In quake-hit Puerto Rico even the bees are fleeing their homes

By Andrew Hay

(Reuters) – Puerto Rican bees are abandoning hives as weeks of earthquakes disrupt colonies, experts said, raising concerns that a subspecies seen as a possible solution to the global bee crisis could take another hit after being decimated by hurricanes in 2017.

Bees have deserted up to 25% of hives in towns like Guayanilla in southern Puerto Rico after hundreds of tremors and a 6.4 magnitude earthquake rattled the area, said Hermes Conde, director of the island’s Eastern Apiculture School. The quakes have shifted the position of many hives, confused returning bees and caused destruction inside the wooden boxes, he said.

They have also disrupted beekeepers’ normal feeding of hives during winter months as farmers recover from quakes that collapsed hundreds of homes and caused at least one death. Thousands of Puerto Ricans are sleeping outdoors, fearful their houses could collapse in another big aftershock.

As the U.S. territory seeks a disaster declaration from President Donald Trump to increase relief resources, the island’s beekeepers are appealing for U.S. donations of “protein patties” and other bee food to save their hives.

“Bees are looking for calmer areas, fleeing all the movement in the earthquake zone,” said Conde, who has lost 10 of his 50 hives in Guayanilla and fears more may go if quakes continue.

Puerto Rico’s hardy, productive bees are the descendants of Africanized bees. They are seen as a possible substitute for western honey bees that have died off in unprecedented numbers due to so-called colony collapse disorder (CCD).

Scientists say Puerto Rico’s bees are less susceptible to parasites blamed for CCD, a phenomenon which has caused economic losses worldwide in crops that depend on western honey bees for pollination.

Around 85% of Puerto Rico’s bees were wiped out by Hurricane Maria in 2017, which killed about 3,000 people on the Caribbean island. The bee population has since recovered to around 60% of its former size, according to Conde.

Bee expert Tugrul Giray, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico, said the principal reason bees were abandoning hives was likely a lack of food as beekeepers tended to other priorities in their lives.

But he said bees hated vibration, and the repeated tremors and earthquakes since Dec. 28 had caused them to become less docile and leave nests.

“Puerto Rico’s beekeepers need special help right now,” said Giray, warning locals to take care when encountering the island’s stressed-out bees.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; editing by Bill Tarrant and Leslie Adler)

U.S. lists first bumble bee species as endangered

bumble bee on flower

By Steve Gorman

(Reuters) – The rusty patched bumble bee, a prized but vanishing pollinator once familiar to much of North America, was listed on Tuesday as an endangered species, becoming the first wild bee in the continental United States to gain such federal protection.

One of several species facing sharp declines, the bumble bee known to scientists as Bombus affinis has plunged nearly 90 percent in abundance and distribution since the late 1990s, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The agency listed the insect after determining it to be in danger of extinction across all or portions of its range, attributing its decline to a mix of factors, including disease, pesticides, climate change and habitat loss.

Named for the conspicuous reddish blotch on its abdomen, the rusty patched bumble bee once flourished across 28 states, primarily in the upper Midwest and Northeast — from South Dakota to Connecticut — and in the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

Today, only a few small, scattered populations remain in 13 states and Ontario, the Fish and Wildlife Service said.

The agency in September listed seven varieties of yellow-faced, or masked, bees in Hawaii as endangered. But Bombus affinis is the first bumble bee species to given that status, and the first wild bee of any kind to be listed in the Lower 48 states.

Bumble bees, as distinguished from domesticated honey bees, are essential pollinators of wildflowers and about a third of all U.S. crops, from blueberries to tomatoes, according to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, which petitioned the government for protection of the insect.

Pollination services furnished by various insects in the United States, mostly by bees, have been valued at an estimated $3 billion each year.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature ranks the rusty patched as one of 47 species of native U.S. and Canadian bumble bees, more than a quarter of which face a risk of extinction.

