Pollinators, meet the Flintstones


So where do you look for your vitamin needs? According to a recent global survey of the nutritional content of fruits and vegetables– from animal-pollinated crops–that’s where. An international team of researchers, led by Claire Kremen at the University of California Santa Barbara, compared the levels of key vitamins and other nutrients in pollinator dependent and independent crops. They found:

Crop plants that depend fully or partially on animal pollinators contain more than 90% of vitamin C, the whole quantity of Lycopene and almost the full quantity of the antioxidants β-cryptoxanthin and β-tocopherol, the majority of the lipid, vitamin A and related carotenoids, calcium and fluoride, and a large portion of folic acid.

Eilers et al., 2011 PLoS One

We already knew that the majority of fruits and vegetable that we love, for the sake of variety and good cuisine, are dependent on animal pollinators. This study drives home the message that animal-pollinated food is also really healthy. Another score for the pollinators.

Yet another key point of this study, and the accompanying press release, is the importance of the services of wild pollinators. While honey bees are often managed and rented for pollination, especially in the US and Europe, this adds another cost to agriculture, that may not be available in developing countries. Thus, developing countries, that would greatly benefit from the production of nutrient-rich crops (i.e. animal-pollinated), may not be able to afford the use of managed honey bees. In principle, this is not a problem, because many type of wild pollinators would LOVE to pollinate our fruits and veggies, and in some cases, they are better pollinators for those crops.

The problem?  Wild pollinators live in the WILD, the surrounding environment, that may be polluted with pesticides or even non-existent, due to other human activities. Thus, by destroying our natural habitats, we lose a natural resource that provides its services for free, if we are willing to provide some shelter for the night.


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Going viral

A recent study in PLoS One, lead by researchers at the University of California in San Francisco, has identified four new viruses in honey bees. That is, in normal honey bees. The study was funded by Project Apis m (their press release here), a non-profit honey bee research organization. The lead researcher, Joseph DeRisi, is no small deal in the field of human disease, and also a trailblazer of sorts, given that he published one of the first papers to use a then-new technique called microarrays, which are now standard in studying gene expression, *even* in honey bee research.

The aim of the study was to characterize pathogens that are found in healthy honey bee colonies, in order to establish a baseline level of what is normal. A virologists’ perspective, from blogger ERV,give us this:

“One of the problems in this research field is our view of viruses/bacteria/parasites– We are so used to thinking virus/bacteria/parasite=DISEASE, we forget that viruses/bacteria/parasites=NORMAL mostof the time. Your genome is littered with ERVs. You are loaded with herpes viruses. Your body is more bacteria than human. There are mites and parasites coating you and your belongings.
And that is totally normal.”

So using an arsenal of techniques (microarrays, PCR, qPCR, and ultra deep sequencing), apparently Project Apis m is very generous, the researchers pummelled these samples until every last microbe was accounted for. They had some pretty neat tricks in their bag (okay, I’m done with these asinine metaphors), including an “arthropod pathogen microarray” capable of identifying  all known insect microbial parasites.

Yet the problem still remains of defining what is normal in the honey bee. Because in foragers from 20 hives within a large scale operation, sampled over multiple months, they found 20 different pathogenic profiles! So what is normal? Who knows, and that’s why, when designing future experiments, we’ll still need to rely on that control group, to tell us what’s normal.

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Family style dining in bees – sociality and gut flora

“Probiotics” – now be found proudly proclaimed on the side of yogurt cartons- is really just a PR tactic for gut bacteria.   And if you thought that it was just for humans, think again. A  study in the journal of Molecular Ecology reports on the gut flora found in wild bees and wasps. Their aim? To see if the vegetarian or carnivore lifestyle leads to different probiotics.

Lead by researchers at the University of Arizona’s Center for Insect Science, the study used molecular phylogenetics, a method that can identify species by their DNA and then group together related bacteria.  In the past, identifying bacteria in the gut of animals required that the bacteria be cultured in the lab. The problem with this technique is that symbiotic bacteria live best with their host, not on a petri dish, so they were often missed in these screens. Now that DNA sequencing (even of whole genomes) has become more commonplace, researchers are turning their attention from the animal, to the little beasts that call it home, and giving them all a name (or at least a phylotype).

But what about the bees? Does being vegetarian influence the type of bacteria found in their guts? Turns out, no. Instead, sociality, that is living in colonies, seems to determine what types of bacteria you find. The authors state:

“Potentially, the sociality of [honey bee] and [bumble bee] species faciliates symbiont transmission and thus is key to the maintenance of a more consistent gut microbiota.”

That is, eat what your aunt (or sister) is serving you, if you know what’s good for you! It works because one of the features of eusociality is the overlapping generations. Thus, presumably, gut flora could be passed around the colony and through the generations.


Reference: Martinson et al., Mol Ecol. 2011 Feb;20(3):439-440.

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Pollinator paparazzi

“Become a pollinator paparazzi”–my rough translation of the tag line from the Spipoll website. Citizen science is definitely a trendy buzzword in the conservation community these days. The idea that we, the scientists, can’t tackle the counting and sorting of all of the world’s species, so we should ask for a little public participation. I like the idea because I think it’s good to start bridging our scientific research with public interest and enthusiasm. But I also believe that, in years to come, citizen science initiatives have the potential to become exciting mobilizing opportunities, that could create some relevant data. But to see the current state of the art, I am featuring two web-based programs–Bee Spotter and Spipoll–that aim to track insect pollinators by digital photography.

