Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Bee Diversity: It's Good For Everyone

Our Food

Honeybees: A honey bee pollinates a blueberry blossom in Arkansas.
Photo Credit:
Bills Barksdale; AgStock Images; Corbis

An article, by Natasha Gelling, in Smithsonian looks at a study that confirms that bee diversity is good for our agricultural food supply. This is good news in light of the news about colony collapse disorder and the loss of the honeybees, which currently accounts for 80 percent of insect pollination of crops.

Gelling writes:
But honeybees aren't the only bees in the pollination game—nor are they, necessarily, the most effective. There are more than 20,000 species of bees, and 4,000 of those are native to North America (the honeybee is not one of them). These native pollinators are—in some conditions—actually better pollinators than honeybees, but they're harder to control. "There has been a lot of research done in the past year looking at wild bees and their contribution to pollination—in a lot of systems wild bees enhance pollination that ways that managed bees like honeybees don’t," explains Hannah Burrack, Associate Professor at North Carolina State University (NCSU).
Earlier this year, a group of bee researchers published a study in Science linking biodiversity of bees to improved crop yields—biodiversity being a sort of insurance policy for our food system. But because wild bees aren't as easily managed as honeybees, farmers might be hesitant to instate practices that would draw native pollinators to their fields.

Now, new research from Burrack and her colleagues at NCSU suggests that increasing the diversity of their pollinators might do more than benefit a farmer's crop—it could benefit their bottom-line enough to offset the initial investment in increasing biodiversity, making the effort worth it. The research was published today in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

"The interest in my lab for this project grew out of those grower interactions," Burrack notes. "They wanted to know who their pollinators were and how they were interacting and benefiting, potentially, their crops."

Alongside David Tarpy, a honeybee biologist at NSCU, Burrack and others measured the effect of bee biodiversity on an important North Carolina crop: blueberries. They selected a number of commercial blueberry farms, which they visited once a week during bloom season for a two-year period. Before the bloom season started, the scientists placed cages over a select number of branches—a control group—to keep pollinators temporarily away. During the bloom season (a four to five week period) the scientists would walk through the rows for a set period of time, counting and identifying the species of bees that were present—they found five distinct groups: honey bees, bumble bees, southeastern blueberry bees, carpenter bees and small native bees.

Then they would regularly expose the caged branches to pollinators in one of three ways: they would uncage the branch and allow any present pollinators to visit for a set period of time (open pollination), they would expose the branch to only one species of bee to test that bee's efficiency on a per-visit basis (single visit pollination) or they would simply keep the branch covered, testing how much pollination could come from the specific shrub's flowers pollinating themselves (closed pollination).
That diversity was thus far shown to be beneficial for blueberries opens up the possibility that this knowledge might also be transferable and good for other plants and crops. This would in some way become a way out, a solution of sorts, for farmers who have relied solely on honey bees for pollinating their agricultural crops. This does not suggest in any way that scientists ought to abandon their search for determining the defining reason(s) for colony collapse disorder; they ought to continue, but at the same time this offers some relief to farmers and, equally it must be added, to consumers of these agricultural crops.

You can read the rest of the article at [Smithsonian].

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