which can kill bees directly and affect their ability to navigate or forage. Climate change is also a big challenge, with many bees failing to migrate to cooler areas.

Research last year showed that bumblebees might be heading to mass extinction. Using a massive dataset, researchers found that the insects are far less common than they used to be. In North America, for example, there’s a 50% less chance to see a bumblebee in any given area prior to 1974.

The study was published in the journal One Earth.

Climate change is decoupling bee lifecycles from that of flowers

We know climate change is threatening the pollinators and crops that feed us, but a new study shines light on yet another of its unwanted effects.

Image via Pixabay.

Plants and pollinators are progressively decoupling their life cycles, the authors find, which can lead to massive issues for flowering plants. This decoupling stems from climate change, as average temperatures and snowmelt impacts when plants and beers emerge.

Timing troubles

“We analyzed time-series abundance data collected at 18 sites around the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) in the Elk Mountains of western Colorado during a nine-year, National Science Foundation-funded bee monitoring project,” says lead author Michael Stemkovski, a doctoral student at the Utah State University Department of Biology.

“We find bee emergence timing is advancing with snowmelt timing, but bee phenology — timing of emergence, peak abundance, and senescence — is less sensitive than flower phenology,” adds Rebecca Irwin, a professor of applied ecology at of North Carolina State University and senior author of the paper.

The team assessed 67 bee species in the Colorado Rockies using data collected over a 9-year period, finding a “phenological mismatch” between their life cycles and those of flowering plants, driven mostly by changes in temperature patterns. This has the potential to disrupt the relationship formed between pollinators and flowering plants, who have come to depend on one another.

Previous research has looked into the effect of temperature on this relationship, as did the current study. However, the team also looked at how topography and the different traits of various bee species mix into the issue, as well. While species characteristics definitely did play an important part in shaping this relationship, as did elevation, snowmelt timing remained “the most important factor”, they argue.

The issue here is that the lifecycles of bees seem to shift more slowly than those of the plants they pollinate and feed off of. In time, this mismatch could lead to very serious disruptions, as flowers mature before bees are ready to ‘wake up’ from overwintering.

It shouldn’t be that big of an issue by itself, the team argues, because species can shift and adapt to new conditions relatively well. The potential problem here is that, unless we address the root cause of climate change — greenhouse gas emissions — we’ll be placing too much strain on this relationship too fast. Eventually, it can break down altogether.

“In the short-term, we expect mutualist species to suffer fitness losses,” Stemkovski says. “In the long-term, bees and plants may be able to adapt and reestablish some synchrony, unless climate change outpaces the rate of adaptation.”

Pollinators have received a lot of attention lately, because they are vital for our lives as we know them — but they’re also struggling really hard due to human activity. This paper comes as the latest in a long line of warning calls that, unless we change our ways quickly, they will be changed for us, and we won’t like the outcome.

“Given global concerns about pollinator declines, the research provides important insight into the potential for reduced synchrony between flowers and their pollinators under climate change,” Irwin concludes.

The paper “Bee phenology is predicted by climatic variation and functional traits” has been published in the journal Ecology Letters.

Primitive bee trapped in 100-million-year-old amber is one of the earliest pollinators

Discoscapa apicula trapped in amber. Credit: Oregon State University.

A beetle parasite clinging to a primitive bee species from the mid-Cretaceous geological period sealed the insect’s fate. But what was undoubtedly an unfortunate moment for the insect has now proven to be valuable for science as the pair became stuck in tree resin and later fossilized into amber.

The 100-million-year-old insect marks the first recorded incidence of a primitive bee with pollen. The amber fossils also contain the earliest record of beetle parasites, which continue to afflict modern bees today.

Credit: Oregon State University.

George Poinar of the Department of Integrative Biology at Oregon State is a world-renowned expert in using amber-preserved plants and animals to unravel the ecology and biology of the distant past.

