There’s a lot of buzz right now about honey bees—their health and their future.
The good news, where honey bees are concerned, is that there is good news. Just last month, the results of the annual winter bee loss survey were released, and losses of managed honey bee colonies from all causes were 23.2 percent for the past winter—a significant drop from the 30.5 percent loss reported for the winter of 2012-13.
But the really good news is that when it comes to pollination, honey bees aren’t the only game in town.
Consider the bumble bee, B. occidentalis, an important pollinator that’s mostly been used to pollinate greenhouse plants like peppers and tomatoes.
However, anecdotal evidence over the past 10 to 15 years has suggested that several bumble bee species are disappearing. That’s why scientists with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) have been looking for new pollinators that can rise to the task of greenhouse pollination.
Bumble bees are known as “generalist foragers,” which means they don’t have a narrow preference for which types of plants they pollinate. But the commercial companies that used to rear B. occidentalis for greenhouse pollination stopped in the late 1990s because of disease problems.
As a possible alternative, ARS scientists have studied a pretty, orange-striped bee called B. huntii, also a generalist suitable for greenhouse pollination. Because it’s native to the American West, it could be a suitable replacement for B. occidentalis.
There’s no lack of colorful lingo in the bee world. Consider the blue orchard bee, Osmia lignaria, an ace pollinator of cherries. In a 4-year experiment by ARS scientists at a commercial cherry orchard in Utah, production was more than twice as high when blue orchard bees were used in place of honey bees. What’s more, blue orchard bees will stay on the job despite weather that sends other bees buzzing back to the hive.
There’s also the alfalfa leafcutting bee, a superb pollinator of that important crop, and squash bees, proficient pollinators of pumpkin and its cucurbit relatives.
But the “best name” prize has to go to the mustached mud bee, so called for the pheremone-soaked mustache it uses to woo females in the spring. ARS scientists have probed its potential as a pollinator for cranberry bogs.
As you can see, there’s a lot to “bee” excited about in the world of pollinators!