Native bee species spotted for first time since ’90s

white butt beeWill Peterman snapped the “Bigfoot” shot July 7: a blurred image of a creature so rare that many experts feared it had been wiped out in Washington.

But even out of focus, there was no mistaking the feature that distinguishes the Western bumblebee from other species in the Northwest.

“White butt,” Peterman explained.

On Tuesday, he returned to the tiny park in Brier, northeast of Seattle, where he took the first picture. This time, he captured a sharp portrait of a fat, fuzzy, white-bottomed Bombus occidentalis foraging in a blackberry hedge.

“There was some shouting,” Peterman said, recalling his excitement. On Sunday, he and a group of biologists and bee enthusiasts from the University of Washington made a more systematic sweep through the park and nearby areas.

The group didn’t locate the colony’s nest, but they did spot a solitary queen.

“We got scads more pictures,” Peterman said.

The discovery of what may be the only population of Western bumblebees in the state has raised hopes that the species could be making a comeback.

“The best case scenario is that this turns out to be a strain … that’s actually resistant to whatever it is that knocked them back in the first place,” Peterman said.

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WSU starts sperm bank for honeybees

By NICHOLAS K. GERANIOS, Associated Press

PULLMAN, Wash. (AP) – There’s a lot of buzz at Washington State University over work to develop the first sperm bank for honeybees.

Entomologist Steve Sheppard and his crew are using liquid nitrogen to preserve semen extracted from the industrious insects that pollinate much of the nation’s food supply but face environmental threats. The goal is to preserve and improve the stock of honeybees and to prevent subspecies from extinction.

“We do that frequently with horses and cattle and chickens,” said Susan Cobey, a research associate on the project. “Finally, we have the capability to do it with bees.”

Honeybees are serious business. Washington’s $1 billion apple crop, for instance, needs 250,000 colonies of bees each year to pollinate the orchards. California almond growers need 1 million colonies per year to pollinate their crop.

As a result, there is incentive to find ways to strengthen bee colonies.

But the problem has been storing bee sperm for the long term. One of Sheppard’s graduate students, Brandon Hopkins, came up with the solution of preserving it in liquid nitrogen tanks on the Pullman campus. It can be preserved this way for years. The bee industry has provided funding so WSU researchers can buy the tanks and other equipment they need.

Honeybees face a lot of challenges in the modern world. They can be attacked by invasive mites, exposed to disease and pesticides, or faced with a substandard diet because of modern practices that discourage farms from planting a variety of crops. These threats can combine to cause colony collapse disorder, in which the worker bees disappear and an entire hive is doomed, Sheppard said.

One way to fight colony collapse is to create smarter, stronger bees, he said. That’s where the work being done at WSU comes in. Scientists can use the semen to selectively breed honeybees to improve the subspecies and make it more resistant to dangers.

There are 28 subspecies of honeybees in the world, but the U.S. since 1922 has restricted the import of live honeybees to protect local bees from mites and other dangers.

In an effort to improve the local stock, the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2008 granted Washington State a permit to import honeybee semen for breeding purposes, Sheppard said.

bee sperm bankTo meet the goals of beekeepers across the various climate zones of the U.S., Sheppard and his colleagues identified three subspecies for import. The desired bees come from Italy, the eastern Alps and the mountains of the nation of Georgia, he said.

The Italian bees, for instance, are prized because they reproduce quickly and provide maximum pollination for early-blooming crops like almonds, Sheppard said. By contrast, beekeepers in colder climates want bees that delay reproducing, so a late cold snap does not kill an entire brood, he said. That’s where the bees from the Alps and Georgia are valuable.

The semen from the desirable bees is extracted and frozen, Sheppard said.

“We are able to freeze and thaw well enough to make a whole generation of queens,” Hopkins said.

The new sperm bank – which the scientists prefer to call a “germplasm repository”- could also help preserve imperiled subspecies, Cobey said.

“This gives us huge capabilities to preserve stock,” Cobey said. “We have honeybees globally that we are losing.”

Are Bees Caught in a Genetically Modified Downward Spiral?

By Paige Bennett for Fractured Paradigm

beesOur bees are dying off at an alarming rate. Just this past winter, bee losses were reported at 31.1% by the USDA Agricultural Research Service, which is consistent with average bee losses of 30.5% for the past six years[1]. Bees, of course, are essential to our food supply, because they serve as pollinators for our crops. So the big question is – what’s happening to the bees?

Back in the 1970’s it became common practice for commercial beekeepers to feed their bees High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) to replace the honey being taken out of the hives. Since then, new pesticide products have been developed and put into use, and it nows appears the bees immune systems have been compromised. This is not to say HFCS itself is toxic to bees, but researchers suggest by their findings that bees are not being exposed to chemicals necessary for them to fight off the toxins contained in pesticides[2]. From an article on Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by entomologists at the University of Illinois:

“Specifically, they found that when bees are exposed to the enzyme p-coumaric, their immune system appears stronger—it turns on detoxification genes. P-coumaric is found in pollen walls, not nectar, and makes its way into honey inadvertently via sticking to the legs of bees as they visit flowers. Similarly, the team discovered other compounds found in poplar sap that appear to do much the same thing. It all together adds up to a diet that helps bees fight off toxins, the researchers report. Taking away the honey to sell it, and feeding the bees high-fructose corn syrup instead, they claim, compromises their immune systems, making them more vulnerable to the toxins that are meant to kill other bugs.”

