Tag Archives: bee

UK Conservation Schemes to Boost Bee Diversity- Everything You Need to Know

All over the UK, farmers are paid to set aside fallow land for flowers to grow and even to sow mixes of wildflowers in their field margins, all in an effort to boost dwindling numbers of wild bees, as well as birds and biodiversity in general. These are much needed conservation measures to tackle the devastating problem of losing the most vital pollinator groups (bumblebees and solitary bees) that help sustain the food production of Britain. But how do these agri-environment schemes (aka environmental stewardships, ESSs) work, what are the problems with them, and how must they be improved?

Plight of the Bees

The pollinators- bumblebees, honeybees, solitary bees, butterflies (and many others) are arguably the most important animal group, and one we should be most bothered about. A third of all the fruit and veg you see in the supermarkets would not exist if it were not for the pollinating efforts of bees et al., and many of the flowers of plants and trees would not be able to reproduce, and would hence disappear. However, there is no one perfect species of beethat can pollinate anything (although honeybees are renowned generalists), so attention must be given to boosting general bee diversity, with perhaps a focus on the most efficient pollinators, and generalists that can access many flower structures (although generalists are typically short-tongued so can only access ‘open’ structures- however these species are usually quite common).

Bees have had it pretty rough during the last few hundred years of anthropogenic development. Although several land-use changes wrought by humans did them some good, such as clearing of forest to allow mid-successional habitat (e.g. wildflower meadows- perfect for bees!) to flourish and the growth of fields of fodder crop such as red clover (also brilliant for bees)- this was to be short lived! At the advent of the 2nd World War, our native biodiversity suffered the intensification of agriculture in Britain and in much of the rest of Europe (another evil that can be attributed to Hitler’s long list!). Since crop production needed to be maximised to feed a war-torn nation, small farms turned into monocultures with no semi-natural habitat or flowers; pesticides replaced other forms of pest management, and planting fodder crops to feed livestock (which also happen to be bumblebees’ preferred food plant) became a thing of the past.

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Nowadays, there are even more evils that are possibly killing off our bees. Stressors such as competition from non-native bee species, increased transmission of disease, climate change, and neonicotinoid pesticide misuse have all been implicated. Fortunately, the governments of the UK and EU recognised the threat to our native fauna and food production, and have a few schemes in place to help conserve the plighted pollinators…

Stewards of the Land

The idea of Environmental Stewardship Schemes (ESSs) is to encourage farmers and landowners to aid the conservation effort in England, in exchange for farming subsidies- aka cash- for either implementing a conservation measure, or by not using an intensive piece of management. Among the choices (graded on a points system) open to farmers are hedgerow planting, sowing mixes of wildflowers, planting fodder crops and leaving margins of fields without crops or pesticide sprays (so flowering weeds and rare plants can grow). So farmers and land-owners make up their minds on whether a cash subsidy (and the bonus to the ecosystem services they benefit from) will be more profitable than using the land for crops still.

Unfortunately, research has shown that even farms using the higher level of the stewardships (HLSs) were not seeing any increase in flowering plant diversity, and subsequently no increase in bee numbers or species. So what exactly is going wrong?

Why the Schemes Don’t Work (and How to Improve Them)

The “higher level” stewardship schemes (HLS) involve more hands on options such as the sowing of wildflowers and pollen/nectar plant seed mixes. However studies are reporting that whilst bees are visiting the flowers sown from these mixes, they strongly prefer wild occurring flowers which aren’t included in the schemes. This means that the so-called “entry level” stewardships (ELS) are having an equal to greater positive effect on the bee community as these schemes usually involve margins that are allowed a natural community of wildflowers to establish, which are those preferred by the majority of farmland bees.

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Whilst the pollen and nectar and wildflower seed mixes do a good job at increasing the numbers of a narrow suite of bumblebee species, there is little evidence of effects on species richness (diversity) or on solitary bee numbers (despite that group making up the majority of species present in farmland!). The solitary bees much prefer flowers in the families Asteraceae (such as Cat’s Ear and False Mayweed) and Apiaceae (like Cow Parsley), but these mostly grow wild on verges which explains the success of Entry-level Stewardships. To improve their effectiveness, these wildflower mixes used in ESSs should contain more of these flowers preferred by solitary bees, as they are dominated by Fabaceae flowers (beans, peas and clovers), which are only good for bumblebees. Wildflower communities also take a while to establish (over years in some cases), and different flowers can benefit different life stages of the same bumblebee species.

Unfortunately the troubles don’t simply lie at the scale of the methods of conservation. Farmers are offered around £30 per hectare in Entry-Level, which is often not an economical way of using arable land. Another issue is the farmers themselves can choose from the entire array of options on offer, which may seem like a rather blind approach to nature conservation if some ecosystem services are particularly lacking (e.g. natural insect pest control), and the bird or mammal nesting options are chosen. Infact 65% of the entry-level stewardships in 2009 included hedgerows with options for cutting, and whilst this is great for the natural enemy population (beetles, hoverfly larvae etc.) near the edge of the field, these options that don’t particularly favour pollinators.

