Commercial honeybee hives are collapsing around the country, and scientists want to know how to enhance the role of native bees. Watch the video report.
To a honeybee, a cranberry bog is like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory – an endless supply of sweets. But farmers are worried the bees aren’t digging in, because of a cold, rainy spring, and mass die-offs striking hives around the country. Help may be available.
Kerry Grens reports on local pollinators from the J J White Cranberry farm. Watch the video report:
J J White Cranberry Farm grows about eight million pounds of the tart, red fruit each year. That’s spread across 350 acres, making the farm the second largest producer in New Jersey. Manager Joe Darlington takes no chance with making sure the crop gets pollinated, by importing honeybees.
Darlington: We pay about $140 an acre for the season, for the four weeks or so that they’re here.
That’s $49,000. It’s no surprise that Darlington is eager to let a couple of Rutgers scientists tromp around his bog to study how much free pollination he’s getting from local bees.
Darlington: Oh, I’m very interested to hear what they find…Native pollinators are obviously local, obviously bred to the crop, and so if we can enhance the local population, that’s all the more benefit.
Dan: Ok, I got one Bombus Bimaculatus female…So that’s two Bombus Bimaculatus female. Here we go, there she is right there.
Crouched among cranberry vines and wearing tall black galoshes, scientist Dan Cariveau is surveying bee species in the bog.
Dan: We’ve got 16 different sites and each day we do two transects. So this is an edge transect so obviously we’re very close here to natural habitat.
Cariveau will compare which species frequent the different areas. His thought is that farm area near the edge, bordered by forest, will have more native bees like Bombus, the bumblebee. Rachael Winfree is Cariveau’s boss at Rutgers. She’s found in earlier studies that native bees do a lot more pollinating than she had expected. Recently she studied watermelon farms in central New Jersey.
Rachael: Native bees I found were fully pollinating 90% of the farms without honeybees at all. And the growers were not aware of this.
Another shocker was where she found the most native bees living. Suburbia isn’t usually considered a biodiversity hot-spot, but people’s backyards were native bee magnets.
Rachael: Again, I was really surprised. There were actually more bee species and more individual bees in these human used areas than there were in these very extensive natural areas.
Winfree does not think cranberry bogs will have such high native bee pollination, but understanding how much of the crop they’re getting to and capitalizing on that service is especially important now. Colony collapse disorder has been ravaging honeybee hives for three years. The animals’ pollination service is worth more than $14 billion each year in the United States. Dave Hackenberg operates Hackenberg Apriaries in Lewisburg Pennsylvania.
Hackenberg: Beekeepers on the whole, their numbers are down. On the order of 10-50 percent and maybe even higher than that.
The disorder is full of mystery. No one is sure what causes it, and when a hive is struck, the bees simply disappear. Hackenberg says he never finds the dead bodies. He agrees it’s important to know how native bees can step up if honeybees falter. Hackenberg: There’s a place for native bees. But native bees can’t do the whole job and be moved on demand.
That’s because honeybees live communally and their hives are easy to transport. Native bees often burrow independently in the ground. Cranberry farmer Joe Darlington says he’s willing to create more bee habitat near the bog.
Darlington: Do I ever think native pollinators are going to suddenly completely take over? No. But in a year like this when the weather’s bad and the honeybees just aren’t very happy about the situation, just having the security of the native pollinators doing the job filling in is well worth it.
The fear, though, of beekeepers like Hackenberg, is that colony collapse disorder isn’t just affecting honeybees, but all bees. Studies at Rutgers and other labs around the country are working to find out whether that’s the case.