Tag Archives: #pollinators

Last of the Season

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The weather has turned so cold over the past week or so, mostly grey with the mountains getting their first coat of white. But today came up sunny, a nice change. I watched the blue sky while I worked, and finally managed to bundle up and go for a walk at sunset.

I found these hardy blossoms braving the low temperatures.

All photos: PKR

Some of the gardens still have flowers – especially late-blooming roses – but I was only interested in the roadside variety, the ones with no assistance, coming up along the edges, defying asphalt, gravel, cars, and dogs.

They’ve felt the bite of frost every morning for over a week, they’re starting to frizzle, but they’ve still got color and beauty to give before it all goes brown and white for the season.

 

Humble, bowed but not faded, a passing late pollinator might still find joy. And if the pollinators don’t find joy, well, at least this walker did.

Beneath the Sea

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It always counts as a surprise when we find out that unexpected networks have been operating right under our collective noses. We use the word ‘discovery’ to describe the newness to our understanding, even if, in retrospect, it might be a bit like describing a city’s take-out food delivery system as a ‘discovery’ just because no one had noticed a connection between all the scooters with restaurant names and the arrival of restaurant food at private homes.

The discovery, in this case, is something that makes a lot of sense: At least one kind of sea grass that flowers underwater manages to employ underwater pollinators in a manner similar to terrestrial flowering plants that use airborne pollinators like bees, bats and birds.

A meadow of Thalassia testudinum, turtlegrass. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

A meadow of Thalassia testudinum, turtlegrass. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

There aren’t many plants that actually flower under water – most produce their flowers above the water surface. Thalassia testudinum, known as turtlegrass, grows in large meadows, and produces small flowers near the seabed. The male flowers release pollen in the evening, and until now it was thought that the pollen was carried to female plants solely via water currents.

But a study published last fall in Nature Communications showed that there is another factor that increased the distribution of pollen. In a series of aquarium-based experiments, it was demonstrated that a variety of invertebrates, from spider crab larvae to tiny crustaceans to marine worms, are drawn to the male and female flowers, and these fauna were proven to fulfil the criteria of being characterized as pollinators* even in the absence of water flow.

The researchers from the National Autonomous University of Mexico state that that other, larger animals might also contribute to pollination, but that these were not included in this particular study. Unlike bees, there’s no hive or honey involved. But, like their terrestrial counterparts, the fauna here were attracted to the flowers for feeding, and moved between the blossoms in search of more food.

A male turtlegrass flower releases its nocturnal pollen. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

A male turtlegrass flower releases its nocturnal pollen. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

Look at the intelligence of turtlegrass. It has small flowers, and they aren’t packed densely together, waving in the breeze. Rather, they are close to the sea bed and spaced well apart. Relying solely on water flow to pollinate might not do the trick. Why not make the petals sticky and attractive to the myriad small creatures abundant in the water, and get them to do a bit of the heavy pollen lifting for extra evolutionary insurance?

I applaud lead researcher Brigitta van Tussenbroek and her research team for noticing and studying this fascinating network of activity, which they have given the name zoobenthophilous pollination, i.e. pollination carried out by animals close to the sea bed. The discovery of the role fauna play in underwater pollination could help better understand and protect these ecosystems, which, as van Tussenbroek and her colleagues state, “are amongst the world’s most productive ecosystems. (They) improve water transparency, stabilize coastlines and store carbon, and also provide food and shelter to a diverse faunal community.”

I have the feeling it may just be the beginning of a deeper understanding of many things that are right in front of us, but which we aren’t yet seeing. All it requires is a willingness to shift our perspective.

A female turtlegrass flower with visiting invertebrates, bits of pollen and sand. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

A female turtlegrass flower with visiting invertebrates, bits of pollen and sand. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

*From the study “Experimental evidence of pollination in marine flowers by invertebrate faunathe criteria for the animals to be considered pollinators are:

(1) both male and female organs (of the flowers) are visited, (2) the visitor carries pollen, (3) the visitor transfers pollen between male and female sexual organs, (4) pollen deposition by the visitor results in successful fertilization, estimated as pollen germination on the stigmas, pollen tube growth or seed set.

