The University of Illinois Chicago is working with Argonne National Laboratory, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the University of Ilinois Urbana Champaign, and Stantec on the Department of Energy funded project: Pollinator Habitat Aligned with Solar Energy. The project team is researching the impacts of colocating pollinator vegetation at solar facilities as it relates to the performance of the solar panels, the operations impacts for managing the vegetation, and the ecosystem services the pollinator vegetation can offer. In this presentation the team will provide updates on research activities, tools being developed, and share findings from the preliminary analysis that has been conducted.
Principal presenter: Ben Campbell
Additional speakers: Lee Walston (Argonne National Lab), Tristan Barley (University of Illinois Urbana Champaign)
Bees may be at risk from exposure to glyphosate — an active ingredient in some of the EU’s most commonly used weedkillers — via contaminated wildflower nectar, according to new research. Residues of glyphosate have previously been found in nectar and pollen collected by bees foraging on plants that have been selectively targeted with weedkiller, but this time it has been reported in unsprayed wildflowers growing near sprayed fields.
The world’s first vaccine for honeybees has been approved for use by the US government, raising hopes of a new weapon against diseases that routinely ravage colonies that are relied upon for food pollination.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has granted a conditional license for a vaccine created by Dalan Animal Health, a US biotech company, to help protect honeybees from American foulbrood disease.
Efforts to promote the future health of both wild bees and managed honeybee colonies need to consider specific habitat needs, such as the density of wildflowers. At the same time, improving other habitat measures — such as the amount of natural habitat surrounding croplands — may increase bee diversity while having mixed effects on overall bee health.
Those are the key findings from a new analysis of several thousand Michigan bees from 60 species. The study looked at how the quality and quantity of bee habitat surrounding small farm fields affects the levels of common viral pathogens in bee communities.
Climate change contributed to many deadly and costly disasters in recent years. As the U.S. looks to combat climate change, solar energy is increasingly seen as a large part of the answer. However, ground-mounted solar facilities occupy large areas of land. What will that land and soil be like after 30 or more years of use for generating clean power?
Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory are partnering with collaborators from other national laboratories and state, academic and private institutions to examine that question. DOE’s Solar Energy Technologies Office recently selected Argonne to lead a new project to better understand the changes that will occur in soils. The team will study what happens when past harmful practices such as pesticide use and annual tilling are stopped, the land under and around solar panels is allowed to rest and, in some cases, is planted with native grasses and wildflowers. The project is a part of the Deploying Solar with Wildlife and Ecosystem Services Benefits (SolWEB) funding program.
Bees are more likely to avoid flowers sprayed with fertilizers and pesticides because of the way these chemicals alter a plant’s natural electric field, according to a new study (PNAS Nexus 2022, DOI: 10.1093/pnasnexus/pgac230). Although bees typically rely on sight and smell to find nectar and pollen, they also depend on electrical signals generated by ions moving through the plant cells. Bees use them to determine which flowers are worth landing on.
But agricultural compounds can induce a stress response in the plant, which can temporarily alter these invisible electrical cues, says Ellard Hunting, a sensory biophysicist at the University of Bristol, who led the study. Hunting and his team found that a commercially available liquid fertilizer and the pesticide imidacloprid can increase the electric potential of flowers for up to 25 min. “That’s substantially longer” than natural phenomena such as wind that can also cause these signals to fluctuate, Hunting says.
I’ve been researching bee health for over 10 years, with a focus on honey bees. In 2021, I began hearing for the first time from beekeepers about how extreme drought and rainfall were affecting bee colony health.
In both cases, managed colonies – hives that humans keep for honey production or commercial pollination – were starving. Beekeepers had to feed their bees more supplements of sugar water and pollen than they usually would to keep their colonies alive. Some beekeepers who had been in business for decades shared that they lost 50% to 70% of their colonies over the winter of 2021-2022.
Each year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency host federal pollinator experts to share the latest scientific findings on bee and pollinator health, and assess the status of these important insects, birds, bats and other species. One clear takeaway from this year’s meeting was that climate change has become a new and formidable stressor for bees, potentially amplifying previously known issues in ways that scientists can’t yet predict but need to prepare for.
The scourge of Varroa mites
Pollinators contribute an estimated US$235 billion to $577 billion yearly to global agriculture, based on the value of the crops they pollinate. Understanding and mitigating the impacts of climate change on pollinators is key for supporting healthy ecosystems and sustainable agriculture.
Bee health first attracted widespread attention in 2006 with the emergence of Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon where the majority of adult worker bees in a colony disappeared, leaving their honey and pollen stores and some nurse bees behind to care for the queen and remaining immature bees. In the past five years, reported cases have declined substantially. Now, researchers are focusing on what beekeepers call the “four Ps”: parasites, pathogens, pesticides and poor nutrition, as well as habitat loss for wild and native bees.
One of the most severe threats to honey bees over the past several decades has been Varroa destructor, a crablike parasitic mite that feeds on honey bees’ fat body tissue. The fat body is a nutrient-dense organ that functions much like the liver in mammals. It helps bees maintain a strong immune system, metabolize pesticides and survive through the winter.
These are vital functions, so controlling mite infestations is essential for bee health. Varroa can also transmit deadly pathogens to honey bees, such as deformed wing virus.
Controlling mite populations is challenging. It requires using an insecticide in an insect colony, or as beekeepers say, “trying to kill a bug on a bug.” It’s hard to find a formula strong enough to kill mites without harming the bees.