SPIPOLL is a French monitoring program launched by the Natural History Museum in Paris. This initiative is funded by the French government within the framework of Biodiversity 2010, in recognition of the International Year of Biodiversity. Participants, called spipolliens, photograph pollinating insects and upload them to the website. With the photographs, participants also record the time and location. At the website, they are given instruction on IDENTIFYING the insect as well as the flower it was visiting. They have created a standardized protocol for pollinator-watching–a long version and a “flash” version–that instructs participants to “sample” from a particular flower in order to see what different types of insects arrive.

Bee Spotter is an American citizen-science  program based at the University of Illinois in Urbana that calls on residents of Illinois to become bee spotters, by photographing bumble bees (11 species) and honey bees (1 species). Participants are provided with color guides for the identification of bumble bee species, and each identification is then verified by a taxonomist. In this way, participants can improve in their ability to identify the bees. In the interest of full disclosure, I helped in the creation of the site (I wrote about Making a Bee-friendly Garden), which sparked my current, enduring interest in pollinator awareness and outreach.

With just these two sites, you can see some varying ideas on how to do citizen science. One is limited to the bumble bees of Illinois while the other covers all of the insects of France! I personally think that the SPIPOLL site is over-ambitious in their hope that people will be able to identify an insect to species based on a photograph. I have a PhD in entomology (though I am by no means a taxonomist), but my brain goes numb just thinking about the task. To their credit, they provide a lot of supporting material, which makes their site a great resource for an educator–teacher, camp counselor, whatever–who wants to incorporate this program into their curriculum. And I should add, the website is so gorgeous–all luscious pink, orange and green– that just going to the site makes me feel a little bit better about the bees!

In the end, I prefer the approach of BeeSpotter, to keep thing simple and build a strong community of citizen scientists, which it has over the years. The funny thing with web-based citizen science is that it captures a whole new slice of the population. Some of the first BeeSpotters were admittedly not very interested in the insects themselves, but just wanted to try their hand at photographing small thing, like insects. Others, like an elementary school class in Urbana, end up learning about insects, nature and technology. In the end though, their curiosity gets the better of them. What have these little bugs been up to all along? Next thing they know, they’re stopping on the sidewalk to watch a bee collect nectar from a city flower bed. Like the Spipoll site says, be forewarned: photographing insects can become an addiction!

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Best Management Practices for Bees website

Here is a link (Best Management Practices for Bees) from the extension website of the Managed Pollinator Coordinated Agriculture Project (CAP), a large grant funded by the USDA, that foster collaboration between research institutions to study different aspects of honey bee health AND the dissemination of that information to stakeholders, like extension specialists, beekeepers, etc.
I post this as an example of the kind of outreach in which scientist can partake. I also like the site aesthetically; it’s clean and well-organized.

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UN report on Insect Pollinator Decline

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has recently released a report called Global Honey Bee Colony Disorders and other Threats to Insect Pollinators

Link to pdf here

For the 100-some crops that provide 90% of the world’s food, 71 rely on bee pollinators, a figure highlighting the importance of insect pollinators in a recent report by the United Nations Environment Programme. The report addresses the question of whether the crisis of pollinator decline is occurring independently or is just another sign of the global decline of biodiversity. More importantly, it summarizes our current understanding of the threats to insect pollinators and measures that we can take to slow their decline.

To understand why the decline of pollinators is important to people around the world, think about the important role of pollinators to the reproduction of plants.  In this mutually beneficial relationship,  both the pollinators and the plants have developed adaptations, either in anatomy or behavior, that ensure that insects are attracted to the plant and that plant reproduction is successfully carried out. This co-adaptation is what “raises troubling questions about the potential consequences of declining diversity in pollination networks.” (UNEP report 2011)

The honey bee (Apis mellifera), the most commonly known pollinator, remains the most economically valuable pollinator for agriculture. In Europe and North America, numbers of honey bee colonies have been in decline for decades. Recently colony collapse disorder, reports of honey bees disappearing suddenly from colonies, has captivated the public’s attention, but other problems also plague beekeepers, like parasites and viruses. These problems are generally shared by beekeepers in Europe, North America and Asia, while Africa has reported no large scale losses of honey bees.

But crops do not depend entirely on the honey bee for pollination, wild bees also provide pollination services to agriculture, although less data is available on their numbers worldwide. A 30 year study in the UK and the Netherlands report a 70% drop in insect-pollinated wild flowers along with a change in the species of pollinators that are found. Rare species have become rarer while common species have increased their expanse. This type of shift in species composition means that biodiversity in the landscape is decreasing.

Natural habitat degradation is considered the key factor that is adversely affected insect pollinators. Human-caused degradation leads to diminishing food resources but also an increase in transmitted diseases, as insects become weakened, and the influx of invasive species, including parasites, that are transported around the world by humans. Insecticide use in agriculture also threatens insect pollinators, while honey bee colony health may be adversely affected by beekeeping practices (see this post).

So what can be done to stop the decline of insect pollinators? Firstly, as a response to the key factor threatening pollinator species, support habitat conservation.  For example, farmers who provide habitats for insect pollinators on their land should be rewarded (see recent action by the Pollinator Partnership). Investment in alternative agriculture that limit pesticides and in alternative pollinators for agriculture is also recommended. In addition, developing our understanding of insect pollinator taxonomy and biology is vital for their preservation.

The report concludes that current available data are not sufficient to say that there is a worldwide decline in pollinators but human activity seems to be detrimental to the biodiversity of species. Overall the report stresses that pollination by insects should not be taken for granted. We must be gracious stewards of our natural and agricultural ecosystems.

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