by Susan Milius
Synopsis and resource annotations by Max Grinnell
Since the dramatic colony collapse disorder (CCD) decimated the world's honeybee
population in 2006, scientists and agricultural experts have been troubled.
While some food plants can fertilize themselves, or use wind, 35 percent of food
plants, worldwide, rely on animals for fertilization. Honeybees are used as the
primary pollinator for many different crops, and the quest to find replacement
or complementary pollinators has consumed many in the industry. This
article, by Susan Milius, explores a few possibilities for future pollinators
and also examines the ways in which these replacement pollinators might be
deployed in the coming years.
The piece begins as Milius describes what looks like a misplaced white clothes
closet placed on the edge of a field outside of Bakersfield, California.
However, it is not a clothes closet; it is a bee lock, keeping bees from
escaping a five acre mesh tent. The bee lock and the mesh tent is an effort by
pollination biologist Gordon Wardell to find a supplemental pollinator for
almond trees, which require animal assistance for fertilization.
Wardell hopes to create a workforce of thousands of blue orchard bees. These
bees don't make honey or colonies but they do visit, and fertilize, almond
trees. Ultimately, the hope is that these mild-mannered bees can be used to
assist honeybees out in the field. It is difficult to say what is next for
California's almond industry, but ultimately there will have to be some
assistance from outside parties, such as these tiny creatures. The entire $2
billion US almond industry relies on animal couriers, and interest is growing in
these "insurance" pollinators. Today, at 2 million hives, the total number of
honeybee hives is about half of what it was 65 years ago. Over the past seven
decades, the total number of acres needing pollination in the U.S. has doubled,
and as a result, those bees are some of the hardest working creatures on the
planet. Farmers have begun to explore other options as a result, and along with
blue orchard bees, they have experimented with flying midges as well.
Developing a new kind of worker insect will require pioneering efforts, but
according to Wardell, "There's no doubt in my mind it can be done."
Another possible solution is the domestication of wild insects such as flies and
other types of bees. Researchers Steve Hanlin and Sharon McClurg at the U.S.
Department of Agriculture's North Central Regional Plant Introduction Station in
Ames, Iowa are working on a number of possibilities. When fresh seed from plants
such as corn and Echinacea is developed, Hanlin and McClurg create a pollination
cage to provide pollinators for that seed. They have found that houseflies and
bluebottle flies can do well on simple flower heads such as carrot flowers and
hope that they will become a viable pollination option. The piece concludes by
looking into the species that might make the best candidates for this type of
work, such as the alfalfa leafcutting bee, the hornfaced bee, and syrphid flies.
Found below is a list of useful resources that will illuminate and enhance
understanding of the topics found within this article.
The first link
from the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies and features three
lesson plans that address the relationship between pollinators and plants.
The second link
lead interested parties to a tremendous digital archive of materials related to
bees and beekeeping from the Phillips Beekeeping Collection at Cornel
The third link
to a very thorough website from The Ohio State University which provides a broad
range of materials related to bees and pollination, including fact sheets on
colony collapse disorder and honey.
The fourth link
lead users to the homepage of the Carl Hayden Bee Research Center, which is
dedicated to research on honeybees and honey production techniques.
Moving on, the fifth
leads to a text document from the USDA on insect pollination of
cultivated crop plants.
The final link
take visitors to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum's homepage on migratory
pollinators (including monarch butterflies) which pass through the "nectar
corridor" from central Arizona to south-central Mexico.