Tag Archives: pollinator

Researchers map the anatomy of the ‘mysteriously-shaped’ beetle

Roughly one year ago, researchers in Myanmar found a new species of beetle encased in amber. At the time, they were unable to describe the insect’s full morphology, so they christened it Mysteriomorphidae (‘mysteriously shaped’). Now, researchers in Europe have reconstructed the insects from four new samples.

Image credits D. Peris, R. Kundrata et al., (2020), Scientific Reports.

These findings allowed the team to better place the species in the tree of life, finding it is closely related to a living family of beetles.

The beetles

The current findings were made possible by a collaboration between members from the University of Bonn, Germany, and Palacky University, in the Czech Republic. They used computer tomography (CT) to study the body structure (morphology) of the beetles from four specimens found encased in amber since the species was first described.

Some of these specimens were very well preserved, allowing the team to carry out a digital reconstruction of their bodies from CT scans. This technique has seen ample use in paleontology as it allows researchers to study tiny features of fossils, even internal ones, without damaging the specimen.

This isn’t the first attempt to describe the outer morphology of Mysteriomorphidae. However, previous research still left some open questions, which the current results answer. In particular, they were able to take a better look at the insect’s thorax, abdomen, and mouthparts, which are tell-tale elements of individual beetle families.

“We used the morphology to better define the placement of the beetles and discovered that they were very closely related to Elateridae, a current family,” explains Dr. Robin Kundrata from Palacky University, co-lead of the study and an expert on this family of beetles.

Scientists reconstruct beetles from the Cretaceous
Image credits D. Peris, R. Kundrata et al., (2020), Scientific Reports.

Earlier models had pointed to beetles enjoying a low extinction rate throughout their evolutionary history, even through periods such as the Cretaceous period when extinctions were the name of the game (this time saw the dinosaurs wiped out). But species such as Mysteriomorphidae and similar groups of beetles are known only from Cretaceous ambers, suggesting that they didn’t survive past this period of time.

The team believes this comes down to the rapid development and expansion of flowering plants during the Cretaceous period. These essentially reshaped most ecosystems of the time, placing extra pressure on the species adapted to the previous status quo. This expansion made it possible for pollinators to evolve, which outcompeted many of the previous species of insects.

“Our results support the hypothesis that beetles, but perhaps some other groups of insects, suffered a decrease in their diversity during the time of plant revolution,” says Dr. David Peris, one of the two main authors of the study.

The paper “Unlocking the mystery of the mid-Cretaceous Mysteriomorphidae (Coleoptera: Elateroidea) and modalities in transiting from gymnosperms to angiosperms” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Urban areas can do a lot to support bees and other pollinators, new study concludes

As mankind continues to expand its urban areas, this often comes at the detriment of natural ecosystems. For pollinators, however, cities aren’t necessarily that bad. If we plant and carefully manage our green spaces with the right plants, cities can help support pollinator populations.

Having more flowers in urban areas can do wonders for pollinators. Image in public domain.

In terms of wildlife, cities are generally regarded as barren and desolate — but that isn’t necessarily the case. While cities offer little in the way of ecosystem support for most creatures, cities can also help play their part to support biodiversity. Take pollinators, for instance. Alarmingly, pollinator populations are declining all over the world, but a few small studies have shown that cities (or rather, some parts of cities) can do a lot to support them.

In a new, large-scale study, researchers analyzed the floral resources and pollinators in 360 sites in four major British cities, identifying which type of area does the most to support the insects.

Urban areas are complex mosaics of different land uses. As a result, the value they can offer to pollinators can also vary dramatically. Therefore, researchers split urban areas into nine different classes: sidewalks, man-made surfaces, cemeteries, nature reserves, other green spaces, parks, residential gardens, road verges, and community gardens (also known as ‘allotments’). These areas didn’t cover the entire city area, accounting for about three-quarters of it.

As expected, some areas were better than others, with the greener areas offering more support than sidewalks or car parks, for instance. But not all green areas are the same, the study found. For instance, allotments (which often feature vegetables or other edible plants) performed much better than the average, as did residential gardens. In total, residential and community gardens support much higher pollinator abundances than the other classes of urban land — with up to 50 times more bees than areas with manmade surfaces, such as car parks and industrial estates. In general, the higher the floral density, the more pollinators tended to visit the site.

“We show that residential gardens and allotments (community gardens) are pollinator ‘hotspots’: gardens due to their extensive area, and allotments due to their high pollinator diversity and leverage on city-scale plant–pollinator community robustness,” researchers write. They also found a positive correlation between the number of pollinators and household income, largely because more affluent households tend to have bigger gardens with more flowers.

