2015 25.3 Bee Fever: Pro-Pollinator Activities

When it comes to pro-pollinator activities in Washington state, and nationally, one might say that things are abuzz. From a new report by President Obama’s Pollinator Health Task Force, to schemes to save or replace the honey bee, to painstaking efforts to account for wild bees and collect local seeds—everyone wants to do  something. Whether these solutions will help or hinder remains to be seen, while the fate of our pollinators—and our ecology—hangs in the balance.

Calling 9-1-1 (for 50 years)
Naturalists and scientists began to surmise what would happen if we lost our pollinators, beginning with Darwin in The Origin of Species in 1859. By 1962, with the publication of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson articulated the actuality of a pollinator crisis to hundreds of thousands of lay readers.

Man is more dependent on wild pollinators than he usually  realizes… Some agricultural crops and many wild  plants are partly or wholly  dependent on the services  of  the  native  pollinating  insects… Now clean cultivation and the chemical destruction  of  hedgerows  and  weeds are eliminating  the last sanctuaries of these pollinating insects and breaking the threads that bind life to life.

It’s the “now” that’s the kicker. Fifty-three years later, has the public finally tuned in?

“Seven or eight years ago, no one was talking  about pollinator conservation,” says Eric Lee-Mäder, co-director of the Xerces Society’s Pollinator Program. “Now, it’s everywhere.”

“Save the Bee” campaigns bloom seasonally during National Pollinator Week and at other times; school children learn that bees are responsible for vast portions of our diet.

More people are starting to realize that there are 4,000 species of bees in North America, and only one of them is Apis mellifera, the western  honey bee—upon which almost the entirety of  our industrial agricultural system is based. Some question the wisdom of that burden, asking: What are other kinds of bees, and what do they do?

People might know that butterflies, moths, bats, and some birds are pollinators, too, and that some of these are particularly endangered. The monarch butterfly, says the Xerces Society, has seen population depletions on a descending curve consistent with that of the passenger pigeon. The passenger pigeon, once the most abundant bird in North America, is now extinct—aided by a sordid combination of deforestation and slaughter as food for the poor and slaves.

While the monarch and other threatened pollinators aren’t abused in the exact same ways as the passenger pigeon, the connections of pollinators to the use of land, workers, industry and economy are worth asking. What is the cost of the destruction of nature’s processes? And what—50 years after Carson and 150 after Darwin—are we doing to preserve it?

National and Regional Pollinator Task Forces
President Obama established a Pollinator Health Task Force in  June 2014, and the Task Force issued its report this past May. Also in May, the Federal government issued a report entitled  “Pollinator Habitat Enhancement and Best Management Practices in Highway Rights-Of-Way.”

Meanwhile, the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA)’s Honey Bee Work Group issued its report in  December 2014, covering honey bee health, habitat, and research. WSDA has also responded to the EPA’s mandate that each state write a Managed Pollinator Protection Plan. That effort—which will focus on pesticides—is in its infancy, having just formed a stakeholders group organized by Erik Johansen of the WSDA. The State Department of Transportation has created new mowing protocols to  support pollinators, and is examining broadly additional ways that may help.

In May, the City of Seattle earned designation as the nation’s largest  “Bee City USA.” The city also boasts large habitat restoration  plans under transmission corridors of Seattle City Light, another habitat restoration project at Sea-Tac Airport, the expansion of the Pollinator Pathway® program, and numerous initiatives  at various community farms and gardens. The City of Seattle and the City of Spokane each passed legislation limiting the use of neonicitinoid pesticides by their respective governments. The whole Northwest thrums a new language of pollinators and efforts to do them justice: pollinator identification classes, field days, short  courses, opportunities for Citizen Scientists, community farm teach-ins, company picnic activities, and grocery store promotions abound.