Let It Grow

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The garden lawn got its first seasonal trim yesterday, weeks after neighboring lawns around our place were abuzz with lawn mowers. Why do I wait so long and leave the lawn so untidy?

Over the past couple of years we redesigned the garden to use less water, so the green lawn area takes up much less space than it used to. The garden no longer a lawn dotted with flower beds, and is now a series of walkways with flower and vegetable beds, accented by a lawn.

Photo: PK Read

The grass cutttings.
Photo: PK Read

A large, lush lawn just uses too much water and is too product-intensive to make it a viable element for a lazy gardener and water miser like me. But laziness is only a small contributing factor to why the unruly lawn of winter and spring doesn’t get the flat-top treatment at the first possible opportunity.

In any case, our lawn is never golf-course perfect. Even mown, it’s a mess of green stuff and low flowers, all cut to the same length, with proper lawn grass in between. Fine by me.

I like seeing bees and other pollinators at work across the entire garden. At a time when many blossoms haven’t yet come out in full force, the various pollinators here are dependent on blossoming trees and small spring flowers. Our flowering lawn is alive with movement just above its surface.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) Photo: Photo: Bjørn Rørslett

What a bee sees:
A dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) photographed with the light spectrum
visible to humans (left) and bees (right).
Photo: Bjørn Rørslett

Finally, I enjoy the way it looks. I like the bright carpet of small daisies, violets, sundry ‘weed’ blossoms and yes, even the giant dandelions (at least before they go to seed).

When it comes down to it, the lawn is left long because I like working in the garden and walking through ankle-deep flowers. I like being surrounded by the mad life of springtime.

I look out over the lawn, just mown yesterday, and see a scattering of flowers that escaped the blade and are raising their heads. Bees are harvesting pollen. The sun is shining. See you later – I’ll be out working in the garden.

Happy Earth Day 2015.

Carpenter Flight

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I opened my office window the other day to find a row of tiny earthen mounds, little bubbles separated by straight walls. I thought it was an odd collection of dirt that had blown in through the small ventilation hole in the wooden frame. Or maybe a small ant colony, since we get a variety of ants on the out of our old stone house. They like the vines, and we don’t mind the ecosystem of insect, bird and reptile life those vines support – including the ants. As long as they don’t come inside.

A dazed carpenter bee, covered in pollen, in the nest it was building in my office windowsill.

A dazed carpenter bee, covered in pollen, in the nest it was building in my office windowsill.

I started to scrape out the mounds with a pen, only to uncover a dozy bee blanketed in rich yellow pollen. The mounds were a nest for the small carpenter bee, a solitary, wild pollinator known for boring holes in soft woods. Of course, this was a small variety of carpenter bee, and she had fit right into the ready-made ventilation holes at the base of our window frames. The bee shook itself and then flew off. When it didn’t return after a few days, I cleaned out the nest.

The bee flew off after a moment, abandoning the nest. Each cell had its own ball of pollen, which would have fed one individual bee.

The bee flew off after a moment, abandoning the nest. Each cell had its own ball of pollen, which would have fed one individual bee.

Carpenter bees are important wild pollinators, and many farmers encourage their presence even if, like me, they don’t necessarily welcome their nests in the structure of homes.

Another common carpenter bee in our area looks like a giant black bumblebee – harmless, heavy, loud and a bit dopey. I saw this one while out running, happily mining sweet pea blossoms for nectar.

I found this big carpenter bee on some sweet peas outside. It was very photo shy, flying off whenever I aimed my camera, returning when I looked away.

This big carpenter bee was very photo shy, flying off whenever I aimed my phone camera, returning when I looked away.