Which brings us to another bee-related issue – pesticides. Many pesticides contain neonicotinoid products which are linked to bee harm, and this has lead to a recent ban on their use within the European Union.[3] Unfortunately, they’re still heavily used in the United States, and there’s no indication of the practice stopping here. Companies such as Monsanto are major producers of such products, as well as RoundUp Ready crops that are engineered to withstand such abusive chemicals. These crops, of course, include corn (in fact, nearly 90% of corn grown in the United States in 2011 was genetically modified[4]), which is used to make HFCS, and in turn fed to the bees. Too bad a study in 2012 found that genetically modified corn is nutritionally dead when compared to organic corn[5].

When looked at all together, it seems all too possible that our use of toxic pesticides to grow our genetically modified corn to create HFCS has turned into a downward spiral for our bee populations.

Keeping bees alive

dead bee Honey bees have been dying in large numbers in recent years, and there’s new evidence of a drastic increase in the death rate. Some experts say the latest population drop poses a threat to our nation’s food supply.

According to commercial beekeeper James Doan, “A third of all our food is pollinated by honey bees.”

Doan makes a living renting out thousands of hives to farmers up and down the East Coast. His bees are part of a crucial lifeblood to U.S. agriculture. Doan said, “I think people just need to really be aware that bees are so important, not just for honey production, but for pollination in the United States.”

Bees pollinate the majority of our fruit and vegetable supply: from apples and pears to green beans, pumpkins, and squash. And the list goes on.

But something is killing the bees at an increasingly alarming rate. Doan said, “Every day and you’ll look and you’ll see 100 to 200 bees dead in front of the hive. Maybe even to the point of 40 to 50,000 bees laying out in the front of the hive, which is not normal.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers say early indications suggest this winter will mark the highest death rate they’ve ever documented, and consumers could eventually feel the effects.

Doan said, “Without them you’re gonna have higher prices that you’re going to pay for fruits and vegetables. And those higher prices are not going to mean better products.”

Bees used to die at a rate of 5 to 10 percent a year. Then, around 2006, that rate more than tripled in a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder. Now, some beekeepers say they’re losing up to 50 percent of their hives.

Many blame a class of pesticide called neonicotinoids, or “neonics.” Doan said, “They block the nerve endings of the bee, and so the bee is paralyzed and then what happens is they starve to death, so you see the bee shaking, and it’s a very horrific way of dying for a bee.”

Doan joined a coalition of beekeepers, environmentalists and consumer groups that recently sued the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to ban these chemicals. The lawsuit claims the “EPA is well aware of recent studies and reports illustrating the risks to honey bees…but has refused to take any regulatory action.”

“We’re finding these chemicals in the beehives,” Doan said. “We know they’re there. We’re finding them in the bees. So we know they’re killing bees.”

37 Million bees dead in Canada

dead bees

Shortly after 50,000 bees were found dead in an Oregon parking lot, a staggering 37 million bees have been found dead in Elmwood, Ontario, Canada. Dave Schuit, who runs a honey operation in Elmwood has lost 600 hives. He is pointing the finger at the insecticides known as neonicotinoids, which are manufactured by Bayer CropScience Inc. This also comes after a recent report released by the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) that recorded its largest loss of honeybees ever.  The European Union has stepped forward, having banned multiple pesticides that have been linked to killing millions of bees.

The loss comes after the planting of corn. Neonicotinoid pesticides are used to coat corn seed with air seeders. This results in having the pesticide dust blown into the air when planted. The death of millions of pollinators was studied by Purdue University. They discovered that Bees exhibited neurotoxic symptoms. They analyzed dead bees and found that traces of thiamethoxam/clothiandin were present in each case. The only major source of these compounds are seed treatments of field crops.

Bee deaths are increasing exponentially. An international team of scientists led by Holland’s Utrecht University has concluded that, “large scale prophylaxic use in agriculture, their high persistence in soil and water, and their uptake by plants and translocation to flowers, neonicotinoids put pollinators at risk. This is some of the research that led to the European Unions ban of the pesticides, as mentioned and referenced earlier.

Can we really debate this much longer? The evidence linking pesticides to bee deaths is overwhelming. It’s not only bees, but an array of other insects as well. The last thing we need is more events to occur that companies can use to push the manufacturing and development or more genetically modified foods. One reason that has been used for justification of GMO’s is a food shortage, and we all know how critical bees are to our food supply. There is a huge conflict of interest here, the pesticides used to spray the crops that are killing the bees are developed by biotech corporations such as Monsanto.

Time to make the connections, time to speak up!

USDA Finds Bayer Pesticide Harmful To Honeybees

honey beeRemember the case of the leaked document showing that the EPA’s own scientists are concerned about a pesticide it approved that might harm fragile honeybee populations?