Along with colleagues, Poinar determined that the primitive bee encased in the amber retrieved from Myanmar belongs to a new family, genus and species.

The newly identified species, classified as Discoscapa apicula, in the family Discoscapidae, might provide key insights into the evolutionary history of flowering plants.

Flowering plants and pollinators, such as birds, bees, and butterflies, form a mutually beneficial alliance. Many flowering plants (angiosperms) rely on pollinators to transfer their genetic material from one plant to the other, while bees rely on the flowers’ nectar for food.

The genetic diversity supported by cross-pollination is why flowering plants live in almost all the Earth’s habitats, from deserts like Death Valley to ponds and oceans, and many places in between.

Closeup of beetle larvae trapped in the 100-million-year-old amber. Credit: Oregon State University.

It’s a win-win ecological success story, however, bees weren’t always like this. They evolved from carnivorous apoid wasps, yet not much is known about this radical dietary transition.

“Something unique about the new family that’s not found on any extant or extinct lineage of apoid wasps or bees is a bifurcated scape,” Poinar said in a statement, referring to a two-segment antennae base. “The fossil record of bees is pretty vast, but most are from the last 65 million years and look a lot like modern bees. Fossils like the one in this study can tell us about the changes certain wasp lineages underwent as they became palynivores – pollen eaters.”

Pollen grains on the hairs of the bee. Credit: Oregon State University.

Microscopic grains of pollen present on the body of the Discoscapa apicula specimen suggests that the bee had recently visited one or more flowers. But the most compelling evidence of the ancient insect’s pollinating behavior is the presence of 21 beetle larvae, which hitched a ride back to the bee’s nest where they would have devoured bee larvae and their provisions — were it not for a fortuitous meeting with some sticky tree resin.

The findings appeared in the journal BioOne Complete.

A dorsal view of the mid-Cretaceous beetle Cretoparacucujus cycadophilus, including the mandibular cavities it likely used for pollination. Credit: Chenyang Cai.

Beautifully preserved 99-million-year-old beetle was early pollinator

A dorsal view of the mid-Cretaceous beetle Cretoparacucujus cycadophilus, including the mandibular cavities it likely used for pollination. Credit: Chenyang Cai.

A dorsal view of the mid-Cretaceous beetle Cretoparacucujus cycadophilus, including the mandibular cavities it likely used for pollination. Credit: Chenyang Cai.

Believe it or not, but this excellently preserved beetle is 99 million years old! The unfortunate insect became trapped by sap, which eventually fossilized into amber. The really interesting bit about this fossil, however, is more subtle. Alongside the ancient boganiid beetle, scientists also discovered grains of cycad pollen. This suggests that cycads may have been the first insect-pollinated plants. 

Before bees

Flowering plants (angiosperms) evolved to attract insects some 99.6 million to 65.5 million years ago, about the same time as the bugs that were pollinating them. But before angiosperms, animals like the 160-million-year-old Lichnomesopsyche gloriae, an extinct scorpionfly, used its 10-millimeter-long proboscis as a straw to suck out nectar from gymnosperms (flowerless plants), spreading pollen in the process.

Early pollinators are severely lacking in the fossils record, which is why this exquisite beetle trapped in Burmese amber is so important to science. It shows that the insect had an intimate relationship with cycads, an unusual evergreen gymnosperm.

“Boganiid beetles have been ancient pollinators for cycads since the Age of Cycads and Dinosaurs,” says Chenyang Cai, now a research fellow at the University of Bristol. “Our find indicates a probable ancient origin of beetle pollination of cycads at least in the Early Jurassic, long before angiosperm dominance and the radiation of flowering-plant pollinators, such as bees, later in the Cretaceous.”

Cycad pollen grains associated with C. cycadophilus Credit: NIGPAS.

The beetles were so involved with cycads that they evolved special adaptations like mandibular patches that transport pollen. Indeed, when Cai and colleagues examined the fossil more closely under a microscope, they discovered tiny pollen grains. Liqin Li, an expert in ancient pollen at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, later confirmed that the pollen grains belonged to a cycad.