There were also significant differences based on the type of flowers. Five species stood out: the creeping thistle (Cirsium arvense), hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium), creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens), starflower (Borago officinalis) and dandelion (Taraxacum species). Researchers say that if municipalities and residents are encouraged to plant these plants, they can do wonders for pollinators as they have more nectar and pollen. However, some of these plants (particularly the thistle and the dandelion) are regarded as weeds and often times, not even tolerated — let alone planted. Meanwhile, some of the more popular flowers like the daisy (Bellis perennis) and the hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla) offer surprisingly little support, as they have much less pollen and nectar.

Researchers also found no major difference between different types of pollinators — in other words, what works for bees also works for butterflies or other pollinators.

The authors also simulated how different urban planning schemes could affect the pollinators. They find that increasing the number of flowers in parks and roadside verges (particularly with flowers rich in pollen) and enriching plain green spaces would be simple and effective strategies for pollinator conservation in cities.

“Our results underpin urban planning recommendations to enhance pollinator conservation, using increasing city-scale community robustness as our measure of success,” researchers conclude.

The study “A systems approach reveals urban pollinator hotspots and conservation opportunities”  was published in Nature.

Bumblebee becomes the first endangered bee in continental US

For the first time in history, a bee in continental US has been listed as endangered: the rusty patched bumblebee.

Image credits: Steve Evans from Citizen of the World.

Bees all around the world are going through a dramatic decline, largely due to the effect of pesticides causing a condition called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Two decades ago, the rusty patched bumblebee would have been a common sight in the US but now, it’s endangered with numbers declining in 87% of its historical habitat range.

The proposal was first made in September 2016 and was just now implemented by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act. Discussing this decision, Service Midwest Regional Director Tom Melius said,

“Our top priority is to act quickly to prevent extinction of the rusty patched bumble bee. Listing the bee as endangered will help us mobilize partners and focus resources on finding ways right now to stop the decline.”

It’s truly heartbreaking to see such a staple species nearing extinction – and the bumblebee isn’t the only one. Several other bees and pollinators are facing similar issues, although they haven’t yet been listed as endangered. These pollinating species play a key role in their ecosystem, and their demise brings with it incalculable costs. For economically important crops such as tomatoes, cranberries, and peppers alone, it’s estimated that pollinators provide environmental services of $3 billion in the US alone. Bumblebees are especially good pollinators and even plants that self-pollinate produce more and bigger fruit when pollinated by bumble bees.

“The rusty patched bumble bee is among a group of pollinators – including the monarch butterfly – experiencing serious declines across the country,” Melius said. “Why is this important? Pollinators are small but mighty parts of the natural mechanism that sustains us and our world. Without them, our forests, parks, meadows and shrublands, and the abundant, vibrant life they support, cannot survive, and our crops require laborious, costly pollination by hand.”

The reasons for the decline of the bumblebee are already classic:

  • loss of habitat;
  • disease and parasites;
  • use of pesticides that directly or indirectly kill the bees;
  • climate change, which can affect the availability of the flowers they depend on.

Aside from what officials do, the general public can also take measures to help pollinators. Planting local, native flowers, even in small urban areas can do wonders for the tiny pollinators. The use of pesticides should also be avoided, if possible (or at least limited). Foster natural landscapes and leave grass and garden plants uncut after summer to provide habitat for overwintering bees. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service advises:

“Grow flowers, including flowering trees and shrubs. Have a mix with something in bloom from early spring through fall. Include native milkweeds for monarch butterflies.

Bumble bees and many other pollinators (bees, moths and butterflies) need a safe place to build their nests and overwinter. Leave some areas of your yard unmowed in summer and unraked in fall, in your garden and flower beds leave some standing plant stems in winter.

Provide a pesticide free environment.”

Why pollinators are important and why we need to act now to protect them

It’s been in all the headlines: monarch butterflies are in decline, honey bees are experiencing colony collapse disorder (CCD), and our future food supply appears to be in peril. The importance of preserving pollinators has even reached the White House, as President Obama issued a presidential memo in June 2014 that directed federal agencies to 1) develop a Pollinator Health Task Force, 2) develop a Pollinator Research Action Plan, and 3) require agencies to implement plans to increase and improve pollinator habitat on federal lands. It is definitely a serious issue!

What are the issues?

Photo credit: USFWS (Adult monarch butterfly by Tina Shaw/USFWS).
Photo credit: USFWS (Adult monarch butterfly by Tina Shaw/USFWS).

Monarch butterflies have been declining significantly, reaching the lowest count ever recorded during the 2013-14 migration (USFWS, n.d.). The migration route between the U.S. and Canada, a 3,000 mile journey, has become more challenging because of habitat loss, particularly the loss of milkweed (the species’ only food source), and mortality caused by the use of pesticides.