Final Word

The future for these currently flawed, but potentially effective conservation schemes is uncertain. More research and development on the flower mixes used to benefit bees (and other important taxa, such as beetles) and a more systematic approach to the combinations of conservation measures offered is needed. And since these schemes are funded in part by the European Union (with £400 million paid to farmers annually), a vigilance from environmentally-savvy politicians is needed to ensure these subsidies carry on post-Brexit. The AES schemes cover an impressive 66% of agricultural land, which is therefore 46% of the entire land in the UK! Surely for nature to flourish, we must direct more attention to improving these schemes to best benefit our pollinators, crop pest natural enemies, farmland birds, mammals, and general biodiversity in the UK.

Further Reading

Carvell, C., Meek, W.R., Pywell, R.F., Goulson, D. and Nowakowski, M., (2007) Comparing the efficacy of agri‐environment schemes to enhance bumble bee abundance and diversity on arable field margins. Journal of applied ecology, 44(1), pp.29-40. [Available from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2664.2006.01249.x/full%5D

Wood, T.J., Holland, J.M. and Goulson, D., (2015). Pollinator-friendly management does not increase the diversity of farmland bees and wasps. Biological Conservation, 187, pp.120-126. [Avaiable from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006320715001755%5D

http://www.gwct.org.uk/farming/advice/stewardship-schemes/countryside-stewardship/

http://www.conservationevidence.com/actions/700

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What is Climate Change doing to our Bees?

Insect pollinators ensure transfer of genetic material between plants (sexual reproduction) and maximisation of fruit sets and yields. However these beneficial insects are in decline worldwide, owing to the intensification in crop production of the 20th century (giving less diverse forage), misuse of pesticides and proliferation of various diseases. A driver of decline still under contention is global warming (more accurately climate change) as the effects are hard to predict and will be different for specific groups of pollination- an optimum foraging temperature for bees may be not be so good for pollinating moths, butterflies, hoverflies or birds.

Temperature too high?

Many insects are ectotherms, meaning they do no generate their own heat and need to bask in the sun to become warm enough. Pollinator groups such as butterflies have their distributions limited by low temperatures at high latitudes, so when the climate warms in these areas the generalist species (those that may feed on a wide breadth of flowers) are expected to expand their distribution northwards, but a colder winter temperature will cause their range to recede southwards. For bumblebees the relationship is not as clear- some species have retreated northwards (Bombus distinguendus) and others have retreated southwards (B. sylvarum). Other problems may arise for bumblebee queens that overwinter and emerge from dormancy to find their newly-found colonies is out of sync with their forage plants- this is known as a phenological mismatch or phenotypic asynchrony.

Out-of-sync with host plants?

Climate change is causing phenological advances (a delay) of flowering in plants which means insects have a shorter foraging season to feed and raise their young (either by feeding larvae or provisioning resources to eggs). Non-Apis bees (bees other than honeybees) in particular are shifting in relation to their host plants, with their queens even emerging from overwintering to find very few nectar plants have flowered yet, suggesting no clear pattern for phenological mis-matching. But some researchers argue that in robust pollinator networks there is an assemblage of multiple plant species for early emerging or late emerging pollinators to feed on, and vice versa. For specialist pollinators there is also a risk of spatial mismatches, where plants offering nectar and pollen shift their range and distribution much to the chagrin of specialist pollinators that must ‘track’ their host plant by migration (but this depends on dispersal ability, commonness of preferred nesting habitat). Generalists, however, will be able to take advantage of biodiversity of forage plants and will be affected less. In response to pressures to alter their diet, some bee species have even been rapidly evolving shorter tongues in order to feed from plants with shallower corollas. In 40 years, 2 alpine species of bumblebee (Bombus balteatus and B. sylvicola) have reduced their tongue length by 3 millimetres in response to a 60% decline in flower production.

Pollinating-moth-feeds-from-Sacred-Dutura

Exacerbating other drivers of decline?

Climate change may interact synergistically with other causes of declines, for instance increased temperatures may speed up pathogen growth rates and lead to increased proliferation of bee parasites, such as varroa mite. Climate warming is speculated to increase the competition for resources between native bees and invasive ‘super-generalists’, possibly leading to extinction by competitive exclusion. Climate change may also cause development of agricultural methods that have an adverse effect on bees, such as devoting more land to growing crop monocultures (reducing florally diverse habitats) or increased use of pesticides.

What can be done?