A phylogenetic analysis explored the beetle’s family tree, showing that the insect belonged to a sister group to the extant (still surviving) Australian Paracucujus, which pollinate the relic cycad Macrozamia riedlei.

Illustration of Cretoparacucujus burmiticus pollinating a gymnosperm. Credit: Chenyang Cai.

Illustration of Cretoparacucujus burmiticus pollinating a gymnosperm. Credit: Chenyang Cai.

Bearing in mind the current distribution of related beetle-herbivore and cycad-host pairs in South America and Australia, the findings suggest that cycad pollination has an ancient origin. How old? Likely before the breakup of the Gondwana supercontinent during the Early Jurassic, some 167 million years ago, Cai says. But this is an unproven hypothesis at this stage — for instance, scientists will need to find fossilized cycad leaves from this period.

The findings appeared in the journal Current Biology.

NASA Explores the Use of Robotic Bees on Mars

Graphic depiction of Marsbee - Swarm of Flapping Wing Flyers for Enhanced Mars Exploration. Credits: C. Kang.

Graphic depiction of Marsbee – Swarm of Flapping Wing Flyers for Enhanced Mars Exploration. Credits: C. Kang.

Robot bees have been invented before, but Mars might be a place for them to serve a unique purpose. Earlier this year, it was revealed that the Japanese chemist Eijio Miyako led a team at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) in developing robotic bees. So they’re not really bees; they’re drones. Miyako’s bee drones are actually capable of a form of pollination similar to real bees.

Bees have been the prime subject of many a sci-fi films including The Savage Bees (1976), The Swarm (1978), and Terror Out of the Sky (1978). In the 21st century, bees have been upgraded. Their robotic counterparts shall have an important role to play in future scientific exploration. And this role could very well be played out on the surface of Mars.

Now, NASA has begun to fund a project to create other AI-steered robotic bees for the future exploration of Mars. The main cause of experimenting with such mini robots is for the desirable need for speed. The problem is this: the traditional rovers sent to Mars in the past move very slowly. NASA anticipates an army of fliers to move significantly faster than their snail-like predecessors.

A number of researchers in Alabama are currently collaborating with a group based in Japan to design these mechanical drones. Sizewise the drones are very similar to real bees; however, the wings are unnaturally large. The lengthened wingspan was a well-needed feature to add since the Red Planet’s atmosphere is thinner compared to Earth’s. These small insect-like robots have been dubbed “Marsbees.”

If used, the Marsbees would travel in swarms and be able to return to some sort of a base, not unlike the way bees return to their hive. The base would likely be a rover providing a place for the Marsbees to be reenergized. But they would not have to come to this rover station to send out the information they’ve accumulated. Similar to satellites, they would be able to transmit their findings wirelessly. Marsbees would also likely be able to collect a variety of data. If their full development is feasible and economical, the future for Marsbees looks promising.

Restoring native plants boosts pollination

Removing invasive plants and restoring native ones does a great deal to help pollination, a new study finds.

The pitcher plant is adapted to mountain life which favors native pollinators. Image credits: C. Kaiser-Bunbury.

Invasive species are plants, animals, or pathogens that are non-native (or alien) to the ecosystem and which have the potential to cause harm to said ecosystem. It’s not uncommon for humans to bring invasive species along with them (or facilitate their entrance into the scene), which in time does incalculable damage to the biodiversity. The loss of biodiversity, in turn, has the potential to disrupt ecosystems and amplify the damage, with pollinators being especially vulnerable. The new study found that removing invasive species and bringing back natives makes a big difference.

The study was set in the Seychelles, where native and alien species are often grown side by side. Four islands in the archipelago had about 40,000 invasive woody plants removed, while the others were unchanged, serving as a control. Over an eight-month period, they observed what happened to pollinators — and lots of good things happened.

