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The Buzz on Bees

ONIONS, CARROTS, SQUASH, TANGERINES. YOU PLANT THEIR SEED, YOU WATER IT, IT GROWS INTO A PLANT. IT'S THAT SIMPLE, RIGHT? NOT REALLY. THIS BOUNTY WOULDN'T BE HERE IF NOT FOR THE METICULOUS LABOR OF THOUSANDS OF TINY WORKERS.

THEY'RE BEES, AND WITHOUT THESE PROLIFIC POLLINATORS, YOUR LOCAL FARMER'S MARKET WOULD BE A VERY DIFFERENT PLACE.

CLAIRE KREMEN: // about 50% of our Vitamin C comes from pollinator-dependent plants. // I don't like the idea of not having watermelon, for example, or not having almonds or kiwi fruit. //

IT SEEMS AS IF BEES ARE EVERYWHERE - THE EARTH IS HOME TO MORE THAN 20,000 SPECIES OF THEM. BUT FARMERS RELY ON ONLY ONE SPECIES -- HONEY BEES -- TO DO THE "HEAVY LIFTING" OF POLLINATION.

MANY ANIMALS ARE POLLINATORS. BUTTERFLIES, BATS AND VARIOUS BEES ALL DO IT.

BUT HONEY BEES, WHICH ORGANIZE IN EASY-TO-TRANSPORT COLONIES, ARE THE BEST RESOURCE FOR FARMERS WHO NEED TO POLLINATE LARGE FIELDS IN A SHORT TIME.

AS THEY FORAGE FOR POLLEN TO FEED THEIR BROOD, THEY UNINTENTIONALLY MOVE SOME POLLEN FROM THE MALE TO THE FEMALE PARTS OF A FLOWER. THAT FORMS SEEDS THAT GROW INTO EVERYTHING FROM ALMONDS TO APPLES.

SUSAN COBEY: Honey bees are very good pollinators because we can build up big populations when we need them and we're able to move them in and out of crops very quickly.

IN THE FALL OF 2006, THIS PROCESS WAS INTERRUPTED WHEN HONEY BEES BEGAN TO DISAPPEAR EN MASSE FROM THEIR HIVES. RESEARCHERS LABELED THE PHENOMENON COLONY COLLAPSE DISORDER OR CCD.

ERIC MUSSEN: Colony collapse disorder apparently became first recognized in October of 2006, when a Pennsylvania beekeeper noticed that his bees weren't doing so well in Pennsylvania, and then found out they weren't doing so well in Florida or the Dakotas, either.

ERIC MUSSEN: // maybe 50% of the beekeepers saw some increase in winter loss that they had not anticipated.

A US DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE PANEL FOUND THAT POOR NUTRITION, PESTICIDES, A LACK OF GENETIC DIVERSITY, AND PARASITES ALL CONTRIBUTED TO THIS EPISODE OF COLONY COLLAPSE DISORDER.

IN CALIFORNIA, THE ABRUPT DECLINE IN HONEY BEES THREATENED 6 BILLION DOLLARS WORTH OF CROPS (CK). IN RESPONSE, FARMERS TURNED TO THE BEE KEEPING INDUSTRY, WHICH TRUCKED 700,000 HONEY BEE COLONIES FROM AROUND THE COUNTRY INTO CALIFORNIA IN THE EARLY SPRING OF 2007. SO FAR, IT LOOKS AS IF THE MEASURE'S BEEN SUCCESSFUL.

BUT THIS IS JUST A STOP-GAP.

BAY AREA RESEARCHERS LIKE BEE BREEDER SUSAN COBEY ARE WORKING ON LONGER-TERM SOLUTIONS.

COBEY WANTS TO DESIGN A BETTER BEE.

SUSAN COBEY: The main focus of my work is stock improvement. So I'll be working very directly with the commercial queen producers to help them improve their stock.

SUSAN COBEY: General performance is, is the first criteria. You have to have a good productive bee to be accepted by the uh, industry. But at the same time, we want bees that are resistant to pests and diseases, especially Verroa mite.

THE VARROA MITE IS A TINY BUG THAT FEEDS OFF OF BEE LARVAE AND INFECTS THEM WITH VIRUSES.