This is a new and possibly better “bee fever” than the one that  gripped the nation in 1859-60, when entrepreneur John Harbison innovated the shipment of honey bees en masse from New York to California, crossing Panama over land. California newspapers  reported that “every steamship arriving in San Francisco had beehives piled on its deck”—a harbinger of massive bee migrations to California that continue to this day, and also of the delicate relationship between our pollinators and our food system.

Shooting the Moon: Paul Stamets and Big Fixes
Since Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz declared “go big or get out” in 1973, U.S. agricultural policy has gone for broke. And since the antebellum days of the original Bee Fever, honey bees have remained the pollinator of choice for increasingly vast fields of crops. The California almond industry—with nearly 900,000 acres of almonds in production—requires 1.6 million beehives to  provide pollination services. With reported honeybee losses of 40% from the 2014-15 season (according to the USDA), and only 1.5 million commercial colonies operating domestically (the gap being made up with imports), the problem is huge. For some, the solution is also huge.

“We’re entering the sixth greatest extinction event known in the  history of life on this planet,” declares mycologist Paul Stamets. “But this extinction event is not caused by an asteroid impact, it’s  being caused by an organism: by us. Not only are we the cause of  this extinction event, but we’re likely to be its victim.”

Stamets, who spoke at Town Hall Seattle on May 4, is developing  fungi-based treatments for honey bees which, he hopes, will support bees’ immune systems, lengthen their lives, and also help  control the pernicious varroa mite. The tests, begun last summer  at the Honey Bee Laboratory at WSU, run by Dr. Steve Sheppard, have entered their second round.

While Stamets’ approach to saving pollinators is via the honey bee (he even envisions a new kind of hive for honey bees made of fungi), his broader vision would repair the immune system of the whole world by promoting humans’ ability to relate to and to communicate with fungi.

“The same mushrooms are active against viruses that harm humans, birds, pigs, bats carrying Ebola, and bees… All terrestrial organisms are interconnected through the mycelial web of life.”

While Stamets looks for a visionary way of rescuing the honey  bee, others are looking simply to replace it. Since approximately 30% of all bee species nest in crevices, it’s possible to approximate this environment with bamboo or wood tubes. Some of the species managed in this way are particularly effective with various agricultural crops such as tree fruit, cucurbits, and blueberries.

Crown Bees, in Woodinville, supplies Osmia lignaria (blue orchard mason bees), Megachile rotundata (alfalfa leafcutter bees), and other bees worldwide. They also buy back excess bees from backyard enthusiasts to provide to commercial growers, with a goal in 2015 of 250,000 commercial bees supplied  by backyard gardeners. Other businesses such as Missy Anderson’s “Rent Mason Bees” in Seattle provide a similar service.

Perhaps the simplest solution is the call to plant flowers. All pollinators need forage, particularly early and late in the season. Now one can find dozens of pollinator-friendly seed mixes. Earlier in 2015, Bayer Bee Care (an arm of the pharmaceutical company) launched “Feed a Bee,” a program that has distributed enough pollinator seeds to grow 50 million flowers. The USDA, the Department of the  Interior, and the U.S. Parks Service are distributing seeds to create a “bee and butterfly brigade” of one million gardeners.

While of laudable intent, these blanket solutions come with their own risk.

“We have this rush to get flowers back on the landscape, with really no thought about what those flowers are, where they come  from, what their presence will do to local  populations,” says the Xerces’ Lee-Mäder. “What happens when we plant a plains  Coreopsis  with Texas genetics in the Northwest? What happens to the native  Gaillardia aristata in Thurston County when we bring in Gaillardia aristata from a great basin ecotype that was probably produced in India anyway?”

Of transporting species of bees and plants around the world  without regard to origin or destination, Lee-Mäder asks, “Is  it a good idea? I don’t know… I look around and I don’t think it’s worked out really well to move plants from place to place, or to  move animals from place to place.”

