We should not have to designate a week for this. Coffee, chocolate, raspberries, almonds, melons, tequila, blueberries, and countless other delectables require floral visits by certain species of animals. Usually, insects. If you like any of these things, you should already appreciate the importance of healthy, diverse ecosystems.
But apparently not many people recognize where food comes from, or even that flowers only exist because of insects. So here we are: Pollinator Week.
The best way to celebrate Pollinator Week- while sipping coffee & enjoying raspberry-melon tart- is to draw up plans to rip out your boring lawn and replace it with pollinator-friendly native flowers. You may also write your congressperson (if you have moved on to tequila at this point, I wouldn’t blame you) to demand protection of the vanishing natural habitats where pollinators live.
The prairie garden I begrudgingly left behind when moving from Illinois to Texas. We did take the cat, though.
Of lesser impact, I have priced my entire pollination gallery at near-cost sale rates for the week. If you’d like to pick up a 5×7″ print for as little as $3.99, have a look:
The astute observer will notice I’ve put flies at the top. This is no accident. Flies are important pollinators, but as Morgan Jackson recently pointed out, they are unjustifiably neglected in favor of the more popular bees.
The arrival of hobbyists isn’t something that many commercial beekeepers welcome. Some commercial beekeepers actually blame hobbyists for the loss of bees and say that colony collapse disorder is really a case of “piss-poor beekeeping.” Joe Romance, for example, refers to them as “the Birkenstock crowd.”
Colony Collapse is a confusing and contentious issue, sure, but even leaving that aside, there is simply no way hobbyist beekeepers are more harmful to bee health than the large scale commercial operations. I call rubbish.
Anyone familiar with epidemiology and basic evolutionary theory should recognize that large commercial beekeepers- not the small guys- have created a perfect set of conditions for a bee public health disaster:
1. Commercial beekeepers truck millions of hives across the continent, ensuring any disease that shows up on our shores is spread across the continent within months.
2. Some commercial beekeepers import queens from other continents, ensuring both a steady stream of new pathogens and a dilution of any native genetic resistance to existing diseases.
3. Commercial beekeepers keep hives in much denser concentrations than bees live in the wild, ensuring easy spread of pathogens among hives and favoring the evolution of more virulent strains.
4. As in other systems of intensive agriculture, most large beekeepers deal with disease problems using blanket chemical treatments that favor the evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria and insecticide resistant mites.
We aren’t going to come to grips with bee health issues until we recognize the central role of commercial beekeeping in creating them.
Well, maybe not. I take that back. It was many tiny feet. But last night’s tarsal task was eventually guessed in its entirety by Dave Almquist, for 10 points. The bees were B,C,E, and F. All the other feet were non-bee wasps.
The trick to the mystery is knowing that the basitarus in bees is typically broader and flatter than in non bees. Like so:
Some bees, including common honey bees, have a simply massive basitarsis. Others are much more subtle. I deliberately made this challenge difficult by including a couple parasitic bees in the genus Nomada. These insects are not as fuzzy as most bees, and their basitarsi are just barely flattened. Kudos to Dave for his sharp eyes.
I’ve put the original challenge below, if you’d like to try again.
If you’d like to freak out about bee declines but find the honey bee losses a bit too tepid, have a look native bumble bee species:
These graphs, from Cameron et al 2011, show the relative proportion of several species in natural history collections over the past century. Bombus occidentalis, Bombus terricola, and Bombus pennsylvanicus, once extremely common, are now exceedingly rare, leaving a once-rich bumble bee fauna dominated by just a few rather weedy species. The causes of the declines are not known, but they may be related to introduced pathogens and habitat loss.
At least, not as a result of the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder:
This is not to say honey bees aren’t experiencing problems. The bees are still struggling with imported Varroa mites (the likely cause of the 1990’s decline), and beekeepers are having to work harder to rebuild their summer stocks after a troubling increase in winter losses that may be related to CCD. But the overall numbers aren’t dire. Keep these statistics in mind when evaluating claims about imminent honey bee collapse owing to pesticides, Obamacare, or whatever the bogeyman of the day is.
Our house in Urbana hosted a standard urban lawn when we moved in a few years back. Grass. A few dandelions. It was mowable, but not exciting otherwise.
To spice things up, I’ve been replacing the lawn with native plants. In early summer, our yard is now a colorful meadow:
Black-eyed susans, prairie milkweed, New England aster, ironweed, blazing star, and other native plants grow in the garden under the watchful eyes of Mingus the Cat.
The garden has benefits beyond mere aesthestics. Our homegrown prairie patch provides a wealth of opportunities for pollinator photography. The Lasioglossum sweat bee is one of many images I’ve taken on the black-eyed susans. These easy yellow asters seeded across the meadow from a single pot I transplanted in 2010.
Photographing pollinators well requires doing more than just pointing a camera at a bee and snapping away. A key aspect of the top photograph is its low angle. By crouching down to bee height and shooting up, I captured a perspective that transforms a seemingly insignificant bee into a larger-than-life animal, one worthy of the respect our increasingly troubled native pollinators deserve.
If you’d like a print, the native bee photograph is one of 30 I’ve included in the Holiday Print Sale, running until January 1.
photo details: Canon MP-E on a Canon EOS 7D ISO 200, f/13, 1/200 sec Lit with diffuse off-camera twin flash
Our backyard bees must have missed the memo about massive bee collapse. This week we harvested 90 pounds of honey from just two hives. It’s lovely!
The honey is a blend from dozens of floral sources, but based on the light tangy flavor I’d say linden, tulip tree, and clover predominate.
The internet is full of claims on the demise of honey bees, but be skeptical when listening to these stories. Most of the scary numbers (example: 31% of hives died this year!) reflect winter losses, not long term declines. Honey bees are insects, after all. They reproduce quickly enough to recoup cold season losses. A healthy colony can quintuple in a season, and overall colony numbers have remained steady year to year.
This isn’t to say bees aren’t faced with various stresses, and that the winter losses don’t pose a problem for early season pollination needs like almonds. But honey bees are still very abundant animals, enough so that talk of their imminent extinction is just bizarre.