Efforts are being made to help sustain pollinator diversity in agricultural landscapes, such as the compulsory planting of wildflowers through environmental stewardship schemes. However some researchers argue the existing biodiversity of food plants will ensure plant-pollinator phenological synchrony against climate change, and only very specialist feeders will be at risk. The rapid evolution of some at-risk bee species (such as those with shorter tongues) will also play a key role in recovery of pollinator populations. Efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change (such as reduction of emissions and geo-engineering solutions) would also reduce the subsequent effects on pollinator decline.

Further Reading:

Bartomeus, I., Ascher, J. S., Wagner, D., Danforth, B. N., Colla, S., Kornbluth, S., & Winfree, R. (2011). Climate-associated phenological advances in bee pollinators and bee-pollinated plants. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences108(51), 20645-20649.

Burkle, L. A., Marlin, J. C., & Knight, T. M. (2013). Plant-pollinator interactions over 120 years: loss of species, co-occurrence, and function. Science,339(6127), 1611-1615.

Garibaldi, L. A., Steffan-Dewenter, I., Winfree, R., Aizen, M. A., Bommarco, R., Cunningham, S. A., … & Klein, A. M. (2013). Wild pollinators enhance fruit set of crops regardless of honey bee abundance. Science, 339(6127), 1608-1611.

Miller-Struttmann, N. E., Geib, J. C., Franklin, J. D., Kevan, P. G., Holdo, R. M., Ebert-May, D., … & Galen, C. (2015). Functional mismatch in a bumble bee pollination mutualism under climate change. Science349(6255), 1541-1544.

Diseases in bumblebees and honeybees

All species of bumblebee and honeybee have associated diseases and parasites that impact on the health of populations. Emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) are those that pose a risk to human welfare (directly or indirectly) that affect ecosystem service production such as pollination of flowers or health of livestock. But what are these diseases and what are the factors that exacerbate them?

One commonly cited cause for colony collapse disorder (CCD) of the american honeybee (Apis mellifera) is the mite Varroa destructor. Varroa carries and transfers the viruses deformed wing virus (DWV) and acute bee paralysis virus (both implicated in CCD). Affliction with varroa mite also tends to weaken the immune system of honeybees. ‘Hygienic’ colonies of honeybees are able to remove the mites from brood cells and the workers groom themselves to remove the mite and disrupt it’s life cycle- this is a form of ‘resistance’ to the mite.

Other common parasites of honeybees include acarine tracheal mites, nosema spp (fungus that infest intestinal tracts), small hive beetle, wax moths and tropilaelaps (mites). Bacterial diseases include american foulbrood and european foulbrood and fungal diseases include chalkbrood and stonebrood. Honeybees are also susceptible to dysentery (inability to void faeces in flight) and viruses such as chronic and acute paralysis virus, kashmir bee virus, black queen cell virus, deformed wing virus and cloudy wing virus.

Researchers have found that two of these honeybee diseases (DWV and Nosema cerenae) are capable of infecting adult bumblebees. Further field work found that 11% of bumblebees were infected with DWV and 9% with N. cerenae, compared with honeybee infection rates of 35% and 7% respectively. The most likely explanation for the disease incidence in bumblebees is infection by honeybees, but bee-keepers can reduce the spread of disease by regular brood comb changes.  It is thought that ecological traits of these pollinating insects (e.g. overlapping geographic ranges, ecological niches and behaviours) promotes cross-species transmission of RNA viruses. Social behaviour and phylogenetic relatedness of social pollinators is thought to further facilitate transmission within and between hosts.

More recent evidence has suggested that commercial colonies bred for crop pollination and honey production can carry diseases (parasite infections and over 20 viruses) and be a threat to native species. Researchers found that 77% of imported bumblebee hives were contaminated with up to 5 different parasites. There is an urgent need for further research into the health of wild and imported bees and improvement in monitoring and management practices for honeybee and bumblebee colonies

Fürst, M. A., McMahon, D. P., Osborne, J. L., Paxton, R. J., & Brown, M. J. F. (2014). Disease associations between honeybees and bumblebees as a threat to wild pollinators. Nature, 506(7488), 364-366.

Manley, R., Boots, M., & Wilfert, L. (2015). Emerging viral disease risk to pollinating insects: ecological, evolutionary and anthropogenic factors. Journal of Applied Ecology.

How else do pollinators benefit from plants?

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Plants primarily attract pollinators by offering nectar rewards (as a source of sugar for energy) and pollen (as a protein source for developing young). In return, the pollinator will pass on the plant’s genetic material for sexual reproduction. Using this animal vector is much more efficient than relying on wind pollination, but how does the pollinator benefit from this interaction? Besides nectar and pollen, what other rewards can flowers offer? How can plants sometimes ‘deceive’ pollinators by providing a false reward?

Some neotropical plants, including orchids, produce scent which is collected by the males of Euglossine bees to use as pheromones for courtship. The bees secrete saliva full of lipids onto the floral surface, which absorbs the scent compounds and is then collected by the bee’s ‘corbicula’, a modified pollen basket. Whilst the bees are collecting these female-attracting scents, the orchid’s specialized anthers deposit a ‘pollonium’ onto the back of the bee.