SUSAN COBEY: You get bees that are very weak or, or there's a disease called uh, deformed wing virus, where the wings don't form properly, and the bees can't fly. So they're pretty much useless.

CREATING A BEE THAT CAN RESIST VARROA MITE IS NO SIMPLE TASK. TO BREED BEES WITH A SPECIFIC TRAIT LIKE THIS, COBEY FIRST HAD TO UNDERSTAND THE BEES' MATING RITUALS.

SUSAN COBEY: This is a drone, which is the male honey bee. He's much larger, mostly eyes and abdomen.

THESE DRONES HAVE A SINGLE GOAL IN MIND: TO MATE. IN SO DOING, THEY GIVE THEIR LIVES TO PERPETUATE THE COLONY.

SUSAN COBEY: When they're in flight, there are little orange claspers. They uh, they fit in pockets on, on the sides of the queen. And that just holds them. And then the endophallus actually turns inside out, just a kind of an explosive action and he uh, he'll leave his, his drone parts in the queen, and then he'll fall back, paralyzed and die. The rest of the body just falls off.

PERHAPS OVER GENERATIONS THESE VALIANT EFFORTS COULD LEAD TO A BETTER BEE. BUT COBEY IS IN A BIT OF A RUSH.

SHE'S ONE OF ONLY TWO BEE BREEDERS IN THE UNITED STATES WHO PERFORMS ARTIFICIAL INSEMINATION ON QUEEN BEES.

SOT under SUSAN: So I'm just going to pull out some virgins, which we'll inseminate later this afternoon.

COBEY CHOOSES QUEEN BEES THAT DISPLAY TRAITS SHE WANTS HER "DESIGNER" BEES TO HAVE.

SUSAN COBEY: The colonies that seem to uh, maintain the Varroa mite at lower levels are the queen mothers I'm gonna select for.

Sound up SUSAN: Poor queen.
AS FOR THE SPERM, COBEY HAS RECENTLY STARTED TO IMPORT SOME FROM EUROPE TO INCREASE HER STOCK'S GENETIC DIVERSITY.

SUSAN COBEY: I think we've lost a lot of our genetic diversity in the U.S., due to colonies dying from just parasitic mites problems, the CCD, colony collapse disorder, and also the, the small gene pool that the commercial queen producers use to repopulate the U.S. colonies. It's, so I think it's really important to bring in uh, more genetic diversity, which is uh, that variability or the, the tools to do selection.

IMPROVING HONEY BEES IS ONE WAY TO GO. BUT WHY CAN'T FARMERS PRESS OTHER KINDS OF BEES INTO SERVICE AS WELL?

HONEY BEES, WHICH ORIGINATED IN EUROPE AND AFRICA, ARE RELATIVELY RECENT ARRIVALS TO THE U.S. UC BERKELEY BIOLOGIST CLAIRE KREMEN WORKS WITH NATIVE BEES, WHICH HAVE BEEN POLLINATING CALIFORNIA FIELDS FOR HUNDREDS OF YEARS (CK).

CLAIRE KREMEN: It used to be that we didn't need to manage pollination at all. Uh, farmers had relatively small farm fields, and they grew a diverse set of crops. And they relied exclusively on the bees that were free-living in the environment, // now // we have much larger farm fields, and generally, each field is growing a single crop. And those conditions aren't very good for native bees. Uh, native bees might come to the field when it's flowering, but when it's not flowering, which is most of the year, there are no resources there for the native bees.

BY PLANTING SOME BEE-FRIENDLY VEGETATION IN THEIR FIELDS, FARMERS CAN GET THE NATIVE BEES TO WORK FOR THEM.

CLAIRE KREMEN: Native pollinators can benefit farmers, really, as their backup plan. Uh, if farmers can't get ahold of honey bees because of colony collapse disorder, because of the mites, because they become too expensive, then farmers that have a diverse community of wild bees are gonna be better off; they're gonna get some or all of their pollination needs met by these wild bees.
WHEN NATIVE BEES FLY INTO A FIELD, THEY MOTIVATE HONEY BEES TO WORK MORE.