In Washington state, the Noxious Weed Control Board (a program  of the WSDA) has sanctioned a non-invasive seed mix. And Lee- Mäder has been instrumental in  developing the first Northwest wildflower seed mix that is both non-invasive and raised locally. Based in Portland, Northwest Meadowscapes is the brand new seed  company selling the mix. “They’re  locally adapted, source-identified, locally native genetics, and they’re expensive as hell,” says Lee-Mäder. “And they’re not going to pollute local plant genetics [because] they’re native to this place.”

Growing Our Own
Just like each location has its own ecology with distinct flora and fauna, it also has its own farmers, growers, and eaters. These human inhabitants are the focus of a particularly grounded research approach  for pollinator conservation and restoration: Citizen Science. “Monarch Butterflies in the Pacific Northwest” is a Facebook group  run by David James at WSU, and which uses 1,000 volunteers to collect data on the threatened monarch butterfly. The Great Sunflower Project and Bumble Bee Watch are two  other prominent Citizen Science projects, while Beesearch run by photographer Will Peterman has collected critical data on the threatened Western bumble bee,  Bombus occidentalis.

“Citizen Science gives people the opportunity to record the natural history of  their own systems,” says Elias Bloom, PhD student at the Crowder Lab at WSU. “And recording this history is really important, so if we make modifications to these systems, we’ll know what effect that has on the bee communities and the pollination services they provide in our farms and gardens.”

Bloom is the designer and primary researcher for the Northwest Pollinator Initiative, which researches pollinator communities and their impacts on organic farms in three counties around Puget Sound. The project, funded by the USDA and Western SARE, also includes field days for farmers and Citizen Science courses in conjunction with Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation.

Elli Jenkins Theobald, PhD candidate in Biology at the University of Washington (UW), helps run MeadoWatch, another Citizen Science program, on Mount Rainier.

“I think Citizen Science is going to become the new standard in the next 20 years,” says Theobald, “and hopefully a lot sooner. I really like Citizen Science because the science is accessible to everyone. And the power of 80 people collecting these data is way higher than the power of one person.”

For MeadoWatch, those 80 citizens routinely trek to Mount Rainier to count wildflowers and record their bloom time. This data is crucial because it can help forecast the effects of global climate change. Theobald conducts additional research at the site, which uses the Citizen Science data and correlates it with effects on pollinators. In her sixth year of research, Theobald states her grim findings plainly.

“We’re going to end up in a situation where resources run out even earlier in the season for pollinators.” What to do? “Plant flowers that can bridge the gaps,” she offers. “Things that can extend the season.”

Marie Clifford and Susan Waters, also doctoral students at UW, co-founded the Urban Pollination Project (UPP) in 2012, a Citizen Science project studying bumble bee communities in Seattle and their effects on tomato production. UPP distributes tomato plants to Citizen Scientists in P-patches and trains them to monitor bumble bees, which are tomato plants’ main pollinators.

Waters says, “The bees are doing a pretty good job so far. But there’s not very much diversity in the  pollinator community that is coming to tomato plants.” Ninety-one percent of the tomato pollinators, in fact, are one species of bumble bee, the Bombus vosnesenskii (yellow-faced bumble bee), native to the region but becoming more prevalent as other species decline.

People can help conserve those other species, Clifford and Waters suggest, by leaving undisturbed such potential habitat as a brush  pile, a pile of stones, or greenery. Clifford adds, “also devote some of your space to a diversity of flowers throughout the season, when bees are active.”

“Nature has introduced great variety into the landscape, but man has displayed a passion for simplifying it,” wrote Rachel Carson in Silent Spring. “Thus he undoes the built-in checks and balances by  which nature holds the species within bounds.”

As the multitude of responses to the pollinator crisis demonstrate —belated as they may be—answers are not simple. Our future, and that of the pollinators, may depend on as diverse a response as possible, from as abundant a community as we can muster.


Bob Redmond is Executive Director for The Common Acre, a non-profit  which does ecological restoration and produces related cultural events. scarecrow@commonacre.org

Tags: Bees, Food System, Pollinator

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