Born to bee wild: How feral pollinators may help prevent colony collapse disorder
By Enrique Gili
According to the Department of Agriculture, CCD has accounted, at least in part, ?for 30 percent of bee losses annually, since 2007. It’s also jeopardizing beekeepers, rural economies, and the farm communities that depend on those bees. Worldwide honeybees pollinate 400 crops, while adding an estimated $15 billion in revenues per year to the U.S. farm economy.
Despite their pastoral image, the burden placed on the domesticated honeybees is a weighty one. Bred for their non-aggressive demeanor and ample honey production, they’re also expected to help propagate tens upon of thousands of acres of flower-pollinated crops on farms throughout the U.S. and Europe.
As scientists and beekeepers have been literally and figuratively? beating the bushes to understand CCD, they’ve often turned to the? role genetic diversity plays in the overall health of bee colonies. And recent research published in the peer-reviewed science journal PLoS ONE suggests honeybees are as adverse to monogamy as they are to monocrops.? In fact, mixing it up, so to speak, can yield unexpected and surprising benefits for honeybee populations. Honeybees — whether feral or domesticated — need variety. Not only do worker bees spend their waking hours hopping from plant to plant, but some queen bees are also promiscuous, mating with multiple males in a brief period of time. And, as it turns out, there’s a biological rationale for this promiscuity; the overall fitness of the hive depends upon these multiple partners.
“Most bees, ants, and wasps mate singly. Honeybee queens are different ?in that regard — producing highly productive hives that dominate their landscape,” says Heather Mattila, a researcher at Wellesley College.
In the study published in PLoS ONE, Mattila and her co-author Irene Newton found that bees — like humans and other species — depend on helpful bacteria to aid in digestion. And the genetically diverse bee colonies they studied had a significantly greater number of probiotic species living in their guts than the more uniform hives. Moreover, the uniform beehives were 127 percent more likely to contain harmful pathogens than their more diverse counterparts.
“We’ve never known how genetic diversity leads to healthier bees, but this ?study provides strong clues,” says Matilla.
…not that there’s one simple fix for CCD. Diversity is just one part of the equation. “A lot has to do with pesticides and nutrition,” Cobey adds. “The amazing thing about bees is they bounce back [for a while]. But at some point they collapse.”
Scientists and beekeepers alike are working furiously to prevent that from happening. But in the meantime, it might be wise to ask: What if we turned back the clock on agricultural production and allowed honeybees to forage and frolic more freely?