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Environmental Factor, September 2015

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Bee-cause - NIEHS pitches in for pollinator health

By Ian Thomas

Bee Box

Bee boxes, like the one above, may help increase the overall abundance of cavity dwelling species and pollination success. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Willis at the bee box

Among Willis’s major interests is the protection of the local mason bee. Mason bees are solitary insects that play an important role in early spring fruit tree and berry pollination, especially where local honeybee populations are in decline. (Photo courtesy of Amy Brix)

Flowers and wills installing a bee box

Flowers, left, and Willis installed several bee boxes in the NIEHS Memorial Garden, to attract mason bees. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

NIEHS has joined a national effort to protect the health of pollinating species in the U.S., by nurturing the habitats in which they live. It is all part of the National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honeybees and Other Pollinators, an initiative unveiled earlier this summer by the Obama administration.

Developed through a collaborative executive branch effort, the strategy outlines a comprehensive approach to reducing the impact of pollinator stressors by conducting research to understand, prevent, and recover from pollinator losses; expanding public education programs and outreach; increasing and improving pollinator habitat; and developing public-private partnerships across all these activities.

“From a public awareness standpoint, any strategy that sheds light on this issue is a very good thing,” said Bill Willis, NIEHS biologist. “This effort, when coupled with the White House’s strategy to control invasive plant species, could prove extremely beneficial to numerous pollinating species, and the environment as a whole in the years to come.”

NIEHS scientists unite for the bee-cause

Willis is one of several NIEHS employees promoting pollinator health around the institute’s North Carolina campus. Projects include the control of invasive plant species that damage habitat, promotion of native wildflowers and other plants needed for pollinator nutrition, and the construction of artificial habitats such as bee boxes, which provide a home to mason bees. Several were installed Aug. 3 in the NIEHS Memorial Garden and elsewhere around the campus.

“The expectation is for facility managers to examine their buildings, grounds, and practices for opportunities to transition to more pollinator-friendly plant species,” said NIEHS Environmental Compliance Officer Bill Steinmetz. “Our hope is to improve the sustainability of the NIEHS landscape and to serve as an exemplar for public-private partnerships and other outreach groups, by showing them that caring for our local bees is a very doable thing.” Steinmetz, who chairs the joint EPA-NIEHS Site Ecology Team and the NIEHS Environmental Management System Workgroup, works year-round to improve habitats on campus.

Others taking part include Christine Flowers, director of the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison and caretaker to a private honeybee colony at her home, and Jack Bishop, Ph.D., a retired senior scientist and a member of the North Carolina Beekeeper’s Association.

“Each hive is like an individual with its own resilient personality,” said Bishop. “Unfortunately, bees today face a litany of challenges for their survival and they need all the protection we as beekeepers can give them.”

A vital crop resource in decline

Agricultural experts agree that pollinators are critical to U.S. environmental health, as well as its economy and food security. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), honeybee pollination alone adds more than $15 billion in value to agricultural crops each year, thereby helping to ensure that diets are rich in fruits, nuts, and vegetables.

“Well over 30 percent of world food crops depend on bees,” noted Willis. “And about 90 percent of wild plants require bees.”

But the state of decline that many pollinating species are now experiencing is indisputable. USDA estimates that honeybee colonies dropped from 6 million in 1947 to just 2.5 million in 2014.

An alarming downturn

Scientists say the reasons for this decline are numerous. Colony death during the winter, for instance, is not uncommon. This is largely due to the elements and harsh temperatures. Other contributors, such as disease, parasites, pesticides, and habitat loss, also play a part in the decline.

What has beekeepers most worried is the growing rise in colony death during the summer months. This was recently reflected in an annual survey from the federally-funded Bee Informed Partnership, which showed a 40 percent drop in American honeybee colonies from 2014 to 2015.

(Ian Thomas is a public affairs specialist in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)

The five most common bee families in North America

  • Apidae — honeybees, bumblebees, carpenter bees, squash bees, southeastern blueberry bees, cuckoo bees
  • Halictidae — sweet bees
  • Andrenidae — miner bees
  • Megachilidae — mason bees and leafcutter bees
  • Colletidae — yellow-masked bees

At present, there are more than 4,000 native bee species in the U.S.

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