Government scientists point to a certain class of pesticides called neonicotinoids — widely used on crops, lawns, gardens and forests — as posing a particular threat to bees because they are absorbed into a plant’s entire system, including leaf tissue, nectar and pollen.

Bumble bee populations may be especially vulnerable to pesticides applied early in the year because for one month an entire colony depends on the success of a solitary queen that emerges from winter dormancy, the wildlife service said.

Listing under the Endangered Species Act generally restricts activities known to harm the creature in question and requires the government to prepare a recovery plan. It also raises awareness and helps focus conservation planning for the imperiled species.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Vital to food output, bees and other pollinators at risk

OSLO (Reuters) – Bees and other pollinators face increasing risks to their survival, threatening foods such as apples, blueberries and coffee worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year, the first global assessment of pollinators showed on Friday.

Pesticides, loss of habitats to farms and cities, disease and climate change were among threats to about 20,000 species of bees as well as creatures such as birds, butterflies, beetles and bats that fertilize flowers by spreading pollen, it said.

“Pollinators are critical to the global economy and human health,” Zakri Abdul Hamid, chair of the 124-nation report, told Reuters of a finding that between $235 billion and $577 billion of world food output at market prices depended on pollinators.

The food sector provides jobs for millions of people, such as coffee pickers in Brazil, cocoa farmers in Ghana, almond growers in California or apple producers in China.

Ever more species of pollinators are threatened, according to the study, the first by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) since it was founded in 2012. It was approved in talks in Kuala Lumpur.

IPBES is modeled on the U.N. panel on climate change, which advises governments on ways to tackle global warming.

“Regional and national assessments of insect pollinators indicate high levels of threat, particularly for bees and butterflies,” it said. In Europe, for instance, 9 percent of bee and butterfly species were threatened with extinction.

The study pointed to risks from pesticides such as neonicotinoids, linked to damaging effects in North America and Europe. But it said there were still many gaps in understanding the long-term impact.

“It’s definitely harmful to wild bees, and we don’t know what it means for populations over time,” Simon Potts, a co-chair of the report and professor at the University of Reading in England, told Reuters.

The study also said the impact of genetically modified crops on pollinators was still poorly understood.

And it said the amount of farm output dependent on pollination had surged by 300 percent in the past 50 years. The western honey bee, the most widespread pollinator managed by humans, produces 1.6 million tonnes of honey every year.

Still, the outlook was not all bleak. “The good news is that a number of steps can be taken to reduce the risks,” Zakri said.

Planting strips or patches of wild flowers could attract pollinators to fields of crops, and reduced use of pesticides or a shift to organic farming could also restrict the damage.

“There are some things that individuals on the ground can do,” Potts said. Smallholder farmers in Africa could let wild plants grow on part of their land, people in cities could plant flowers in their back gardens or window boxes.

(Reporting by Alister Doyle; Editing by Alison Williams)

Honeybee Colonies Hit 20 Year High

There is good news in the battle to stop honeybee losses.  A new report says the “Beepocalypse” is a little further in the distance thanks to a 20 year high in colonies.

A report from the USDA shows that since the alarm was sounded in 2006 over “colony collapse disorder” the number of colonies has mostly risen in the following years.

The USDA report shows that with the exception of 2008, every year since 2006 showed an increase in colonies and overall bee population.

The decline in bee population caused concern because bees are the main source of pollination for plants.  A decline in bees not only reduces the amount of honey available in the marketplace but also lowers the amount of other crops.

“It’s not the honey bees that are in danger of going extinct,” Kim Kaplan, a researcher with the USDA, told the Washington Post, “it is the beekeepers providing pollination services because of the growing economic and management pressures. The alternative is that pollination contracts per colony have to continue to climb to make it economically sustainable for beekeepers to stay in business and provide pollination to the country’s fruit, vegetable, nut and berry crops.”

Beekeepers have been instituting changes to improve the health and quality of the bee population including taking healthy hives and splitting them in two so that they create two healthy hives that can survive winter months.