Well, it turns that the EPA isn’t the only government agency whose researchers are worried about neonicotinoid pesticides. USDA researchers also have good evidence that these nicotine-derived chemicals, marketed by German agrichemical giant Bayer, could be playing a part in Colony Collapse Disorder—the mysterious massive honeybee die-offs that United States and Europe have been experiencing in recent years. So why on earth are they still in use on million of acres of American farmland?

According to a report by Mike McCarthy, environment editor of the U.K.-based Independent, the lead researcher at the USDA’s very own Bee Research Laboratory completed research two years ago suggesting that even extremely low levels of exposure to neonicotinoids makes bees more vulnerable to harm from common pathogens.

For reasons not specified in the Independent article, the USDA’s Jeffrey Pettis has so far not published his research. “[It] was completed almost two years ago but it has been too long in getting out,” he told the newspaper. “I have submitted my manuscript to a new journal but cannot give a publication date or share more of this with you at this time.” (I was not able to speak to Pettis for this post as he is in meetings all day today; but he’s agreed to an interview Monday.)

Pettis’s study focused on imidacloprid, which like clothianidin is a neonicotinoid pesticide marketed by Bayer as a seed treatment.

The findings are pretty damning for these nicotine-derived pesticides, according to McCarthy. He summarizes the study like this:

The American study … has demonstrated that the insects’ vulnerability to infection is increased by the presence of imidacloprid, even at the most microscopic doses. Dr. Pettis and his team found that increased disease infection happened even when the levels of the insecticide were so tiny that they could not subsequently be detected in the bees, although the researchers knew that they had been dosed with it.

To my knowledge, Pettis hasn’t spoken to U.S. journalists about his unpublished neonicotinoid research. But he did appear in a 2010 documentary called The Strange Disappearance of the Honeybees by U.S. filmmaker Mike Daniels, which has been screened widely in Europe but not yet in the United States, McCarthy reports. Pettis’ remarks in the film are what alerted the European press to his findings on neonicotinoids.

Autonomous Flying Robot with a Honey Bee Brain

Scientists at the Universities of Sheffield and Sussex are embarking on an ambitious project to produce the first accurate computer models of a honey bee brain in a bid to advance our understanding of Artificial Intelligence (AI), and how animals think.

robobeeThe team will build models of the systems in the brain that govern a honey bee’s vision and sense of smell. Using this information, the researchers aim to create the first flying robot able to sense and act as autonomously as a bee, rather than just carry out a pre-programmed set of instructions.

If successful, this project will meet one of the major challenges of modern science: building a robot brain that can perform complex tasks as well as the brain of an animal. Tasks the robot will be expected to perform, for example, will include finding the source of particular odours or gases in the same way that a bee can identify particular flowers.

It is anticipated that the artificial brain could eventually be used in applications such as search and rescue missions, or even mechanical pollination of crops.

Dr James Marshall, leading the £1 million EPSRC1 funded project in Sheffield, said: “The development of an artificial brain is one of the greatest challenges in Artificial Intelligence. So far, researchers have typically studied brains such as those of rats, monkeys, and humans, but actually ‘simpler’ organisms such as social insects have surprisingly advanced cognitive abilities.”

Called “Green Brain”, and partially supported with hardware donated by NVIDIA Corporation, the project invites comparison with the IBM-sponsored Blue Brain initiative, which is developing brain modeling technologies using supercomputers with the ultimate goal of producing an accurate model of a human brain.

The hardware provided by NVIDIA is based on high-performance processors called “GPU accelerators” that generate the 3D graphics on home PCs and games consoles and power some of the world’s highest-performance supercomputers. These accelerators provide a very efficient way of performing the massive calculations needed to simulate a brain using a standard desktop PC – rather than on a large, expensive supercomputing cluster.

“Using NVIDIA’s massively parallel GPU accelerators for brain models is an important goal of the project as they allow us to build faster models than ever before,” explained Dr Thomas Nowotny, the leader of the Sussex team. “We expect that in many areas of science this technology will eventually replace the classic supercomputers we use today.”

Green Brain’s researchers anticipate that developing a model of a honey bee brain will offer a more accessible method of driving forward our knowledge of how a brain’s cognitive systems work, leading to advances in understanding animal and human cognition. “Because the honey bee brain is smaller and more accessible than any vertebrate brain, we hope to eventually be able to produce an accurate and complete model that we can test within a flying robot,” said Dr Marshall.

“Not only will this pave the way for many future advances in autonomous flying robots, but we also believe the computer modelling techniques we will be using will be widely useful to other brain modelling and computational neuroscience projects,” added Dr Nowotny.

Alongside this, the research is expected to provide a greater understanding of the honey bee itself. Because of their role as pollinators, honey bees are vital to many ecosystems, yet their declining population in recent years has given scientists cause for concern. Green Brain’s modelling could help scientists to understand why honey bee numbers are dwindling and also contribute to the development of artificial pollinators, such as those being researched by the National Science Foundation-funded Robobees project, led by Harvard University.

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