Bee Pollination, Habitats and Human Meddling

Bee pollination came up in a couple of science studies this week. Find out what researchers are telling us about where bees like to live and how we can stop the decline in bee populations.

When we were small kids, we had a little knick-knack that we all played with. It was a tiny ceramic figurine of a bumblebee.

We called him Buzzy Bee. Although he’s been handled pretty roughly through the years, he’s still around in glued-together condition. He’s been handed down to his third generation of kids in our family tree.

When I got a little older, I liked watching the different bee species. They would be gathering pollen and nectar from the flowering plants around the porch of my parents’ house. My parents explained to me how bee pollination worked. I also remember being told that, according to aerodynamics, bees shouldn’t be able to fly.


That isn’t true of course. We now know exactly how bees fly. As Professor Michael H. Dickinson of Caltech explained, “We’re no longer allowed to use this story about not understanding bee flight as an example of where science has failed because it is just not true.”

Entomologist Antoine Magnan started the urban legend that bees shouldn’t be able to get off the ground. He probably should have stuck with biology and left aerodynamics to the engineers. He said this back in 1934 and he was wrong even then.

As a youth, I spent a few of my summers as a roofer. In that job, I found out that bees love to make nests in wall cavities and deadwood. It seemed to me that every house we worked on had some bees hiding somewhere. Even so, to this day, I’ve never been stung by a bee.


There’s a new study from the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) . It backs up my claim that bees like to live near houses. Bees do prefer to live with people in towns and that’s where most bee pollination goes on.

The researchers looked at places with lots of flowers, like parks, in nine large German cities; Berlin, Braunschweig, Chemnitz, Dresden, Göttingen, Halle, Jena, Leipzig and Potsdam. They compared them to nearby rural sites that also had plenty of flowers.

They used pan-traps (colourful bowls that attract insects) and counted the bee visits 20 times a day. From this, they could gauge how much bee pollination went on in both settings. Later, they counted the seeds that formed from the pollen grains in the flowers. That way, they could check how well the bee pollination services worked.


We find more insects and more kinds of insects out in the country. So me might think that rural sites would be more insect-pollinated. That’s not what they found.

Instead, the team saw that almost all pollination was done by bumblebees and European honey bees. The other kinds of insects that live in the countryside don’t play much of a role in pollination. These native bee species prefer to live in urban areas. So, even with fewer insects in town, flowers that require pollination do better in cities than in the country.

As we’ve all heard, bee species are in decline in rural areas both in Europe and here in North America. The number of honey bee hives in the United States has gone from 6 million down to 2.5 million. That’s just since the 1940s. This could end up harming crop yields in the future. About 90% of flowering plant species rely on animals, mainly bees, for pollination.


Economists have estimated that bumblebee and honey bee pollination is worth between $235 and $557 billion to the world’s economy. The study’s lead author, Dr. Panagiotis Theodorou explained, “If agricultural land degrades further, cities could serve as a source of pollinators for the farmland surrounding them.”

The team thinks that city planners should take the needs of bee colonies into account. They also say that rural developers should plant plenty of flowers. As well, they recommend setting up attractive nesting sites and food sources for orchard bee pollination in the countryside with links to urban habitats.

I saw another bee pollination study in the science news this week. The drop in bee populations comes from plagues of mites, viruses and pesticides.


The researchers in this study found a kind of bacteria that lives in the guts of bees. They can alter the genes in these bacteria to fool mites and viruses into destroying their own DNA.

Farmers and beekeepers used to protect bee pollination by controlling these mites with pesticides. As often happens, the mites have adapted to the pesticide. Now the agriculturalists are looking for a new answer to the problem.

The scientists fed the bacteria to some honey bees in the lab. The mites were 70% more likely to die in the treated bees than in the untreated bees. So far, they’ve only tried this in the lab and the bacteria are hard to contain in the wild.


The team warns that they need to do a lot more study. Until then, nobody should “try this at home.” Their next step is to try feeding the new bacteria to real hives with tens of thousands of bees doing real-life bee pollination outdoors.

That last point leads me to a third research paper that crossed my desk this week. It’s from scientists at the University of Queensland (UQ). They’ve come up with some new ways for environmental managers to make better plans before they try to fool Mother Nature.

Our history of doing this is less than stellar. Humans often decide to do things like adding or removing species from food chains. That usually does more harm than good. For instance, we started using pesticides to control mites and other insects. That’s what got us into our bee pollination problem in the first place.


UQ Associate Professor Eve McDonald-Madden put it this way, “More and more we’re having to make drastic decisions to combat human pressures on ecosystems globally. Our plan is to provide the tools needed to avoid perverse outcomes from these actions, and reach the ultimate goals of saving individual species and protecting ecosystems as a whole.”

The team pulled together and went over thousands of pieces of data about ecosystems from around the world. They’ve come up with computer models to help decision-makers. The models try to show them if it’s a good idea for humans to get involved in an environmental issue. If it is, they weigh the options to help them choose the best way to go about it.

Professor McDonald-Madden went on to say, “No model is a crystal ball. Having said that, to make a decision between actions we could take does not require perfection — it just requires us to know which option is better than the other.”


Maybe I’m just getting old but, to be honest, a lot of these ideas make me nervous. First, we’re talking about turning man-made bacteria loose in the backcountry. Then we want computers telling us the best way to play God. It all seems like we’re going at things backwards.

We’ve loused up nature with our need to control things. Now we want to fix that by forcing things like bee pollination into our own mould again. The real problem is that there are just too many of us. What’s worse, we think we own our planet and everything on it.

Along with all of this untested science, I’d say we also need to learn a few new things about human values.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn more:

Short-amplitude high-frequency wing strokes determine the aerodynamics of honeybee flight

Mite-destroying gut bacterium might help save vulnerable honey bees
Engineered symbionts activate honey bee immunity and limit pathogens
University of Queensland
Informing management decisions for ecological networks, using dynamic models calibrated to noisy time‐series data
Food Ethics: An Embarrassment of Choices
Agricultural Biodiversity Under Treat Worldwide
Is It a Bird? Is It a Bee? No, It’s a Hummingbbird Moth!
Nature Emergency – Time to Make It Official
Mass Extinctions Happening Again
Finding New Ways to Share the Land


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