Then we found two lifeless bees in our garden. No visible damage, just not alive any more. Bodies intact, it’s like they just stopped flying and died.

The United States has announced the creation of a USD 8 million-funded ‘honey bee task force‘ to examine why the U.S. honey bee population has been in severe decline since 2006. We could quibble as to why a pollinator that is necessary for the reproduction of many U.S. food crops and adds an estimated USD 15 billion to the economy (according to the U.S. White House blog) hasn’t deserved a task force of its own for years already. Or I could muse upon the minuscule investment being made in the honey bee in comparison to its overall economic value, not to mention its environmental impact.

I could mention the recent reports showing that neonicotinoid pesticides in use around the world have been conclusively linked with honey bee declines, which might explain why these pesticides are currently banned in the European Union.

These pesticides are now considered to carry the same level of environmental and health danger as the notorious dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, better known as DDT. Those who argue in favor of neonicotinoid use point to the increase in the use of older pesticides in their place.

Or I could shake my head at articles, almost invariably found in business publications that cite industry-funded studies, that refute connections between neonicotinoids and bee decline in favor of an array of other causes, most of them not linked to large corporations nor to the global multi-billion dollar industry that neonics support. The producing companies are never mentioned by name (for the record, they’re Monsanto, Bayer and CropScience).

Carpenter bees: The violet-blue of their wings is dazzling.

Carpenter bees: The violet-blue of their wings is dazzling.

What I can say is this: Few studies examine the effects of these pesticides on the decline in wild pollinators like the bumblebee, or the carpenter bee. The much-touted, lately-arrived U.S. task force will not be studying these issues either (not that the funding would be sufficient for that, in any case). Nor do I see a task force anywhere on the more judicious and limited use of pesticides in favor of best practice techniques.

So this year, I’ll be putting out a few havens for carpenter bees and planting a few more flowers that they like. And this year, as every year, I won’t be spraying any pesticides in my garden.

Sticky Stories

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When I started out today, I had planned on writing a peppy post on the use of bees to monitor pollution around European airports. It’s an upbeat story that pops up from time to time in the news. This week, it was Vaclav Havel Airport in Prague. Over the past couple of years, several airports in Germany have implemented beehives as a part of air-quality controls. The idea is that pollutants will show up in the honey, and that clean honey means clean air.

Honey produced by bees at the Vaclav Havel Airport in Prague is checked for its quality and presence of pollutants in the environment. Caption and credit: REUTERS/David W Cerny

Honey produced by bees at the Vaclav Havel Airport in Prague is checked for its quality and presence of pollutants in the environment.
Caption and credit: REUTERS/David W Cerny

It’s a pleasant thought, the use of bees to check on air, and what could be sweeter than honey?

So, as I checked for a few back-up articles or papers, I came across a 1990 Associated Press article, republished in the Seattle Times – Honeybees May Help To Monitor Pollution.

In the article, former University of Montana professor Jerry Bromenshenk describes bees as “flying electrostatic dust mops.” Along with nectar and water, the bee’s surface electrical charges and body hair also pick up everything from heavy metal particles to toxic pollutants.

Unfortunately, the article also states that “honey is the least useful of all beehive products for monitoring pollution. Bromenshenk (said) contaminants are rarely detected in honey or found only in the parts per trillion range.”

So how are bees best utilized as pollution monitors?

By grinding up their bodies and testing the resultant material.

Okay, so now the story is a little less sweet.

Bees in a field near my house. Photo: PK Read

Bees in a field near my house.
Photo: PK Read

A 2011 article in PRI’s The World quotes a bee expert involved with biomonitoring at Frankfurt Airport as saying that since honey samples taken from beehives stationed the airport, a busy freeway and a rural forest all showed the same low level of pollutants, maybe bees have a built-in detoxification process that renders the honey rather useless as a biomonitoring tool – although it would make bees an even more interesting study subject in terms of pollutant processing.