Pollinators have also been found to consume floral tissues (the plant itself!) as a reward for assisting with reproduction. Beetle species often consume floral tissues but also act as pollinators. For example cycads are often pollinated by specialized weevils that eat the cycad ‘flowers’ called cones. To limit the damage done, the plants often produce low concentrations of secondary metabolite (toxins) that accumulate in the insect and this limits the amount of floral tissue the pollinator can eat.

Other specialized plant-pollinator mutualisms has the plant producing oils which are used by bees to build nests and feed larvae. In many cases these fatty acid secretions are made rather than nectar, which means a more specialized pollinator can co-evolve with the plant. This leads to more efficient pollination as the insect is limited to only travelling and distributing pollen between a few plant species.

Sometimes pollination occurs by deceit. The dead horse arum produces chemical compounds that mimic those produced by carcasses. This attracts carrion flies and traps them in the flower overnight, covering them with pollen. Orchids of the genus Ophrys emit compounds which mimic female wasp pheromones and have visual displays that look similar to female wasps. The male wasp visits and attempts to mate with the flower, but inadvertetly pollinates it if fooled twice! Neither of these plants reward the pollinator with food (or otherwise) for pollinating it- this one sided ecological interaction is known as ‘commensalism’.

Many different incentives to attract insect pollinators to specialise on a particular species (or genus) of plant exist. The bizarre strategy of the fig tree has a chalcid wasp insert its long ovipositor to lay its eggs inside the fig fruits. The fig tree grows it’s flowers inside the fig fruits so the wasp actually pollinates it in return for the plant providing a habitat and food source for the developing larvae. Other plants have been shown to ‘cheat’ and deceive their pollinators into accepting a non-existent reward (like the wild orchid wasp mimic). However recent research has found that bumblebees have a preference for plant scent compounds that give an honest indication of reward quality. Plant resources put towards reward quality is limiting however, so an equilibrium exists between the evolution of cheaters and ‘honest’ signallers.

 

Irwin, R. E., Adler, L. S., & Brody, A. K. (2004). The dual role of floral traits: pollinator attraction and plant defense. Ecology, 85(6), 1503-1511.

Knauer, A. C., Schiestl, F. P. (2014), Bees use honest floral signals as indicators of reward when visiting flowers. Ecology Letters. doi: 10.1111/ele.12386

Simpson, B. B., & Neff, J. L. (1981). Floral rewards: alternatives to pollen and nectar. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, 301-322.

Decline of Pollinators could Worsen Global Malnutrition

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Pollinators contribute to about 10% of the economic value of crop production, but the contribution to human nutrition by these pollinators is potentially much higher. This is because pollinators support the sexual reproduction (by transfer of gametes aka pollen) of crops high in essential nutrients that malnourished regions of the world rely on. This suggests that regions already facing food shortages and nutritional deficiencies will suffer particularly hard from the global decline of bees and other pollinators.

Many of the crops dependent on animal vectors to pollinate (instead of wind) are the ones most rich in micronutrients essential for human health. The recent decline of important pollinators, such as the domesticated Western honey bee, Apis mellifera, has lead to concerns on the economic and now nutritional situation of crop production.  Dr Chaplin-Kramer and colleagues set out to assess the importance of pollinators to global health by determining which regions these crops are most critical for and what their micro-nutrient content is.

The research concluded that pollinator decline could affect different regions of the world in entirely different ways. Developed regions such as China, Japan, U.S.A. and Europe relied on natural pollinators for producing crops of high economic value, whereas lesser developed regions such as South Asia, India and sub-Saharan Africa relied on natural pollinators for producing crops of high nutritional value. Chaplin-Kramer and colleagues also mapped out hotspots that relied on 3 essential micro-nutrients; iron, vitamin A and folate. The regions depending most on pollination for nutrition delivery also tend to have high rates of malnutrition and poverty.

The health concerns potentially resulting from this include vitamin A deficiency, which is associated with blindness and increased risk of disease, iron deficiency which causes anaemia and pregnancy complications, and lack of folate that causes folate deficiency anemia. This study has also highlighted that the effects of pollinator decline are much more diverse and widespread than the well-known crop production and income problems. However there are ways for the regions to adapt to changes to pollination services, such as using managed bee colonies to supplement wild populations, switching to alternative nutrition-equivalent crops less reliant on bee pollination and importing nutrient-rich foods from other countries.

Chaplin-Kramer, R., Dombeck, E., Gerber, J., Knuth, K. A., Mueller, N. D., Mueller, M., … & Klein, A. M. (2014). Global malnutrition overlaps with pollinator-dependent micronutrient production. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 281(1794), 20141799.