“Ecosystem restoration resulted in a marked increase in pollinator species, visits to flowers and interaction diversity,” said a team led by Christopher Kaiser-Bunbury of TU Darmstadt in Germany.

Al pollinator species (bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, moths, beetles, birds, and lizards) rejoiced at the changes. They started expanding their range, appearing at higher elevations and, of course, doing more pollination. This, in turn, was visible when the plants started bearing more fruit

Whether or not the environmental damage caused by invasive species can be reversed is an important topic. Of course, the Seychelles are not representative for many habitats in the world, but the results are pretty encouraging.

“Our results show that vegetation restoration can improve pollination, suggesting that the degradation of ecosystem functions is at least partially reversible,” Kaiser-Bunbury added.

The degree of recovery may depend on the state of degradation before restoration intervention and the proximity to pollinator source populations in the surrounding landscape, the study concludes.

Journal Reference: Christopher N. Kaiser-Bunbury, James Mougal, Andrew E. Whittington, Terence Valentin, Ronny Gabriel, Jens M. Olesen & Nico Blüthgen — Ecosystem restoration strengthens pollination network resilience and function. Nature (2017) doi:10.1038/nature21071

Scientists find a new way through which neonicotinoids are killing off bees

Bee populations are going down dramatically, and our insecticides are largely at blame.

Bees are extremely important pollinators. Photo by Louise Docker

Human beekeeping has been practiced for millennia, but in recent years, bees worldwide have been in dire straits. In 2012 alone, a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder (CCD) wiped out about half of honeybee hives [read more here]. In CCD, worker bees basically go away from the hive and never return. We don’t yet know for sure why this happens, but there is a strong link with the intensive use of pesticides.

Pesticides can either kill bees or drive them crazy and now, a team has found that pesticides also threaten their breeding

The new study, conducted by researchers from scientists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Minnesota, was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports. It details how neonicotinoids are greatly reducing the queens’ ability to lay eggs. Because bees can only reproduce through queens, this means that when the queen suffers, the entire colony suffers.

“The queens are… the only reproductive individual laying eggs in the colony,” said lead author Judy Wu-Smart. “If her ability to lay eggs is reduced, that is a subtle effect that isn’t (immediately) noticeable, but translates to really dramatic consequences for the colony.”

“One queen can lay up to 1,000 eggs a day. If her ability to lay eggs is reduced, that is a subtle effect that isn’t (immediately) noticeable but translates to really dramatic consequences for the colony.”

Wu-Smart and her colleague, the University of Minnesota’s Marla Spivak, assessed colonies populated by 1,500, 3,000 and 7,000 honey bees, finding yet another unwanted side effect of pesticides. Bees affected by pesticides stored far less pollen, which they convert into a “bee bread” that provides crucial protein for recently hatched larvae. So not only are pesticide-affected bees creating fewer offspring, but they’re also not feeding them properly.

Image via University at Nebraska-Lincoln

“In many of these cases, we want to figure out why these colonies are dwindling when they should be at their peak production. This is providing some of that insight. It’s not answering all the questions, but it’s definitely something to consider.”

While queens in larger colonies are less likely to be affected, bees in small colonies are especially vulnerable.

“What we can say is that smaller colonies tend to be more vulnerable, because the queens are more likely to become exposed,” Wu-Smart said. “When we look at our general beekeeping practices, the early spring is when colonies are at their smallest size. They’re coming out of winter, and a lot of them are naturally smaller.”

Banning or regulating pesticides

Farmers are very quick to use pesticides, and rarely consider the effect they are having on the environment. This is why there is a heated debate about banning some pesticides which do most damage to bees and other pollinators. Italy did this in 2012 and reported excellent results, and the US is also in the process of banning some neonicotinoids.

But Wu-Smart said she doesn’t consider banning neonicotinoids a practical step in protecting honey bee colonies, instead advocating for regulating insecticide-treated seeds the same way the industry does with sprays and other application techniques.

