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Mussen, who retired in June after 38 years of service, says "Neonics are only one of the classes of pesticide residues that we frequently find in analyses of adult bees, beeswax and stored pollens. We encounter CCD in colonies in which no neonicotinoid residues can be found, and we find colonies surviving year after year with measurable residues of neonicotinoids in the hives. Obviously, neonicotinoids do not appear to be ''the primary' cause of CCD."
Enter Matan Shelomi, a young, thoughtful and articulate entomologist who frequently answers questions on Quora. Huffington Post picked up his comments on Quora--What's the deal with the Bees?--about our bee-leagured bees. (Quora, launched by Harvard students, is a site where you can ask questions and get answers, and Shelomi answers plenty of them and quite well. A couple of years ago he tied for a first-place Shorty Award, the social media-equivalent of an Oscar.)
But first, more about Matan Shelomi. He's a Harvard graduate who received his doctorate in entomology this year from UC Davis, studying with major professor Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and UC Davis professor of entomology. He is presently a postdoctoral researcher at the c in Jena, Germany. It's a two-year position funded by a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Biology. "My work is a continuation and expansion of my doctoral research at Davis: I am studying the endogenous cellulases and pectinases of the stick insects (Phasmatodea). By taking insect genes for these enzymes and expressing them in insect cell lines, we can quantitatively test the function of these genes and try to determine what role they play in the living insect and how they evolved."
Shelomi keyed in on those questions and more after hearing "a great talk by the venerable Dr. May Berenbaum, a wonderful entomologist and effectively the scientific spokesperson about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the technical term for the phenomenon of vanishing bees. So I present here for you the current state of knowledge on CCD: its history, its causes, and what we can do so stop it." Berenbaum, professor and head of the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois, is in line to be president of the 7000-member Entomological Society of America.
"CCD does not have one cause," Shelomi emphasized. "There is no one chemical to ban or one company to censure or one critter to eradicate. Instead, CCD is the product of several factors whose whole is deadlier than the sum of its parts: a perfect storm of biological and cultural issues that are too much for the already genetically weak honeybees to handle. However, honeybees and bees themselves are not going extinct anytime soon."
Shelomi noted that honey bees are not native to America. "European honey bees were imported to the United States a few centuries ago, where they adapted well to the local plants. Without bees, certain crops (most notably almonds) could not be produced."
"Beekeeping practice also changed remarkably in the past century. Beekeepers realized the market for pollination, and began to transport their hives around the country following the crop seasons, first by rail and then by truck. The demand for bees was higher than the supply, however. In the USA, the Almond Board successfully lobbied Congress to allow the importation of bees from Australia, which was illegal at the time to prevent the importation of foreign bee diseases. As the world changed and more wild land was converted to agricultural land, then agricultural land to urban land, the amount of food for bees decreased. The natural diet of bees is honey and bee bread, which is fermented pollen. Fewer wild flowers meant less natural food for the bees, requiring other sources. To keep their bees alive, beekeepers started feeding sugar solutions to bees, including high fructose corn syrup."
Then came CCD. "In 2006, many beekeepers across the USA began to report high losses of bees. Not deaths, but losses: the worker bees would just vanish, leaving the queen and brood behind. This is very unusual: honey bees don't leave their home and family behind like that. With the workers gone, the hive soon followed. It soon became evident that this was a nationwide problem, and one that eventually spread to Europe too. Because of the immense importance of bees in agriculture, groups from all over the US worked together, and solving the case of Colony Collapse Disorder became a priority."
In his Quora answer, Shelomi discusses research findings and new research underway. "Here is perhaps the biggest finding from the honey bee genome research: Honey bees are naturally lacking in immunity and detoxification genes. Compared to other insects, bees lack many natural defenses! Namely, they have fewer glutathione-S-transferases, carboxylesterases, and cytochrome P450's, which are the proteins animals (including humans) use to break down toxins. Bees eat pollen and honey, which are hardly toxic. In the millions of years of their evolution, they have lost many of these genes for defense, which means all honey bees are naturally weakened against diseases and chemicals."
