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This month's AMSER Science Reader Monthly topic is Apiculture.
Article 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 Science News 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 is 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 will lead interested parties to a tremendous digital archive of materials related to bees and beekeeping from the Phillips Beekeeping Collection at Cornel University. The third link leads 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 will 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 link leads to a text document from the USDA on insect pollination of cultivated crop plants. The final link will 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.
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