“When you spray a pesticide, you have to consider things like wind and temperature to reduce drift,” she said. “You can’t aerial-spray on a windy day. With seed-treated products, there is no label telling (growers) that it’s been treated with an insecticide. There is no restriction as to when you can plant.

“When we do a lot of the extension outreach and talking to growers, many of them are unaware that this is even a problem. So just having that label on the bag saying that planting these seed treatments on a windy day could potentially cause some effects on bees could be useful.”

It’s a complex process with no clear answer, but one thing’s for sure: if we don’t do something fast, millions and millions of bees will suffer.

Journal Reference: Sub-lethal effects of dietary neonicotinoid insecticide exposure on honey bee queen fecundity and colony development. doi:10.1038/srep32108

heavy metal bee

These heavy metal bees head-bang flowers 350 time/second to release pollen

Blue-banded bees employ a head on approach to pollination, a group of researchers at Adelaide University showed. While other bees use their mandibles and wings to shake the pollen, this Australian native insect is all “no-hands” and bangs its head against the flowers 350 times per second — considerably faster than any bee noticed so far.

heavy metal bee

The team studied pollination of Solanum lycopersicum (cherry tomatoes) by two bees that fill similar niches on different continents – in Australia, Amegilla murrayensis (blue-banded bee), and in North America, Bombus impatiens (common eastern bumblebee).

Videos were recorded of the two species while busy at work. Slow motion and acoustic monitoring revealed each species employed two totally different mechanisms of buzzing the flowers. While the Bombus impatiens used its wings and mouth to buzz flowers, the blue-banded bee banged its head against them. This was done at a rate of 350Hz, versus 240Hz for the North American bee.

“We were absolutely surprised. We were so buried in the science of it, we never thought about something like this. This is something totally new,” Dr. Katja Hogendoorn, bee specialist from the School of Agriculture, Food and Wine at the University of Adelaide, explained in a news release.

This means that over the same surface area, the blue-banded bee is much more efficient. Farmers, for instance, could use fewer blue-banded bees to pollinate the same hectare.

“Our earlier research has shown that blue-banded bees are effective pollinators of greenhouse tomatoes,” Hogendoorn said in a statement. “This new finding suggests that blue-banded bees could also be very efficient pollinators — needing fewer bees per hectare.”

The findings were published in the journal Arthropod-Plant Interactions.

Bumblebees in Europe and North America bumble away from the equator as habitats shrink due to climate change

In the most comprehensive study ever conducted of the impacts of climate change on critical pollinators, scientists have discovered that global warming is rapidly shrinking the area where these bees are found in both North America and Europe.

Researchers examined more than 420,000 historical and current records of many species of bumblebees and confirm that they are in steep decline at a continental scale because of climate change. The new research is reported in the journal Science.

Bumble, bumble, toil and trouble. Image via: pixgood.com

The reduction in the habitable areas of these tiny fuzzy insects would make being a bumblebee really cramped and uncomfortable (we sympathize with the plight of our bumblebee readers), but more importantly, it would affect entire ecosystems that rely on them for food:

“Bumblebees pollinate many plants that provide food for humans and wildlife,” says Leif Richardson, a scientist at the University of Vermont who helped lead the new research. “If we don’t stop the decline in the abundance of bumblebees, we may well face higher food prices, diminished varieties, and other troubles.”

And we, as a species, rely on them, their honeybee brethren and other pollinators heavily in agriculture; farmers worldwide depend on them to pollinate crops, from onions to celery to tomatoes and sunflowers effectively, and free of charge. The buzz is a bonus.

“Pollinators are vital for food security and our economy, and widespread losses of pollinators due to climate change will diminish both,” stated leader of the study Jeremy Kerr, a biologist from the University of Ottawa. “We need to figure out how we can improve the outlook for pollinators at continental scales, but the most important thing we can do is begin to take serious action to reduce the rate of climate change.”