So, bottom line? "I'll give you a hint: it's not one thing," Shelomi wrote. "No matter what you are reading, if you find any source that names only one cause for CCD -- a single chemical, a single pesticide, a single company, a single country-- then you should stop trusting that source. On anything. Ever. Science doesn't work that way, and, no, there is no one cause for CCD, nor is there one solution. Anyone who says otherwise is either pushing a certain viewpoint on you or hasn't done there research. Here's the big reveal."
When you get a chance, read his entire essay and take note of his summary: "...CCD happens because bees have a naturally poor immunity to disease and to chemicals, both of which they are exposed to at higher rates and often together, and that immunity is made worse due to poor diet and stressful conditions. There is no one cause, nor is there one solution."
What we can do to help the bees? "Two things. Plant flowers that bees like in your garden, if you have one. Help undo the damage of habitat loss by giving bees a source of food on your property. The second is to support your local beekeeper by buying local honey, if appropriate. Go to a farmers' market or otherwise get the honey from someone raising bees nearby. It will help them out, and you can ensure you are getting real honey and not laundered stuff."
Shelomi is spot on when he says that "the best thing you can do is stay informed... and that doesn't mean finding one source of information and trusting them blindly. To stay informed means you will always need new information, and are never satisfied. It means always doubting every new news story that pops up, especially if it seems too good to be true or claims to 'finally' answer a question. It means don't confuse a conspiracy theory website or an anti-agrotech blog, or even a news report, for actual scientific data. Nor should you trust one scientific paper above all others, especially if it's a single study and not a meta-analysis. Science is ever changing: look at how much our knowledge of bees changed since 2006, how many theories were tested, championed, then abandoned as new evidence came up. Even all I've posted here may one day change (though it's pretty well accepted so far). The story of the honey bees isn't over yet... but I promise it will not have a grand finale or a single climax, but rather will be complex and full of intertwining characters, and the ending, though perhaps not as spectacular, will be much more satisfying."
Excellent advice. Stay aware. Stay informed. Stay tuned.
Matan Shelomi, wearing a UC Davis entomology shirt, stands in front of the Reichstag in Berlin.
Noted entomologist May Berenbaum lectured May 20 at UC Davis on disappearing bees and then visited the Department of Entomology and Nematology's bee garden. With her (from left) are UC Davis bee authorities Robbin Thorp, Brian Johnson and Eric Mussen. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Two's company. Three's a crowd?
Sometimes we wish it were half a dozen.
Last July we were admiring two newly emerged Gulf Fritillary butterflies on Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia) when a Western Tiger Swallowtail fluttered down, seemingly out of nowhere, to occupy the same sunflower as one Gulf Frit.
The Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) and the Western Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio rutulus) eyed each other for a few seconds. Then in the way of the West ("This town isn't big enough for the both of us") the tiger spread its wings and took off.
A Western Tiger Swallowtail readies for a landing on the same flower occupied by a Gulf Fritillary. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Two's company. Three's a crowd? (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
This year was a 'perfect storm' for California red scale; combine the drought with higher than normal average daily temperatures and pesticides that disrupt scales and you have a crisis.
Drought: Some insect populations increase when trees become water stressed and California red scale is one of those. It could be a direct response to the tree or it could be because increased dust reduces the effectiveness of natural enemies.
Higher than normal temperatures: Typically, San Joaquin Valley conditions produce 4 to 4.5 generations of California red scale per year. Usually, by November 1, the female scales stop producing crawlers and shut down for the winter. This year, the degree days (heat units) were higher than normal the entire red scale season (from March 1 - Dec 1). This produced a full 5th generation of scale and scale crawlers were still emerging in December. Many growers struggled to control California red scale because the problem appeared late in the season and this pest is very difficult to control with insecticides once it reaches the fruit. Degree day units were high not only this year, but have been higher than the 30 year average for the past 3 years, accumulating extra scales each year.
Insecticides: Research has demonstrated that systemic neonicotinoids such as imidacloprid can reduce scale on fruit and leaves but are not effective in controlling California red scale on woody tissues such as bark and twigs. These insecticides are also toxic to natural enemies. Using these products year in and year out builds scale on the wood, that eventually makes its way to fruit.
