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Learning more about pollinators through bee surveys

ODA participates in two projects this summer, both involve collecting bees

The Oregon Department of Agriculture is abuzz with activity this summer as survey technicians collect both native bees and domesticated commercial honeybees as part of an effort to learn more about the presence and health of pollinators. ODA’s efforts take on even more significance in light of the increased attention given to bees this year.

“The fact that we are participating in these surveys is an indication of the importance we place on bees, not only for the role they play in agriculture, but what they mean to our ecosystem” says Helmuth Rogg, manager of ODA’s Insect Pest Prevention and Management Program (IPPM).

The two bee surveys are independent of each other but are connected by the growing concern over the fate of pollinators nationally and worldwide.

About two-thirds of the world’s food and fiber crops depend on pollination for reproduction. There has been a steep rise in numbers of commercial honeybee hives that have disappeared in the US due to colony collapse disorder (CCD)– a significant threat to agricultural production. It is well known that native pollinators in Oregon, including bumblebees and bees in general, are critically important for many specialty crops and native plants. The value of native bees comes into sharper focus given the status of domesticated honeybees under assault of CCD, diseases, and parasites.

“There are many factors affecting the health of domesticated honeybees, so it’s always good to have a ‘plan b’ available,” says Rogg. “Enhancing native bee populations can be an effective alternative for pollinating specialty crops in Oregon. You don’t need to completely rely on honeybees brought in by commercial beekeepers.”

IPPM received a $75,000 grant for the 2012 season to survey native bees associated with Oregon’s specialty crops. The funding was made possible through the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program. Willamette University student Briana Ezray set up nearly 300 traps in various specialty crop settings throughout Oregon, including flower, fruit, and carrot seed production areas. Ezray and other ODA survey technicians removed the traps in late August last year and found hundreds of specimens of various bee families.

“Last year’s trapping gave us a long list of native bees that we are still working to identify,” says Rogg. “It has been challenging to identify these different species. We are entering some new territory.”

As part of the identification process, ODA specialists have been preparing the specimens for a digital imaging system with the idea of generating a native bee screening aid. There could be as many as 70 species playing a role as pollinators of specialty crops.

A second year of Specialty Crop Block Grant funding has provided $61,625 for the next phase of the native bee survey work, which is being done this summer.

“This year, we wanted to identify native bees that are involved in the actual pollination,” says Rogg. “So instead of just setting up traps and collecting native bees, this year we have had our insect trappers observe pollination activity and physically remove the bees from the flowers. This way we will know clearly which native bees are truly involved in pollination. As an example, we can identify a species that is involved in sweet cherry or carrot seed pollination. By finding ways to enhance that population of bees, we hope to get more of these specific pollinators into the orchards and fields should there be issues with the domesticated honeybee.”

ODA is cooperating with the Xerces Society, which is working on ways to enhance native pollinator populations in a specialty crop setting. Ideally, growers may be able to slightly modify the habitat to attract more native pollinators. ODA is also working with bee specialists at Oregon State University to learn more about the biology and phenology of the state’s native bees.

“We know these native pollinators are important to such crops as blueberries, cherries, and carrot seed,” says Rogg. “Sometimes, growers have difficulty getting commercial domesticated honeybees brought into Oregon at certain times of the year, since so many of those bees are used in California, particularly for almond pollination. So unless you have your own honeybees, the role of native pollinators becomes more important.”

The second survey focuses on the domesticated honeybee, not the native pollinators. USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has recruited several states the past couple of years in collecting live bees to study health issues related to CCD. This is Oregon’s first year as a participant.

“We are collecting domesticated honeybees and looking for parasites or diseases they might have,” says Rogg. “We are trying to help the national effort to figure out what might be the causes related to colony collapse disorder. This way, we can also get an idea what the health status is for Oregon honeybees.”

APHIS has provided a specific protocol. ODA is visiting 20 volunteer beekeepers, both private and commercial, and collecting from eight different hives per beekeeper. The live bees are put in a specially designed box and sent back east for APHIS examination and analysis. The national survey has been funded since 2009 and is especially interested in documenting the presence or absence of parasitic mites.

ODA continues its investigation into bumblebee deaths earlier this year in Wilsonville and Hillsboro. In the Wilsonville case, the deaths were determined to be pesticide related. Last week, the US Environmental Protection Agency announced new pesticide labels that prohibit use of some neonicotinoid pesticide products where bees are present. EPA says it is taking the action in recognition that multiple factors play a role in bee colony declines, including pesticides. While the ODA bee surveys have nothing to do with pesticide issues, the events of this summer have shined a brighter light on the value of pollinators. What ODA learns through bee collection will help strengthen the knowledge base and perhaps ultimately improve the fate of bees in Oregon.

For more information, contact Helmuth Rogg at (503) 986-4662.

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