Pollinators are in decline. There are many types of pollinators in the environment. In addition to honey bees, wasps, and butterflies, hummingbirds, bats, ants, beetles, and flies also can pollinate plants. These species are typically underappreciated, if not feared, by people, leading to a lack of concern for their conservation. For example, Regan et al. (2015) noted that 2.5 bird and mammal pollinator species are moving up the IUCN Red List by one category toward extinction every year.

Neonicotinoids, one of the most widely-used pesticides are impacting on non-target species. Honey bees are exposed to this pesticide because its residue is found in nectar and pollen. In fact, it persists in the soil and in woody plants for up to six years after it is applied (The Xerces Society, 2014). While there is not yet a direct correlation between colony collapse disorder and neonicotinoids, it is likely that honey bees become more susceptible to parasites and pathogens, the sub-lethal effects mentioned in Goulson (2013).

What’s being done?

EPA recently updated pesticide use labels to include a bee advisory box. The new advisory box includes a bee image to alert users to take additional precautions and observe any specific restrictions for pesticide use to better protect pollinators. EPA is also currently conducting a registration review of these products and working with the USDA to conduct additional scientific research (EPA, 2015).

In the U.S., federal agencies are banning or phasing out neonicotinoids. The first agency to ban entirely them is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for use in national wildlife refuges, starting in 2016. The National Park Service has begun the process of phasing them out for most applications in national parks. Several states are also considering banning these pesticides. In Europe, the European Committee has banned three neonicotinoids for at least two years, and will decide on a total ban by late 2015.

What can you do?

Create pollinator habitat. Plant milkweed! Next time you plan out a planting project, go online and find some native plants that support pollinators, including milkweed, the sole food supply for Monarch butterflies. This site provides guidance for native pollinator plants based on the region of the country, so you can tailor your choices to those most appropriate in your area.

Use best management practices. According to the Xerces Society (2014), household products approved for use in gardens, lawns, and on ornamental trees have manufacturer-recommended application rates up to 120 times higher than those approved for agricultural crops. There are a multitude of resources to identify best management practices you can use to protect pollinators. Here are some links EPA recommends:

Encourage others to protect pollinators. Remember, change takes place when we model the behavior we hope to see in others! Why not hold a pollinator party and raise awareness of this important issue?

The bottom line is that we all need to consider our future without pollinators, or if there even will be a future without them.

References

  1. Douglas, M.R., Rohr, J.R., and T.F. Tooker (2014). Neonicotinoid insecticide travels through a soil food chain, disrupting biological control of non-target pests and decreasing soya bean yield. Journal of Applied Ecology. DOI: 10.1111/1365-2664.12372
  2. Environmental Protection Agency (2015). Protecting Bees and Other Pollinators from Pesticides. Retrieved from http://www2.epa.gov/pollinator-protection
  3. Goulson, D. (2013). An overview of the environmental risks posed by neonicotinoid insecticides. Journal of Applied Ecology, 50, 977-987.
  4. Hopwood, J. Vaughan, M., Shepherd, M., Biddinger, D., Mader, E., Black, S.H., and Mazzacano, C. 2012. Are neonictinoids killing bees? A review of research into the effects of neonictinoid insecticides on bees, with recommendations for action. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. Retrieved from http://www.xerces.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Are-Neonicotinoids-Killing-Bees_Xerces-Society1.pdf
  5. Regan, E.C., Santini, L., Ingwall-King, L., Hoffman, M., Rondinini, C., Symes, A., Taylor, J., and S.H.M. Butchart (2015, 27 March). Global trends in the status of bird and mammal pollinators. Conservation Letters. DOI: 10.1111/conl.12162
  6. The White House, Office of the Press Secretary (2014, 20 June). Presidential Memorandum – Creating a Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/06/20/presidential-memorandum-creating-federal-strategy-promote-health-honey-b
  7. The Xerces Society (2015). Are neonictinoids killing bees? Retrieved from http://www.xerces.org/neonicotinoids-and-bees/

About the Author

This article was written by Dr. Carol Pollio, Program Director, Environmental Science at American Public University.

Dr. Carol A. Pollio has been the Program Director for the Environmental Science Program for more than 8 years. She is also the Chief of Natural Resources and Science for the National Park Service, National Capital Region. In this position, she manages a staff of technical experts in various natural resources fields, providing scientific advice and assistance to 14 national parks. Dr. Pollio has more than 38 years of experience in the Department of Interior, primarily in field positions, including positions in natural resources management, federal law enforcement, and wildland and structural firefighting.