Below are the flights and five generations of crawler activity at Lindcove Research and Extension Center. Also shown are the degree day units accumulated at Lindcove through the season. See degree day units for California red scale for other locations.
Jeff Mitchell, Cooperative Extension Cropping Systems Specialist at the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences and Kearney Agricultural Research & Extension Center, recently received a $5000 grant from the agricultural biotechnology company Monsanto to support a program of high school activities aimed at Ag sustainability.
Mitchell will work with the Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation (CASI) Center, which promotes the principles of conservation agriculture, which include reduced soil disturbance, permanent soil cover cropping, and crop rotation practices.
Jeff Mitchell receiving a $5000 grant from Monsanto.
Jessica, who is majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology, works in the Chiu lab on the Spotted Wing Drosophila (Drosophila suzukii or SWD), a serious pest of fruit crops. In collaboration with scientists in the U.S. and around the world, including Frank Zalom, UC Davis professor of entomology, West is surveying populations of SWD using next-generation sequencing to determine the extent of possible insecticide resistance.
“By correlating her results to insecticide bioassay data, she can start to understand the mechanisms of developing resistance and use this information to help the agricultural industries manage SWD in a more sustainable manner,” said Chiu, an assistant professor.
The UC Global Food Initiative “is a commitment to apply a laser focus on what UC can do as a public research university, in one of the most robust agricultural regions in the world, to take on one of the world's most pressing issues," said UC President Janet Napolitano. This includes research related to food security, health and sustainability.
West received a $2500 stipend. The selection committee said “Jessica's ability to articulate a novel, hypothesis-driven research idea and follow it up with a detailed plan stood out from the rest.”
Said Chiu: “Jessica wrote an outstanding research proposal, detailing how her project can contribute to the mission of the UC Global Food Initiative.”
West applied for--and received--membership in the Class of 2013, Research Scholars Program in Insect Biology (RSPIP), which was organized by three UC Davis Department of Entomology faculty (Jay Rosenheim, Louie Yang and Joanna Chiu) to provide undergraduates with closely mentored research experiences in biology. The program's goal is "to provide academically strong and highly motivated undergraduates with a multi-year research experience that cultivates skills that will prepare them for a career in biological research and useful for students whose career goals will take them to medical school, veterinary school, or graduate programs in any biological sub-discipline."
Undergraduates can easily feel like they are lost in the crowd, Chui said, and rarely get close mentorship from faculty or other research staff. The RSIBP program fills that bill. “It is highly competitive and being selected is not an easy feat in itself,” Chiu said. West was one of eight students from the pool of 50 applicants selected.
Insects can be used as model systems to explore virtually any area of biology (population biology; behavior and ecology; biodiversity and evolutionary ecology; agroecology; genetics and molecular biology; biochemistry and physiology; and cell biology).
The Chiu lab collaborates with the Zalom lab and with research groups at Oregon State University, Washington State University, North Carolina State University, University of Georgia, and Cornell University to develop pest management strategies to combat SWD. Most drosophila flies feed on spoiled fruits, but SWD prefers fresh fruit (berries and soft-skinned fruits). The national crop loss has been estimated at more than $700 million annually.
“As a result, to control pest population and reduce crop loss, growers now rely on preventive applications of broad-spectrum neuroactive insecticides,” Chiu explained. “The selection pressure for insecticide resistance is therefore extremely high and will likely lead to resistance development in SWD, which threatens the sustainability of these high value crops.”
“Our laboratory has already set up a large network of collaborators all over the world to support this project,” Chiu said. “Jessica regards this project as an opportunity to explore new research areas, while contributing to an urgent food crisis as the crop industries and growers all over the world are becoming gravely concerned. “
Jessica West and her mentor, Joanna Chui, are a good fit. And that should mean bad news for the spotted wing drosophila.
UC Davis undergraduate student Jessica West, who is majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology, has just received the UC Davis undergraduate award President's Global Food Initiative Student Fellowship Program. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)