The western honey bee, Apis mellifera.
© Lesley Ingram

Pollinators play an important part of human existence. In recent years some pollinators have been struggling to survive. The preservation of our ecosystem including the food we consume daily relies on the health and abundance of our pollinators.

Let’s start off by familiarizing what the role of a pollinator actually is. A pollinator is an agent that transmits or removes the pollen from flowers, grasses, trees and weeds. Pollination is the transfer of pollen from the anthers (male part) to the stigma (female) part of flowers. The most popular pollinators are bees and wasps, flies, butterflies and birds. Surprisingly to many, bats and rodents are pollinators too. However, bees are responsible for the majority of pollination.

HOW POLLINATION HAPPENS. Plants contain reproductive cells, which are known as gametes. There are both male and female gametes. The male gametes are found inside minute pollen grains on the anthers (oval shaped and pollen producing) of the flower. Female gametes are found in the ovules of a flower. When the male and female gametes are joined, this process is known as pollination.

Pollination plays a critical role in the life cycle of flowering plants. It’s the sexual reproduction process of flowering plants, which results in seeds germinating into new plants. Flowering plants contain the necessary elements that are needed for sexual reproduction.

Pollen can’t move on its own. So, pollination relies heavily on other sources to move or transport it. Insects, mammals and birds gather the pollen from the male anthers and carry it to the female stigma. Wind also can be a conductor to transport pollen. This process is called anemophily. Both plant crops and trees are pollinated by the wind. Some examples are: barley, corn, rice, rye, oats and wheat, firs, pines and spruce. Some species of hardwood trees are utilized for the production of nuts. There are many different species of flowers. Each one has its own color, shape and odor that it emits. What attracts pollinators to them are the sugary nectar and pollen that each one contains.

Backyard apiary with langstroth hives.
© Lesley Ingram

MOST PROLIFIC POLLINATORS. Bees, which are social insects, are the most responsible for the pollination of our food supply. Arguably, the one that is referenced the most is the western honey bee (Apis mellifera). The western honey bee is responsible for pollinating about 80 percent of our food supply. Some of the crops they are responsible for pollinating are apples, alfalfa, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and almonds. The pollination of almonds relies solely on the honey bee. Pollination performed by the honey bee and other insects is known as entomophily.

The honey bee belongs to the insect order Hymenoptera, which is the third largest order of insects. This insect order is composed of ants, bees, sawflies and wasps. As our pollinators, they are the most beneficial insect order to mankind. Honey bees are eusocial as they belong to a complex society. Their colonies consist of one breeding female queen, a few thousand males (drones) and a large population of sterile female bees known as workers. These insects go through a complete metamorphosis, which consists of egg, larva, pupa and adult. The gestation time varies for each cast from 16 days for the queen to 21 days for the worker and 24 days for the drone. The life expectancy of the queen is three to four years. The drone dies after mating or is banished from the hive prior to winter. The worker bee can live up to six weeks during summer months and even longer in the winter contingent upon the geographic location of the hive. Honey bees in general are very docile.

The female does possess a stinger and she does not want to sting, unless provoked. In the event she would sting a human or an animal she would die. This is due to the fact that the stinger, which is located at the end of the abdomen, becomes removed. All of the types of bees co-exist with one another in a habitat known as a hive. Depending on the locale of the hive, there could be approximately 40,000 to 80,000 bees during peak summer months. This is the time of year the hive would be the strongest. The worker bees are the ones who forage for a food source. Once the food source is located, they communicate with one another in a well-choreographed dance know as the “waggle dance.” This informs the others of where the specific food source is located.

Langstroth hives.
© Lesley Ingram

DECLINING POPULATION. There has been an alarming decline of these insects over the years. One of the most well- known phenomenon is colony collapse disorder (CCD). CCD was first reported in 2006 by beekeepers as they experienced significant losses to their hives during the spring. These losses are attributed to the worker bees vacating the colony, leaving behind a queen, honey and a few nurse bees to care for the immature bees and the queen. CCD was once thought to be a major factor of bee decline. However, the number of reported cases has declined over the last five years.

