July 31, 2015
If you want to hang out with a bunch of bees, you'd better be prepared for a little pain.
Mario Padilla, a honeybee researcher at Penn State University, can usually tell when his hives are getting agitated. But he’s already been stung three times today. And he’s about to get it again.
“I got stung!” Mario says, half-laughing. “And that was a sting that was not even an invited sting. That was an I-was-minding-my-own-business sting.”
Padilla is raising these honeybees for researchers like Maryann Frazier, who is studying the effects of pesticides on honeybees. But she says with as much as we rely on honeybees, we almost can’t even think of them as just a species anymore. They've become a system—a technology—that we literally pack in boxes, load onto semi trucks and ship all over the country to do work for us.
“The first crop to be pollinated in the spring is almonds,” Frazier says. “And about a third of the colonies in the United States are trucked out to California to pollinate one crop. And then they’ll come back to do apples and cherries and stone fruit, mostly in Pennsylvania and New York. Then they’ll go up to Maine and pollinate blueberries; then, Massachusetts and pollinate cranberries. And then they’ll come south and pollinate pumpkins and squash. It is a huge, huge business.”
But it’s a business that’s wearing honeybees out. A combination of diseases, stress, parasites, pesticides and colony collapse disorder—a mysterious phenomenon which scientists still don't understand—have all taken their toll on honeybees. And that could put our own species in a tight spot. Honeybees pollinate about a third of the crops in the U.S.—that’s about $15 billion of the food economy.
So does that mean it’s time to panic? Not necessarily. Other researchers at Penn State are now investigating whether other bees—unsung bees—could start picking up some of the slack. Dave Biddinger’s all-star bee that he’s studying now is a type of osmia bee called the Japanese orchard bee.
“We call them JOBS for short,” Biddinger says laughing. “The ones out West—the blue orchard bees—we call those BOBS. So we’ve got BOBS and JOBS. People don’t like Latin names.”
And these JOBS—at least in apple orchards—they’re kind of showing up honeybees.
“The honeybee is a little bit lazy,” Biddinger says. “It will only maybe visit one or two flowers per minute. An osmia will do up to 15 flowers per minute. And some of these bees, once they’ve been out here, they’ll be completely coated. Their whole body is really hairy, and we’ve seen with osmia that they can carry up to 100 times more pollen than what a honeybee can.”
In fact, Biddinger says one osmia bee can do the work of roughly 80 honey bees. And this work ethic means that some apple farmers are finding they can forgo renting honeybees altogether—which can save them tens of thousands of dollars. And researchers are finding that this is the case with other crops as well. In an experimental pumpkin patch, Carley Miller, a grad student in Penn State’s entomology department, can hardly contain herself while she goes looking for squash bees.
“Oh, look at all these bees!” she shouts. “Scientifically, I appreciate them. But on a personal level, I just feel giddy when I see this many bees.”
She says she’s also got a personal affinity for bumble bees. But it’s hard not to admire how much work the squash bees are getting done out here.
“The squash bees are like little Wall Street bees,” Carley says. “They fly around quickly, everywhere, fast—ping, ping! They barely look in a flower and then they’re off to the next one, and they can’t decide what to do with themselves. Half the time, they’ll fly into you, because they’re so busy flying, and fall into a flower and they’re, like, ‘oh, ok, I’ll use this one.’”
For a long time, nobody even knew squash bees were such hard workers. In fact, pumpkin farmers would often rent honeybees, not realizing they probably already had squash bees on their farms doing most of the pollination. But squash bees don’t deserve all the credit. Like a lot of bees, they don’t live for very long as free roaming adults—only about 4 or 5 weeks. And at that point in the season, bumble bees take over the pumpkin patch. And just like in the apple orchards, scientists are finding that between those two kinds of bees, farmers can probably get by without using honeybees. It’s all part of a new strategy of diversification that entomologist Shelby Fleischer affectionately refers to as Plan B.
“I think the key to remember is resilience,” Fleischer says. “So don’t just aim for any one species. Historically, there’s been a lot of emphasis on making honeybees our pollinator, and resilience suggests that we should try and support a community of bees.”
And that is where things can get tricky. Because, for the most part, other bees don’t act like honeybees. Honeybees are freaks in the bee world. They live in a box. You can move them from place to place. They reproduce like crazy. They eat practically anything. Most other bees are actually solitary and nest in dead trees or in the ground. So you can’t move them around. To keep a healthy, diverse community of other bees on the farm, farmers will have to start adding bee habitat. That means planting things like wildflower patches next to their fields, so that these other bees have something to eat and something to live in year round.
“So, it’s planting your floral resources,” says Carley Miller. “Making sure you choose the right flowers that are going to come up early enough that have pollen resources, that have nectar resources, and that will finish their bloom early enough so that when all the crops are available, the bees then switch to a new food source and are doing the pollination in your crops.”
That’s not exactly an easy formula to figure out and is something scientists are just now starting to work on. It varies crop by crop, even region by region. That’s why, even with all this excitement over other bees, experts say we won’t be walking away from honeybees anytime soon.
“There are cases, and I think there will continue to be cases, where we might have niches for certains kinds of bees,” says honeybee researcher Maryann Frazier. “But in terms of having a bee that is as versatile as honeybees, that bee doesn’t exist.”
Most importantly, Frazier says, what's good for all other bees—habitat, a diverse diet, cutting back on pesticides—is good for honeybees. So if you do good by one species, you do good by all of them. And they'll continue to do good by all of us.