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Rochester biologist searches for clues to dwindling honeybee population
By Jonathan Sherwood
Bob Minckley
The phenomenon is known officially as colony collapse disorder, and scientists across the country are looking for clues to why millions of honeybees are dying, examining everything from pesticides to parasites. Bob Minckley (above) suspects that the booming almond industry and its increasing demand for honeybees as pollinators may play an important role.
In the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico, many miles from the nearest town, lie several small, multicolored plastic bowls full of water and dish soap.
They’re science. Big science. Bob Minckley, adjunct professor of biology, is trying to get a handle on a problem that threatens the multibillion-dollar a year American agricultural system: Why are the honeybees disappearing?
“It’s crazy,” says Minckley. “Here’s this incredibly important linchpin to agriculture, and we have no good data on how its population changes from year to year or place to place. Honeybees are dying and we don’t even know what the scope of the problem is. We don’t know if the problem has occurred in the past. We can’t go back to look at records because we didn’t take any. And the honeybee is the best-studied bee. There are 20,000 other species we barely know exist.”
Honeybees are crucial to agriculture—especially American agriculture—because bees carry pollen from one plant to another, fertilizing the plants and helping them reproduce. More than a third of the foods humans consume, from chocolate to fruits, require an animal pollinator. In the wild, bees can easily pollinate a few garden plants, but owners of giant commercial farms need bees so badly that an entire industry has arisen simply to bring hives of honeybees to these multiacre fields. The demand for pollinating bees has increased so dramatically in the last decade that nearly all industrial beekeepers make their money renting their colonies to farmers rather than selling the once-coveted honey.
Few farmers or keepers considered what could happen to their industries should the humble bee’s populations begin to whither.
Honeybees are not native to the Americas. They were brought on the earliest ships by the Spanish settlers for their honey, but they soon spread across the continent. Paradoxically, native American bees do not live in hives, do not produce honey, and barely sting—all characteristics any first-grader would list about a bee. The reason the “exotic” honeybee is the darling of the pollination industry is because it lives in hives, making it an easy bee to transport from field to field and job to job.
So, when the colonies’ health started collapsing nationwide, people wanted answers, but they had no idea where to look.
“We still need a lot more data,” says Minckley, “But in my gut, I think this whole thing is tied to the almond industry.”
Almonds absolutely need bees to pollinate them—no other insect will do. Almonds bring in so much money that land is continuously razed to make room for more almond crops, so the demand for bees has risen so high that every February, when the almond plants bloom, nearly all beekeepers in the country pack their bees into 18-wheelers and ship them to central and northern California.
“Imagine taking every preschooler in the country and sticking them in a room together for two weeks,” says Minckley. “Any disease any one of them has is going to spread to every other colony. And to make the situation worse, February is a time when honeybees are at their weakest, late in winter. If there is a disease, or a cocktail of diseases, running around the colonies, the bees are going to be more susceptible than ever.”
If the almond rush is the crux of the problem, it’s becoming worse. As American bee populations have dropped, foreign beekeepers have stepped up to fill in the gap, and bees are now being imported from as far away as Australia.
The key to beginning to understand what is happening to the honeybee population is to gather some data on whether this phenomenon is unique to domesticated bees, or applies to feral bees as well. Hence the picnic bowls in the desert.
For the last seven years, Minckley has collected, counted, and catalogued the bee species in the Chihuahuan Desert of southeastern Arizona and northern Mexico. For an unknown reason—likely because they mistake the bowls for some kind of flower—bees are attracted to, and drown in, the small bowls, making for easy, sting-free collecting. After years of collecting, Minckley now believes the area may have the highest species density of bees anywhere in the country—perhaps 500 or more species in just the six square miles he’s studying.
“We’ve been sampling and getting good hard data on how many species are there, and how natural populations that are relatively undisturbed change over time,” says Minckley. He says he’s already getting some indication that feral bees are not experiencing the mysterious decline, supporting his hunch that the mass grouping of honeybees, such as during the almond season, is at the root of the problem. His work is complicated by the fact that about nine years ago a parasite from Thailand decimated the feral honeybee population. Beekeepers were able to keep the domestic bees relatively safe with special pesticides, but determining what is “normal” in the feral bee community is now more difficult to assess.
So, Minckley will continue gathering data on the bees, sometimes traveling from Rochester to the southwest as often as every 10 days to lay out the bowls and monitor the populations.
“I have so much data coming in,” says Minckley. “I’m still collecting it and it will take a long time to process and make sense of it.” He hopes to have some answers before the object of his studies disappears altogether.
Jonathan Sherwood is a senior science writer and publicist in the Office of Communications.
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