If only this poor farmer fought climate change so he would have a few bumblebees.
Image via: garden.lovetoknow.com

Many species of animals and insects have been observed to expand their territories northwards, towards the North Pole, as previously frigid lands become more hospitable due to climate change. Bumblebees however are a special and worrying case, as they do not seem to move north at all, and even worse, the southern boundary of their territory is starting to creep away from the equator.

“This was a surprise,” said Richardson, a bee expert at UVM’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics. “The bees are losing range on their southern margin and failing to pick up territory at the northern margin–so their habitat range is shrinking.”

The new study shows that the culprit is not pesticides and it’s not land use changes–two other major threats to bumblebee populations and health. Instead, the research shows clearly that this “range compression,” as the scientists call it, tracks with warming temperatures.

The team also found that bumblebees are starting to move to higher elevations, up hill and mountain sides, searching for cooler, more comfortable temperatures.

“Moving upslope doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve lost area there yet,” said UVM’s Richardson, “but, eventually, they may simply run out of hill.”

To conduct their study, the scientist used geo-referenced databases from museum collections on both continents. In Vermont, Leif Richardson examined bee specimens at UVM’s Zadock Thompson Zoological Collections.

Over the 110 years of records that the team examined, bumblebees have lost about 185 miles (300 km) from the southern edge of their range in Europe and North America, the scientists estimate.

“The scale and pace of these losses are unprecedented,” said Ottawa’s Jeremy Kerr.

They speculate that the explanation lies in the bee’s origins: many other species of insects originated and diversified in tropical climates, so the higher temperatures bode them well, as they can better adapt to them. Bumblebees however have “unusual evolutionary origins in the cool Palearctic,” the scientists write, which may help explain their rapid losses of terrain from the south and lagging expansion in the warming north.

To respond to this problem, the research team suggests that a dramatic solution be considered: moving bee populations into new areas where they might persist. This “assisted migration” idea has been considered–and controversial–in conservation biology circles for more than a decade, but is gaining support as warming continues.

“We need new strategies to help these species cope with the effects of human-caused climate change, perhaps assisting them to shift into northern areas,” said Kerr. But the most important message of this study is “the need to halt or reverse climate warming,” says Leif Richardson, a USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture postdoctoral research fellow at UVM.

“These findings could spell trouble for many plants–including some crops, like blueberries–that depend on bumblebees for pollination,” he said. “Bumblebees are crucial to our natural ecosystems.”

 

Bee numbers dropping at incredible rates

Something is killing off the bees; it’s likely us, and we’ll all have to pay the price. In fact, in many areas of the world, we already are.

Total annual loss (%) 2014-2015 by state. Respondents who managed colonies in more than one state had all of their colonies counted in each state in which they reported managing colonies. Data for states with fewer than five respondents are withheld. Steinhauer et al, 2015.

 

“If you’ve ever eaten a strawberry or a blueberry, you ought to thank a bee,” comments Toni Burnham, the president of the Maryland State Beekeepers Association.

Something’s killing the bees

The statistics are extremely disturbing; beekeepers in the U.S. lost 42.1 percent of their bee colonies in just one year, between April 2014 and April 2015. This is just an analysis of the preliminary results, but the emerging trend is already worrying. It’s normal to lose some beehives, it happens every year, but the destruction of bee hives is not slowing down – it’s accelerating.

“Beekeepers do not only lose colonies in the winter but also throughout the summer, sometimes at significant levels. Responding beekeepers reported losing 42.1% of the total number of colonies managed over the last year (total annual loss, between April 2014 and April 2015). This represents the second highest annual loss recorded to date,” the report writes.

So what is killing the insects? The answer is complex and involves several factors.