CLAIRE KREMEN: We've actually been able to document that the honey bees become 5 times more efficient when there's a lot of native bees around.

CLAIRE KREMEN: // some of the male native bees are looking for mates, and they're basically investigating everything, and as they do this, they're causing the honey bees to uh, to move again.

AND FOR PLANTS, THE MORE POLLEN THE BETTER...
FOR HUMANS IT TAKES A SINGLE SPERM TO CREATE A BABY, BUT FOR A PLANT, IT TAKES MORE THAN ONE POLLEN GRAIN TO MAKE A FRUIT. AND IN FACT, THE MORE POLLEN, THE BETTER THE QUALITY OF THE FRUIT.

CLAIRE: A watermelon can have about 300 seeds in there. Some of these look like they haven't been fully pollinated. But the black ones are nice, big, healthy seeds.

CLAIRE: When the bee lands on the flower, then some pollen that's on the bee will drop off onto the stigma of the flower.

CLAIRE: // It's very important, // that there's enough pollen deposited and also that it's evenly distributed over the whole stigma, and that's what happens over multiple visits by these bees during the course of the day.

Claire: Each of these seeds results from a pollen grain landing on the flower and growing a pollen tube down until it meets the ovule and fertilizing that ovule to produce this seed.

CLAIRE: So if part of the flower doesn't receive any pollen and no pollination is happening for some of the ovules //
you'll get a deformed fruit, which farmers just throw out.

NEAR DAVIS, KREMEN HAS PARTNERED WITH AUDUBON CALIFORNIA AND THE XERCES SOCIETY, A NONPROFIT THAT PROMOTES POLLINATORS.

XERCES' DIRECTOR, SCOTT BLACK, IS VISITING FARMER BRUCE ROMINGER IN WINTERS, CALIFORNIA. THEY'RE CHECKING THE SEEDLINGS THAT AUDUBON RECENTLY PLANTED NEXT TO ROMINGER'S FIELD. THEIR BLOOMS WILL DRAW NATIVE BEES TO POLLINATE THE FIELD.

Sound up Scott: Willows are great early season plants.

CLAIRE KREMEN: The farmers are often interested in doing habitat restoration, particularly along drainage ditches. In part, this is to manage water and uh, prevent soil erosion on their farms. And they can buy into some of these farm bill programs that provide them with funding, partial funding for accomplishing this type of habitat restoration. So we're piggybacking on that.

AUDUBON CALIFORNIA PLANTED SEEDLINGS ON LAND AROUND A FILTRATION POND WHERE ROMINGER COULDN'T SEED ANY CROPS.

BRUCE ROMINGER: This is what we call a non-crop area. And for a farmer, a non-cropped area, you can't make any money off of it necessarily and you end up spending money. It used to be, historically, you were always out here, spraying, controlling the noxious weeds. Now we see a great opportunity. Let's plant some beneficial plants here that will cover the ground, that will provide habitat to all kinds of wildlife, including the native pollinators.

THE IDEA IS TO PLANT THINGS THAT FLOWER AT DIFFERENT TIMES OF THE YEAR, SO THAT BEES HAVE A REASON TO VISIT THE FIELD OVER AND OVER.

BRUCE: Here's a coyote brush.

SCOTT: Coyote brush is the one that's really, really good in the fall, flowers in the fall.

BRUCE: Another neat thing is this is just going to be just gorgeous spot someday too.

SCOTT: Yeah.

BRUCE: With all these trees and shrubs growing up and native grasses.

ONE DAY, THE PLANTS IN THIS FIELD WILL BE AS TALL AS THE ONES AT THE XERCES SOCIETY'S NEARBY EXPERIMENTAL CENTER. WHEN THAT HAPPENS, THE HOPE IS THAT THEY'LL PROVIDE HABITATS TO HONEY BEES AND DOZENS OF NATIVE BEES.

ALTHOUGH THE THREAT OF A NEW EPISODE OF COLONY COLLAPSE DISORDER REMAINS, RESEARCHERS AND FARMERS ARE OPTIMISTIC THAT BY BREEDING A BETTER HONEY BEE AND ATTRACTING NATIVE BEES, THEY'LL BE BETTER ABLE TO SOLVE THE PROBLEM.

 

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