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Coronavirus Lockdowns Keep Bees at Home and Put Crops at Risk

Animals
Beekeeper Younes Kheir shows Julia Klöckner, federal minister of Food and Agriculture, honeycombs on World Bee Day, May 20, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. Carsten Koall / picture alliance via Getty Images

By Ajit Niranjan

Coronavirus lockdowns that keep farmers from fields and suppliers from markets are restricting another cornerstone of the agriculture industry: bees.


Responsible for pollinating about a third of the plants we eat, bees are in short supply and their numbers are declining globally. In large, food-exporting countries like the U.S. and China, there are too few local bees to pollinate crops — so beekeepers truck hives thousands of kilometers to pollinate fields.

Now, travel restrictions to halt the spread of the coronavirus are hurting the pollination industry by keeping bees at home. They are also stopping some beekeepers from feeding their hives, grounding flights that could import bees from abroad, and making it harder to hire seasonal workers to transport them, said Etienne Bruneau of Apimondia, the international federation of beekeepers. Some farmers "arrive in the [pollinating] season without bees and nobody to help them."

In the U.S., which is the world's biggest agricultural exporter but has fewer beehives than Spain, farmers rely on bees trucked long distances on pallets and forklifted into fields. California grows more than 3 in 4 of the world's almonds and each spring about two-thirds of the country's bee population is mobilized to pollinate them. The bees are then loaded onto trucks and sent elsewhere to fields of cherries, apples, blueberries, cranberries, pumpkins and other foods.

Pollination services contribute $15-20 billion (€13.7- €18.3 billion) to the value of U.S. crop production and, for many beekeepers, it is more lucrative than making honey. When bees gather nectar, pollen sticks to their bodies and rubs off onto other plants they land on. Harvest losses without their help can range from 5-10% for grains like rapeseed to as high as 80% for almonds and cherries, said Bruneau.

Food Security

Bees, together with pollinators like bats and birds, underpin the global food system. But their populations are dwindling and colonies collapsing as a result of human activity like building settlements, overusing pesticides, farming with monocultures and changing the climate through greenhouse gas emissions. A UN-backed assessment of life on earth last year found that pollinator loss threatens $235-$577 billion in annual crop output.

While experts say the food security risk from restrictions to bee movements is small, it represents yet another coronavirus-induced shock to a global food system already reeling from the pandemic. The World Food Programme warned last month that COVID-19 could double the number of people facing acute hunger — currently estimated at 135 million people — by the end of 2020.

Climate change, conflict and poverty have worked together to drive food crises.

Across East Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, swarms of locusts have ravaged vegetation after a year of weather extremes that included abnormally heavy rains and strong cyclones. While African bees have not been greatly affected by lockdowns — unlike in North America and Asia, beekeepers typically use fixed hives and do not move them large distances — pesticides to fight locusts have, in turn, hurt pollination, said David Mukomana, Apimondia's Africa president.

"Many [farmers] resorted to aerial sprays that had serious effects on many pollinating insects, bees included."

Meanwhile, across Asia and South America, food security is particularly threatened by a growing dependence on pollinators, according to a study published in the journal Global Change Biology last year. Areas that are more biologically diverse encourage pollination, researchers say, but countries are farming in ways that hurt biodiversity.

What's more, the increase in pollinator dependency has not been matched by a rise in managed honeybees, the authors wrote, adding that this was an "alarm call" for pollinator-friendly farming methods such as targeted use of insecticide and planting hedgerows next to crops.

"The picture is worse for wild pollinators that are in decline in several regions," the authors wrote.

Learning From Bees

Even as lockdowns keep industrial bees grounded, wild bees may benefit from a drop in pollution and traffic as humans stay at home. A study published in the Journal of Insect Conservation in 2015 estimated that billions of pollinating insects were killed on roads each year in North America alone. A global fall in transport may have kept some bees safe.

Yet despite these short-term benefits, "lockdown will do virtually nothing to reverse the major causes of bumblebee declines, which are habitat loss and degradation," a spokesperson from the Bumblebee Conservation Trust said.

Bees also have their own viruses to deal with. Like people, honeybees live in large groups and thrive on social interactions.

"That poses risks when it comes to pathogen transmissions," said Adam Dolezal, an insect scientist at the University of Illinois. "If a pathogen evolves that can circumvent those risks, the bees have to respond or become more infected."

Honeybees may be in an "evolutionary arms race" with the deadly Israeli acute paralysis virus, according to a study published in the journal PNAS last month. While bees are known to socially distance from infected nest mates and touch each other less, the virus has evolved a way of sneaking sick bees past guards of other colonies and spreading itself into new hives.

In the wild, where beehives are sparsely spread and there is little interaction between colonies, this evolutionary trait offers little advantage. But in industrial farms — with up to thousands of bees per square kilometer — it gives viruses a greater chance of starting new outbreaks.

It suggests that intensive agriculture can increase the danger of pathogens that target insects, as well as humans and other animals. Modern farming practices have come under scrutiny since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic as scientists have sounded alarm bells about the dangers of habitat destruction and zoonotic diseases.

This doesn't mean we should stop keeping bees this way, but it does show how manipulating natural environments can give advantages to viruses, said Dolezal, who co-authored the study. "We should be on the lookout for places where pathogens can find chinks in the armor of the organism."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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