Monitoring Varroa takes significant skill and labor, and mites can build up resistance to treatments over time. Researchers and beekeepers are working hard to breed Varroa-resistant bees, but mites continue to plague the industry.
However, it can be hard to document and understand sublethal toxicity. Many factors affect how bees react to agrochemicals, including whether they are exposed as larvae or as adult bees, the mixture of chemicals bees are exposed to, the weather at the time of application and how healthy a bee colony is pre-exposure.
Like many other species, bees are losing the habitat and food sources that they depend on. This is happening for many reasons.
For example, uncultivated lands are being converted to farmland or developed worldwide. Large-scale agriculture focuses on mass production of a few commodity crops, which reduces the amount of nesting habitat and forage available for bees.
Climate change could also increase the spread of Varroa and other pathogens. Warmer fall and winter temperatures extend the period when bees forage. Varroa travel on foraging bees, so longer foraging provides a larger time window for mites and the viruses they carry to spread among colonies. Higher mite populations on bee colonies heading into winter will likely cripple colony health and increase winter losses.
Research that analyzes the nutritional profiles of bee forage plants and how they change under different climate scenarios will help land managers plant climate-resilient plants for different regions.
Creating safe bee spaces
There are many ways to support bees and pollinators. Planting pollinator gardens with regional plants that bloom throughout the year can provide much-needed forage.
Ground-nesting native bees need patches of exposed and undisturbed soil, free of mulch or other ground covers. Gardeners can clear some ground in a sunny, well-drained area to create dedicated spaces for bees to dig nests.
On a crisp autumn morning in 1908, an elegantly dressed African American man strode back and forth among the pin oaks, magnolias and silver maples of O’Fallon Park in St. Louis, Missouri. After placing a dozen dishes filled with strawberry jam atop several picnic tables, biologist Charles Henry Turner retreated to a nearby bench, notebook and pencil at the ready.
Following a midmorning break for tea and toast (topped with strawberry jam, of course), Turner returned to his outdoor experiment. At noon and again at dusk, he placed jam-filled dishes on the park tables. As he discovered, honeybees (Apis mellifera) were reliable breakfast, lunch and dinner visitors to the sugary buffet. After a few days, Turner stopped offering jam at midday and sunset, and presented the treats only at dawn. Initially, the bees continued appearing at all three times. Soon, however, they changed their arrival patterns, visiting the picnic tables only in the mornings.
This simple but elegantly devised experiment led Turner to conclude that bees can perceive time and will rapidly develop new feeding habits in response to changing conditions. These results were among the first in a cascade of groundbreaking discoveries that Turner made about insect behavior.
Turner was born in Cincinnati in 1867, a mere two years after the Civil War ended. The son of a church custodian and a nurse who was formerly enslaved, he grew up under the specter of Jim Crow – a set of formal laws and informal practices that relegated African Americans to second-class status.
The social environment of Turner’s childhood included school and housing segregation, frequent lynchings and the denial of basic democratic rights to the city’s nonwhite population. Despite immense obstacles to his educational goals and professional aspirations, Turner’s tenacious spirit carried him through.
As a young boy, he developed an abiding fascination with small creatures, capturing and cataloging thousands of ants, beetles and butterflies. An aptitude for science was just one of Turner’s many talents. At Gaines High School, he led his all-Black class, securing his place as valedictorian.
Following a brief stint at the University of Cincinnati and a temporary position at Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University), Turner spent the remainder of his career teaching at Sumner High School in St. Louis. As of 1908, his salary was a meager US$1,080 a year – around $34,300 in today’s dollars. At Sumner – without access to a fully equipped laboratory, a research library or graduate students – Turner made trailblazing discoveries about insect behavior.
Probing the minds of insects
Among Turner’s most significant findings was that wasps, bees, sawflies and ants – members of the Hymenoptera order – are not simply primitive automatons, as so many of his contemporaries thought. Instead, they are organisms with the capacities to remember, learn and feel.
To investigate, Turner pounded rows of wooden dowels into the O’Fallon Park lawn. Atop each rod, he affixed a red disk dipped in honey. Soon, bees began traveling from far away to his makeshift “flowers.”
As a scientific researcher without a university position, he occupied an odd niche. In large part, his situation was the product of systemic racism. It was also a result of his commitment to training young Black students in science.
Alongside his scientific publications, Turner wrote extensively on African American education. In his 1902 essay “Will the Education of the Negro Solve the Race Problem?” Turner contended that trade schools were not the pathway to Black empowerment. Instead, he called for widespread public education of African Americans in all subjects: “if we cast aside our prejudices and try the highest education upon both white and Black, in a few decades there will be no Negro problem.”
Despite the colossal challenges he faced throughout his career, Charles Henry Turner was among the first scientists to shed light on the secret lives of bees, the winged pollinators that ensure the welfare of human food systems and the survival of Earth’s biosphere.
At the Shenandoah County Landfill on Friday, local educator Hannah Bement was overjoyed to see a monarch butterfly.
“It gives me chills,” she said, watching as the orange-and-black insect fluttered over the plot of native wildflowers to land on a milkweed plant.
Monarchs, which make an approximately 1,000-mile flight each year from Mexico to the United States, rely on milkweed to provide a place for them to lay their eggs and for their caterpillars to have a source of food before they eventually make their flight to Mexico.
Without milkweed, there is no monarch butterfly.
Bement was joined on Friday by three other volunteers from the local nonprofit organization Sustainability Matters to identify and catalog how well the pollinator gardens, maintained through the Making Trash Bloom initiative, are doing.