A 31 year veteran of the US Coast Guard Reserve, CAPT Pollio was activated in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2003 and deployed to the Gulf Oil Spill in 2010, serving as Liaison Officer to Santa Rosa County, Florida. As a member of a deployable unit for 7 years, she traveled to Portugal, Turkey, and Panama to conduct foreign port security exercises.

Dr. Carol Pollio received a Ph.D. in Environmental Science and Public Policy from George Mason University, a Master of Science in Environmental Science from Marshall University, and a Bachelor of Science in Natural Resources Management from Rutgers University.

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.

Not just honeybees – wildbees, butterflies and moths are also in trouble

By now, you really should be aware of the honeybee problems that are plaguing populations throughout the world – their numbers are dwindling, and this poses a huge threat not just for the bees themselves, but for humans as well. Now, a new study has shown that it’s not just bees who are in trouble, but also other pollinators, like butterflies and moths.

“Almost 90 percent of the world’s flowering species require insects or other animals for pollination,” said ecologist Laura Burkle of Montana State University. “That’s a lot of plants that need these adorable creatures for reproduction. And if we don’t have those plants, we have a pretty impoverished world.”

Killing pollinators – fast

 

Via Life on the Balcony

It’s pretty clear that we are ones destroying honeybee populations, and the causes are not natural. Now, things are shown to be even worse, as we are having a similar effect on wild pollinators.

The causes for the decline in wildbee and butterfly numbers are pretty much the same damaging the honey bees – habitat loss and pesticide. The US and China are the main drivers behind this problem, as pesticide use has been harshly regulated in Europe, but still continues unscathed in the US, with the damage extending more and more – now, even to wild pollinators.

The damage done by pesticides is huge, and hard to quantify. As a matter of fact, it’s quite surprising that pollinators are surviving, even as hard as it is.

“It’s amazing we see as many pollinators as we do. Those are the ones who’ve survived this continuous pummeling.” , said biologist Claire Kremen of the University of California, Berkeley

To make things even worse, the destruction of habitat is happening at alarming rates – the ones we usually talk about when referring to the Amazon forest. In the Midwest alone, more than 36,000 square miles of wetlands and prairie—an area larger than Indiana—has been converted to cropland since 2008. Needless to say, this has had an absolutely devastating effect.

The effects of killing wild pollinators

It’s often said that 1 in 3 bites of food you put in your mouth was pollinated – and wild pollinators are responsible for a big chunk of that. It’s estimated that these wild pollinators provide services of about $14.6 billion every year, in the US alone! So we’re not just talking environmental problems, we’re talking about economic problems! We’re talking about the agriculture, starting to have problems bringing the food to the table – and things will only get worse.

Also, human diets aside, pollinators put food in the mouths of many animals – wild and domesticated alike. Also, they are responsible for shaping up the landscapes, flying from flower to flower in an unceasing hum of activity.

“If there was a loss of pollinators,” said USDA entomologist Terry Griswold, “that would have a cascading effect in terms of forage for a good proportion of the biota.”

To put that in common English, the loss of pollinators will affect most animals, even if they don’t rely on pollinated flowers directly. Entire ecosystems will be reshaped or destroyed – something which will be extremely difficult to adapt to.

Scientists warn that we are nearing a tipping point – you can do some damage to the pollinators in an ecosystem, and it will still work out fine, but after one point, things will start to go horribly awry – and it will be almost impossible to fix them. Burkle likens this to an airplane:

“You can use the example of an airplane: Start to undo some rivets and screws, and it’s still going to fly, because there’s still redundancy in the system,” said Burkle. “But at some point it begins to fall apart.”

Solutions exist, but we all have to get involved

The main problem is the lack of governmental involvement in this. As of now, the main costs of protecting pollinators are borne by the farmers. The USDA recently started a pollinator habitat restoration program, which is small, but is a start. Creating (or at the very least maintaining) pollinator friendly habitats is the way to go, but who will bare the costs? The US government doesn’t seem to be interested in this, and they even allow companies to use harmful pesticides. The farmers have limited resources, and are losing ground significantly to big companies. Others have shown that it is possible to obtain competitive high-quality cost effective results using a minimum of pesticides, but again, who should lead the movement?

According to entomologist Art Shapiro of the University of California, Davis, it has to be all of us.

“I would like to see communities get together to have butterfly garden corridors running through them,” Shapiro said. “If you get five households on a city block, you’ve got a corridor. If we’re going to deal with these problems, we need to have everybody taking action,” Black said. “In the past, I worked to get wilderness designated—with salmon and spotted owls and wolves, with old growth and wild rivers. That’s different than what I do now, because anybody can do something for pollinators.”