Bee-utiful Research: Experts Working To Improve Health Of Key Agricultural Pollinator
Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
While honeybees may be best known as producers of honey and beeswax useful for candles and seals, experts from the University of Arizona want to remind you that the insects play an important role in the agriculture industry.
“Honeybees are responsible for pollinating agricultural crops that make up one-third of our diet, including fruits and vegetables. They’re the cornerstones of heart-healthy and cancer prevention diets,” adjunct professor Gloria DeGrandi-Hoffman, who is also a research leader at the USDA’s Carl Hayden Bee Research Center (CHBRC) explained in a statement Thursday.
In light of the essential role the insects play in pollinating crops, DeGrandi-Hoffman and her colleagues are working to optimize the health of honeybee colonies by improving their nutrition and finding ways to better control Varroa destructors – bloodsucking parasitic mites that can cause Deformed Wing Virus (DWV) in honeybees.
“We’re the honeybee nutrition lab,” DeGrandi-Hoffman said. “Humans are healthier when we have good nutrition and so are bees. We study the effects of malnutrition on bees, including the effects of fungicides and pesticides and how they alter the ability of bees to acquire nutrients from flower nectar.”
DeGrandi-Hoffman noted that the lab also examines the role that microbes play in helping bees digest their food and acquire nutrients from it, and added that she and her colleagues are also working on the honeybee microbiome project – an initiative inspired by the Human Microbiome Project that hopes to understand the role of and interactions between various microbes that live on or inside of honeybees.
“Just like in humans, microbes play an important role in digestion and overall health and immunity in bees. Honeybee colonies are healthier if they have a diverse micro-biome,” the professor said, explaining that honeybees play such a key role in agricultural pollination because they can be housed in colonies, and can then be transported to fields and released once the time is right to pollinate flowers.
“We can manage them and bring pollinating populations into key agricultural systems,” she said. “For example, in February bees are brought from all over the country to pollinate almond trees. There aren’t enough native pollinators to pollinate all the almond crops, but we can bring honeybees into the orchards, open up the colonies and instantly have thousands and thousands of pollinators working with those trees.”
Each winter, beekeepers estimate that they lose nearly one-third of their colonies, said DeGrandi-Hoffman. Droughts can also be devastating to them, since plants that serve as essential sources of food to the honeybees fail to bloom in such conditions. Fortunately, the Arizona-based researcher said that the region around her university has a healthy population of honeybees and native pollinators, which in turn is beneficial to human health.
Families looking to promote the pollinator population in and around their homes can do so by growing plants such as sunflowers and asters, she added. She said that lists of plants that serve as good food sources for honeybees and other types of pollinating insects can be found online through the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum website, and urges caution when using pesticides.
“Homeowners sometimes use pesticides and fungicides without thinking of their possible effects on non-target organisms like bees. These products can cause bee kills,” the Arizona professor explained. She added that it is not dangerous to encourage bees to hang around your home or garden in most cases. “Unless you step on one, the only time bees are defensive and could possibly sting you is if you get near their nest,” she concluded.
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