To bee or not to bee


Experts take measures to aid the so-called pollinator population, and others say the outlook could be hopeful for bees.

By Kayli Reese

decline in the population of bees and other pollinators is a pressing issue today, but things may not be as severe as some people may fear.

Stephen Hendrix, a University of Iowa biology professor emeritus, said the issue of bee decline is important, but there is a positive future.

While a 50 percent decline in the number of honeybee hives is due of viruses, pesticide use and poor food sources have also affected the bees, he said. But experts see a positive outlook for the bees’ future. Wild bees, which nest underground, are also a major player in pollination. For example, he said, honeybees contribute nearly 90 percent of almond pollination, but wild bees contribute 15 percent, which makes the difference between a good and really good crop for farmers.

Another study Hendrix said he was a part of focused on local-produce farmers, finding wild bees contributed 90 percent of the pollination for them.

Also, he said, he has contributed to a study in which both types of bees were exposed to a large dose of a virus. While the honeybees all died, he said, the wild bees were not affected, demonstrating they are more resilient and have better immune systems. Hendrix will head Prairie Preview XXIV at 7:30 p.m. March 9 at 2525 N. Dodge St. to further discuss the wild bees of Iowa.

In addition to this resilience, he said, studies have shown wild bees are attracted to small areas of land with lots of plant variety; the size of the land does not matter as long as numerous prairie plants are available.

Cedar Rapids Park Superintendent Daniel Gibbins said the park has teamed up with the Monarch Research Project to create the 1,000 Acre Pollinator Initiative, which will set aside public land to create prairie-like habitats for pollinators, including bees, butterflies, moths, and bats. The initiative, which began this year, will take place over the course of five years, he said, and will, he hopes, expand into private land as habitats.

Seventy percent of Iowa land used to be prairie, Gibbins said, and this has shrunk dramatically to less than 1 percent. By starting this initiative, he said, Cedar Rapids hopes to make better use of unproductive land by converting it back into prairie habitat.

Erin Miller, a master beekeeper with Linn County Conservation, said a loss of this type of habitat greatly affects bees’ ability to attain the amount of nutrients needed, because a variety of crops is needed for a bee’s diet. However, she said, most farms today work as a monocrop system, eliminating important plant variety.

Miller also noted a decline the area has seen in recent years in the numbers of the bee population.

“A typical loss for a beekeeper is 30 percent of the colony, but it might be higher this year,” she said.

Hendrix said studies done on the bee population show declines, but not enough studies from the last 10 years show a concrete trend. He said the loss of habitat is a huge problem, which pesticide use contributes to.  Researchers need studies, though, to be tracked from the 1850s, when prairies first became farmland, to show a true decline, he said.

Insect population normally varies year to year as well, he said, and bees are no exception. Depending on the weather of the previous year, Hendrix said, insects may not have good enough conditions or enough time to reproduce, which may contribute to a population decline.

However, Hendrix said, the issue of a bee decline would not be good.

“Virtually all important sources of food come from pollination,” he said, noting some of those foods include all fruits, berries, and even coffee.

Some places in China have eliminated all pollinators from the land, he said, and now these areas have to hand-pollinate the crops, which is not a concrete fix. Without this pollination, he said, human diets will become bland, and people will not receive enough nutrients needed to live.

Gibbins also said the community must work together for their health and help improve the future outlook of pollinators.

“People can’t be healthy if pollinators aren’t healthy,” he said.

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