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Bee aware of pollinators

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Most of us know what pollinators are and what they do...in a "kinda, sorta" way. We know that pollination and pollinators are very important and much needed, especially during the spring, summer and fall growing seasons. And we have heard that we need to protect these pollinators.

But what exactly is pollination, what are the pollinators and why are they important? This article will answer these questions, and next week's follow-up article will tell us what can we do to protect pollinators and how the Carlton County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) can help.

Pollination happens when pollen is carried from the anther (male part) to the stigma (female part) of flowers.

Flowering plants include more than just cultured or wildflowers. Almost every fruit, vegetable, nut and berry starts with a flower that needs to be pollinated, too. Problems with pollination and pollinators affect not only our beautiful flowers but also results in less food for people and wildlife. In fact, one in every three mouthfuls of food and drink we consume is due to pollinators doing their jobs.

Some plants can self-pollinate, and some pollination is done by wind, water and wildlife (including birds, bats, and lizards, etc.). However, about 80-90 percent of flowering plants mostly rely on insect pollinators.

Many people avoid the best known pollinators — bees — as they don't want to get stung. However, not all pollinators are bees and not all pollinators sting. Other insect pollinators include ants, beetles, wasps, and butterflies. For right now, let's learn more about bees!

BEE BASICS

In North America, there are about 4,000 species of native bees with about 45 species of bumblebees in the United States alone. Most of us recognize bumblebees, but there are other native species such as the long-horned bees, carpenter bees, mining (or plasterer) bees, small dark bees, green sweat bees, leafcutter bees, mason bees, cuckoo bees, etc. Many native bees are very good pollinators — especially of certain plants, including the southeastern blueberry bees, the squash or cucurbit bees (which visit only squash, gourd or pumpkin plants), and the blue orchard or horn-faced bees (which pollinate apples). However, most crop pollination in our country is done by the European honeybee.

Most native bees live solitary lives with 70 percent of them creating individual nests in the ground and the rest creating nests in tunnels of mud, leaf pieces or sawdust in hollow plant stems, wood or trees. Honeybees and bumblebees are social insects, though, which means they live together as large, well-organized family groups in hives. Bumblebees live in wild hives with only 50-400 bees, but honey bees live in hives — usually maintained by beekeepers — that have 20,000 to 60,000 bees. It takes the united effort of the entire colony to survive and reproduce. Unlike native bees, individual honeybees and bumblebees cannot survive alone.

As to their stinging reputations, bumblebees only sting if they are aggravated and they can sting more than once. When honeybees sting, though, their barbed stinger immediately sticks in the skin and the honeybee dies soon after its stinger is gone.

According to entomologists, honeybees are among the most fascinating creatures on earth! They are highly evolved insects that perform a variety of complex tasks not usually performed by other insects, such as communication, nest construction, defense, and division of labor. Many of us have heard about the "waggle dance" bees do to tell other bees in which direction and how far it is to find flowers. Honeybees do this dance but bumblebees don't, although they might communicate in other ways.

A honeybee colony consists of three kinds of adult bees: a queen, drones and worker bees.

Each colony has only one queen, unless it is getting ready to supersede (replace the queen) or swarm (start a new colony and hive). The queen is the only sexually developed female and her primary function is reproduction. During her peak production in spring and early summer, a queen can lay up to 1,500 eggs per day with up to 250,000 eggs per year and more than a million eggs during her lifetime. A queen usually lives for two to three years, but some can live as long as five years.

The queen is easily distinguished from drones and workers as her body is much longer, especially during egg-laying. The queen produces pheromones that serve as a social "glue" to unify and give identity to her bee colony. The quality and survivability — as well as the size and temperament — of the colony depends on the queen's egg-laying and pheromone-production along with the genetic makeup of the drones she has mated with.

About a week after she emerges from the queen cell, the queen leaves the hive to mate with seven to 15 drones during her mating flight. After mating, she returns to the hive and, after two days, begins laying eggs into the beeswax cells created by the worker bees. The queen is constantly attended and fed "royal jelly" by the workers. The numbers of eggs she lays depends on the amount of food she receives and the size of the worker force capable of preparing the cells and caring for the larva that hatch from the eggs after three days.

Drones are male bees and are the largest in the colony. They are generally present only during late spring and summer. Drones mostly rely on workers for food. Because they eat three times as much food as workers, too many drones place added stress on the colony's food supply. Although they perform no useful work for the hive, drones are very important for colony function and survival. Their main function is to fertilize the virgin queen from another hive during her mating flight. Drones become sexually mature about a week after they emerge from their cells and they die immediately after mating. Drone life expectancy is about 90 days. When cold weather starts in the fall and pollen and nectar become scarce, any remaining drones are forced out into the cold and left to starve.

Worker bees are the smallest bees but they comprise most of the bees in the colony. They are sexually undeveloped female bees and under normal hive conditions, they do not lay eggs. Workers have special parts on their bodies, such as scent glands, wax glands, pollen baskets, etc., with which they do the labor of the hives, including nest building, cleaning and polishing the cells, feeding and raising the brood (the eggs and larvae), caring for the queen, removing debris, handling nectar, building beeswax combs, guarding the hive entrance, air-conditioning and ventilation of the hive, and foraging for nectar, pollen, water and propolis (plant sap). The life span of the worker is generally six weeks during the summer. However, worker bees reared in the fall may live as long as six months, thus helping the colony to survive the winter and start raising a new generation of bees (before they die in the spring).

One of the worker's most important jobs is to make honey, which is their food, from the nectar juice they collect from flowers. When a worker has collected a full load of nectar in its honey stomach, it goes back to the hive and passes the nectar back through its mouth to other workers who chew it until it turns into honey. The honey is then stored in honeycomb cells made up of wax. When a cell is full of honey, it is sealed with a wax lid to keep the honey clean. Bumblebees can only make a small amount of a honey which they need to eat themselves. However, honeybees make lots of honey, enough for their own use as well as enough to "share" with people and other wildlife.

Why is protection of pollinators so important? Since 1950, there has been a 50 percent decline in the numbers of honeybee hives and, during this same time, there has been a doubling of the amount of cropland requiring bee pollination. In fact, in 2006-2007 alone, about 25 percent of beekeeping operations lost almost half of the available hives due to a variety of causes. None of this is good news for our food supply!

What can we do to help pollinators? Create more pollinator habitat! Next week we'll visit several Carlton County landowners who are protecting and creating pollinator habitat, and we'll learn how the Carlton SWCD can help each of us join them.

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