“Since the 1980s, honeybees and beekeepers have had to deal with a host of new pathogens from deformed wing virus to nosema fungi, new parasites such as Varroa mites, pests like small hive beetles, nutrition problems from lack of diversity or availability in pollen and nectar sources, and possible sublethal effects of pesticides, ” the USDA notes. But deaths began to spike in the middle of the past decade, when a phenomenon in which bees deserted their hives and died en masse – later named colony collapse disorder – began sweeping hives worldwide. “Commercial keepers were particularly prone to summer losses.”

The words that seem to always pop up in this discussion are “Colony Collapse Disorder” (CCD). CCD is a phenomenon in which worker bees from a colony abruptly disappear. Beekeepers throughout the entire world have reported massive rates of CCD in recent years, but the mechanisms still remain unknown. Pesticides (especially neonicotinoids) are the main suspect, but loss of habitat, pollution and infection with various pathogens also likely contribute.

A study that came out in February 2015 concluded:

“Bees of all species are likely to encounter multiple stressors during their lives, and each is likely to reduce the ability of bees to cope with the others. A bee or bee colony that appears to have succumbed to a pathogen may not have died if it had not also been exposed to a sublethal dose of a pesticide and/or been subject to food stress (which might in turn be due to drought or heavy rain induced by climate change, or competition from a high density of honey bee hives placed nearby). Unfortunately, conducting well-replicated studies of the effects of multiple interacting stressors on bee colonies is exceedingly difficult. The number of stressor combinations rapidly becomes large, and exposure to stressors is hard or impossible to control with free-flying bees. Nonetheless, a strong argument can be made that it is the interaction among parasites, pesticides, and diet that lies at the heart of current bee health problems.”

Why we should care

Saving bee colonies is important not only for the bees themselves, but also for us. Something that many people tend to neglect is that as pollinators, bees provide valuable environmental services for agriculture. It’s estimated that in the US alone, pollination services are worth $10 billion to $15 billion a year. The worldwide value is incommensurable.

If bees continue to vanish at these rates, then we can expect anything from rising prices in common foods to actual food shortages. When you consider that some agricultural areas rely almost entirely on bees for pollination, the situation gets even more dire. The first ones who have to take measures are actually the beekeepers.

“As long as beekeepers are willing to put more money and hard labor into it, we can come back and rebuild our colonies and numbers,” explains Dr. Heather Mattila, a honeybee biologist at Wellesley College. “But whether this is all sustainable is an open question.”

But the problem is much bigger than this, and CCD is just another symptom of a larger issue. The way our global agriculture is developed is not sustainable, and we have to make the transition as soon as possible. Otherwise, the bee colony collapse disorder will be just another domino pieces, triggering many other negative changes after it.

Study Reference: Colony Loss 2014 – 2015: Preliminary Results.

Fossil of Earliest Bird Pollinator Found

Researchers have discovered the earliest evidence of a bird pollinator visiting flowers, presumably to feed on the nectar – if true, this means that bird pollinator/plants interactions were already taking place 47 million years ago.

pollinator bird

When you think about pollinators, you mostly think about bees or butterflies – but birds are significant pollinators too. Birds, particularly hummingbirds, honeyeaters and sunbirds accomplish much pollination, especially of deep-throated flowers. Even some monkeys, lemurs, possums, rodents and lizards act as polllinators, though at a much smaller scale.

However, researchers don’t know that much about the evolutionary history of pollinating birds. Now, Gerald Mayr and Volker Wilde from Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum Frankfurt report the earliest evidence of flower visiting by birds.

As you might guess, finding such evidence is really hard – you basically have to catch them fossilized in the act, or have a fossil so well preserved, that you can make some indirect deductions; in their new study, they describe such a well perserved fossil.