So why the cute stories of beekeepers on runways?

I admit that I don’t know much about bees or the very latest in bee research. I’ve written about them in various contexts on this blog, but this biomonitoring is new territory for me.

Another few minutes of fact-checking revealed that Bromenshenk himself, a long-time expert and proponent of bee and bee health, has come under fire for receiving funding from Bayer Crop Science, one of the main producers of the neonicotinoid neurotoxin that was banned this year in the European Union. But does that discredit his work done in the 30 years before he received that funding?

Image: Honeymark

Image: Honeymark

This all just reminded me that when it comes to environmental issues and how they are discussed in the media, things are rarely as straightforward as they seem. And while the truth might be hidden somewhere in there, we can always find stories to support our favorite arguments.

I know a good public relations move when I see it.

But now I want to know: Is the captivating notion of bee biomonitoring to validate the clean air around airports any more than a charming story meant to soothe worried minds?

Pollinator Decline

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The Harvard monolithic bee Photo: Harvard Microrobotics Lab

The Harvard monolithic bee
Photo: Harvard Microrobotics Lab

The Harvard Microbiotics Lab is working on tiny robotic insects for a number of applications, among them: pollination. I can understand why, considering how important pollinating insects are for the environment and the human food supply. Most of the news tends to focus on the decline of the crucial honeybee population around the world, but a recent study has shown that honeybees are not the only threatened pollinators.

An international team of researchers investigated the issues related to pollinator decline. Pollinator insects, including bees, enable the reproduction of 75% of crop species, and over 90% of wild flowering plants. The annual economic value of these insects is in the hundreds of billions.

From a Summit County Citizen’s Voice article on the study :

“The review, published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment  concluded that:

  • Pollinator populations are declining in many regions, threatening human food supplies and ecosystem functions
  • A complex interplay between pressures (e.g. lack of food sources, diseases, and pesticides) and biological processes (e.g. species dispersal and interactions) at a range of scales (from genes to ecosystems) underpins the general decline in insect-pollinator populations
  • Current options to alleviate the pressure on pollinators include establishment of effective habitat networks, broadening of pesticide risk assessments, and the development and introduction of innovative disease therapies.

“Pollinators are the unsung heroes of the insect world and ensure our crops are properly pollinated so we have a secure supply of nutritious food in our shops,” said co-author Professor Simon Potts, with the University of Reading. “The costs of taking action now to tackle the multiple threats to pollinators is much smaller than the long-term costs to our food security and ecosystem stability. Failure by governments to take decisive steps now only sets us up for bigger problems in the future.””

Insect pollinators include bees, bumblebees, moths, butterflies, gnats and beetles. Their populations can be supported, even in urban environments. From the Pollinator Partnership site:

  • Cultivate native plans, especially those that provide nectar and larval food for pollinators – Free Ecoregional (US) Pollinator Planting Guides
  • Supply salt or mineral licks for butterflies and water for all wildlife
  • Reduce pesticide use
  • Substitute flower beds for lawns

There have been many recent discoveries on previously unimagined levels of interaction between plants and pollinators, from caffeine in nectar to floral electrical charges that entice bees. Interactions are variable, subtle and so much still remains outside our realm of knowledge.

While it’s comforting to know that we can invent mechanical pollinator drones in case of need, it’s still not a bad idea to try and help the biological types survive. So go on: Plant a windowbox, put out a little dish of water, and hands off the pesticide.

Syrphid fly Photo: Eugene Reimer via nativeorchid.org

Syrphid fly, a pollinator which in larval stages is considered a bio-control for aphids and other insect pests
Photo: Eugene Reimer via nativeorchid.org

More:

Harvard Microbiotics Lab website

Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment website

Insect Pollinators Initiative of the Natural Environment Research Council (UK) website

Pollinator Partnership, a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of pollinator health, and an excellent resource for those wishing to get involved.