Because there has been a decline in both managed colonies and bees in the wild, there are additional elements contributing to this. Based on research that is ongoing and conducted by multiple governing/extension agencies, universities and research labs, one factor is climate change. Different parts of the United States that experience unseasonably mild winters have altered the schedule of blooming flowers. When the bees first emerge for the new season, the flowers, which are their food source, have already bloomed and died. A second factor would be the elimination of habitat. Plush, rural areas that are normally full of flowers, weeds and grasses have been changed into suburban or urban settings.

Another reason that’s widely discussed in the consumer media is pesticide use. The neonicotinoid class of insecticides in particular has been singled out. Neonicotinoids can be applied to the soil, used on crops as well as used as a seed treatment. Eventually, it reaches the nectar and the pollen, which then in turn can be ingested by the insect. There is ongoing research that is being conducted by many governing/extension agencies, universities and other organizations regarding neonics and honey bee health. Just this year, the state of Maryland became the first state to ban the use of neonicotinoids to consumers. However, individuals who are properly trained and licensed can still utilize this material when following specific guidelines.

Lastly, another factor in honey bee health is the Varroa mite (Varroa destructor). This mite was first reported in the U.S. in 1987; it originally emanated from Asia. This parasite attaches itself to the honey bee and sucks hemolymph fluid (blood) from the bee. They are also transmitters of pathogens with one of them being the deformed wing virus. Presently, beekeepers say the Varroa mite is the main culprit of colony loss today. Honey bees and their hives are also susceptible to the tracheal mite, hive beetle and wax moths. Education, proper nutrition, routine inspection, record keeping and the use of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices will assist in keeping one’s colony as healthy as possible.

There are a variety of resources on the internet to help PMPs and customers attract pollinators to gardens.

WHAT CAN WE DO? As we struggle to help save the bee and bring more of them back into our world, there are many things that society — and pest management firms — can do.

One is education. While honey bees can swarm and can be found in the voids of homes and commercial structures, it’s important that the bees are not treated with pesticides. They should be removed by a local beekeeper or a designated pest management firm.

Professionals and customers alike can create an environment conducive to a pollinator habitat. For some, this includes eliminating the use of all pesticides and switching to an all-organic program. It may include an organic lawn and garden program that utilizes IPM techniques. Natural pest management may be incorporated such as the use of lady bugs and/or lacewings to control aphids and spider mites, nematodes to control grubs, etc.

Homeowners can install plants and flowers that are conducive to pollinator attraction. Different species of flora attract different pollinators. There is an abundance of resources available via the web (check out the U.S. Forest Service publication titled “Attracting Pollinators to Your Garden Using Native Plants”. Once a specific species of flora is found, it is recommended to check the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone map to determine if the selected flora will thrive in your geographic location.

If pest management firms or customers want to take this initiative one step further, they can become a beekeeper hobbyist. This is when an individual manages a beehive or multiple beehives on his or her property. The first step would be to obtain literature and other resources to educate oneself. Two superb magazine publications are Bee Culture & The American Bee Journal. This is, in part, to determine if this is right for you and/or your customer’s family.

Due to the vast interest in keeping bees, the term “backyard beekeeper” has been coined. For those who don’t necessarily have the land to keep bees there is also urban beekeeping that takes place in a city setting. Urban beekeeping has exploded during the last several years. It utilizes rooftops, balconies and other spaces for people to manage their own bee hives. To illustrate just how popular urban beekeeping has become, there are almost 300 registered hives in the New York City metropolitan area. London is also another major city where urban beekeeping is prevalent.

It’s good to check with your municipality or city ordinances to determine if the keeping of bees is legal. Join your local beekeepers club. It’s a great way to network, meet other keepers and obtain knowledge.Purchase your equipment and bees through local beekeepers or various online stores. If keeping bees is not for you but you would like to help… some beekeepers will place their hives on your property, they will care for them and in exchange you will be rewarded with honey. This is another way of making an impact.

You are now on your way to becoming a beekeeper and contributing to preserving our eco-system.

The author is a service specialist and master technician with RK Environmental Services, Westwood, N.Y.