• Gary Raham

New Buzz about Ways to Help Threatened Pollinators

By: R. Gary Raham:

As we all know, bees visit flowers and inadvertently help the plants producing those flowers to consummate their sex lives. Fewer people know that one third of the crops we blithely harvest from our local King Soopers wouldn’t be there without the labor of pollinators. Although we usually think of honeybees when we think of pollinators, 90% of bees are either solitary or “sort-of-social” like bumblebees with one-year life cycles, small colonies, and none of the rigid division of labor of honeybees. Bumblebees have been stressed into decline with pesticides and parasites in recent decades. New scientific studies offer hope to quickly diagnose some of the problems and point toward solutions.

Above Illustration by: R. Gary Raham: Bombus terricola, the yellow-banded bumblebee, pollinates alfalfa, potatoes, raspberries, and cranberries as well as a variety of wildflowers.

In the “good old days” of early gene sequencing (circa 2003) it took 15 months to figure out the string of code that defined a human being. Now scientists perform the same task in 26 hours. Researchers soon began compiling the genetic code readouts for all kinds of creatures, from elephants to E. coli (human gut bacteria) in order to assemble databases for future use. Scientists are now using a technique called next generation sequencing (NGS) to rapidly figure out not only what microbes might be stressing a bumblebee, for example, but also to which pesticides that bee may have been exposed.

July 6 of this year ScienceDaily reported on the work of Canadian scientists at York University who harvested yellow-banded bumblebees (Bombus terricola) from both agricultural and non-agricultural land to see what might be stressing these bees, and if the stresses might be different or interrelated in the two populations. Using NGS techniques and current databases they found the genomes of pathogens commonly found in commercial operations in bumblebee tissue along with evidence of certain pesticides like neonicotinoids. Moreover, the results implied that some stress from pathogens and pesticides spill over from commercial operations into wild populations. (See “Next-generation sequencing uncovers what’s stressing bumblebees” www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/07/210706115345.htm)

The bioscience nerds among you (you know who you are) might ask: “I can see how you could find the genomes of parasites in bumblebee tissue, but how can you figure out what pesticides stress a bee from genetic data?” It turns out that bees fighting pesticide exposure turn on genes that help them detoxify those pesticides. Amro Zayed, one of the authors of the study said, “There are about three enzymes that are responsible for binding to neonicotinoids…for the most part, the genes that change in expression after exposure to any one compound are largely unique to that compound.” He also said that researchers need to collect more data on bees’ responses to a variety of pesticides to make absolutely sure of that correlation.

Citizen scientists can do their part to learn about and keep track of the pollinators in their gardens. A retired teacher friend of mine pointed me toward www.nativebeewatch.org at Colorado State University. Registration is closed for this year, but if a gardener wants to survey their domain for pollinators of all sorts, registration as a bee-watcher requires you to learn the difference between honey bees, bumblebees, hairy leg bees, hairy belly bees, green metallic bees, tiny dark bees, striped sweat bees, and cuckoo bees!

Bees aren’t the only pollinators in the garden, of course. Many flies get involved, and some of them assume bee-like disguises for protection from bee-shy predators. Butterflies, of course, like swallowtails, monarchs, and hawk moths play their part, not to mention hummingbirds and even bats.

Seventy-five percent of plant species rely on insects to reproduce. It behooves us all to make sure the methods we use to take care of pests doesn’t also wipe out the pollinators critical to keeping food crops and our favorite ornamentals alive and healthy. It’s good to know that science is coming up with some clever tools to help pollinators survive, but heightening our own ecological awareness to prevent problems in the first place is certainly the best action plan.

Thank the next hard-working bumblebee you see in the garden. Their labors allow us to eat well and prosper.

Gary Raham writes and illustrates both science fact and science fiction. Keep in touch with his work at www.rgaryraham.com.