The complete skeleton of a small, ancient bird (Pumiliornis tessellatus) from the middle Eocene of Messel, Germany, was found in oil shale pits in 2012. The fossil is so immaculately preserved that you can actually observe the contents of its stomach: pollen grains from eudicotyledonous angiosperrms. Researchers believe the grains were ingested when the bird was hunting for nectar in the flowers. Here’s a picture of the fossil, with the pollen grains highlighted. The stomach contents also feature an iridiscent insect.

pollinator bird2

The nectar guzzling bird in case was pretty small, measuring about 8 centimeters long and weighing probably between 5 and 10 grams – comparable to the hummingbirds we see today. Furthermore, its general physiology suggests that it was a nectar collector: it had long, slender nasal openings and a fourth toe that could be turned backward meant the bird could clasp or climb branches, and was also very useful for visiting flowers.

P. tessellatus was not that well understood, as it was only known through two other specimens, and none of them was as well preserved as this one. According to Mayr, pollinating birds probably existed before 47 million years ago, and this began shortly after birds started to take flight.

Flowers use electrical signals to summon bees

Pollination is the game, “summon bees” is the spell, and electricity is the mana – that’s how I’d try to explain it to a gamer. A little more on the serious side, flowers advertise presence of nectar to bees using electrical signals, basically indicating if they’ve been visited by another bee or not.

bee flower

Usually, plants are negatively charged and emit weak electrical signals; on the other hand, bees zip and zap through the air, picking up a positive charge. When a bee goes close to a plant, it doesn’t exactly create sparks, but it does create a small electric field which can convey information. The flowers’ use of electric signals to communicate with potential pollinators adds another weapon to their already impressive arsenal of visual, ultraviolet, and fragrant advertising methods.

“This novel communication channel reveals how flowers can potentially inform their pollinators about the honest status of their precious nectar and pollen reserves,” says Dr Heather Whitney, a co-author of the study.

Researchers placed electrodes in the stems of petunias, showing that when a bee lands on the plant, the flower’s electrical potential changes and remains changed for several minutes. They also showed that bees can distinguish between different floral electric fields that have or haven’t previously changed, thus knowing if another bee has visited the flower recently or not.

This idea was further explored with a learning test the bees took The test showed that when electric signals were present in conjunction with colors, the bees were much faster at ‘learning’ to distinguish between the colors. However, as clear as it is that bees distinguish between different electrical fields, researchers are quite puzzled on how the insects do it.

“The discovery of such electric detection has opened up a whole new understanding of insect perception and flower communication.”, they explained.

Om nom nom.

Om nom nom.

As it turns out, there’s a lesson in good advertising to be learned here. Since bees are quick learners, they’ll also learn if a plant “tricked” them – if she advertised having nectar, but doesn’t really have it . Professor Daniel Robert said:

“The last thing a flower wants is to attract a bee and then fail to provide nectar: a lesson in honest advertising since bees are good learners and would soon lose interest in such an unrewarding flower. The co-evolution between flowers and bees has a long and beneficial history, so perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that we are still discovering today how remarkably sophisticated their communication is.”

The research was published in Science Express

Rainforest plant evolved beacon for pollinating bats

A lot of attenton has been given to plants that visually attract pollinating bees, through bright colours and spectacular designs, but bats play a very important role for pollinating as well, and there is much we have yet to understand about how they can be attracted by plants.

Researchers have now discovered that a species of rainforest vine, pollinated by bats, has evolved special shaped leaves with such conspicuous echoes that bats can find it twice as fast using echolocation.

Located in Cuba, Marcgravia evenia has developed a distinctively shaped concave leaf located close to the flower which has amazing acoustic properties. Scientists discovered that it acts as an ideal echo beacon, sending back strong and clear echoes in all directions, practically creating its own signature that bats can easily notce and follow.

Scientists trained bats to search for a small plant located in an artificial background, and the results were conclusive. Dr Marc Holderied of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences, co-author of the paper, said:

“This echo beacon has benefits for both the plant and the bats. On one hand, it increases the foraging efficiency of nectar-feeding bats, which is of particular importance as they have to pay hundreds of visits to flowers each night to fulfill their energy needs. On the other hand, the M. evenia vine occurs in such low abundance that it requires highly mobile pollinators.”