BUMBLE BEES AND THE AMERICAN FARMER



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For centuries North America has been known as the ‘Breadbasket of the World’ but with over one third of American crops dependant on insect pollination, and increased hysteria over the collapse of honeybee populations, is it time for the American farmer to reach out for a ‘fall back’ plan?

There have been concerns regarding honey bees for many years now. First it was their hybridization with African bees to create the infamous swarming, killer bee, next came the varroa mite, and now it’s the alarming and still unknown causes behind Colony Collapse disorder. With hive death rates currently at 30-35% year on year are we really looking at the beginning of the end for the hard working honey bee?

The probable answer to this question is a worrying yes, and this has spurred the USDA into providing $4,000,000 towards researching the causes behind of CCD.

Unfortunately the answer to CCD has yet to be found, but we seem to be overlooking - what is hopefully at least - a temporary solution that has been sitting under our noses throughout the honey bee’s long problematical history. It is, of course, another bee and one that is not affected by the varroa mite, or CCD, and does not threaten life by swarming dangerously. The bee in question is the native American bumble bee.

Perhaps the biggest drawback of the bumble bees is that they do not produce the excesses of 'cash valuable' honey as seen with the honey bee. Neither do they have the range of territory, or will they pollinate as many flowers in the same time period – but this is not the point. If the honey bee is no longer a player in the pollination of American crops there will be no choice other than to find a suitable alternative and the bumble bee is by far the most obvious.

The only thing that needs to be done to make bumblebees a viable crop pollinator is to ensure that you have sufficient population numbers and this can be achieved by ensuring suitable natural habitats near to where the crops are grown. With most crops cultivated on a mono-crop (one field, one crop species) basis, there would only be a relatively short flowering season so their nectar/pollen based diet would need to be supplemented by other means to ensure the bees year-round survival. This can be addressed by providing dense plantings of year round nectar rich plants along field margins as well as creating nectar islands within larger fields. If appropriate, nectar rich, ‘non-competitive’ plant seed could be mixed amongst the crop seed to help extend the bees territory.
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Bumble bee nest
Unlike honey bees, most bumble bees live in nests under the ground which would make it almost impossible to move them from crop to crop. This means that they would need to be allowed to make permanently nests in fixed positions, although you would need to take into consideration these nests are normally used for one year only, with a fresh one built the following year.

This is good sense on the bees part as it helps to prevent the buildup of harmful pests and pathogens within the nest, ensuring healthy living conditions (ref CCD). Suitable conditions can be created to attract Queen bees to possible nesting sites by providing a free-draining, loose substrate, that is easily dug into by the bees. Research has shown that they prefer some kind of shelter and support structure around the nest such as tree roots or the base of a wall. However, the most important thing for a healthy bumblebee population is to keep the nest dry. If there is a risk of the nest flooding caused by intensive irrigation or heavy downpours, then there will of course be the very real threat of death for the adult bees and their larvae.

Without bees and other pollinating insects to ensure the success of our crops how will the ever growing human population manage to feed itself? As Albert Einstein observed

 ‘...No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more man...’

For related articles click onto the following links:
BEES AND BIODIVERSITY
Bumblebee Conservation
CAN YOU KEEP HONEY BEES IN THE GARDEN?
EDIBLE CROP POLLINATION AND THE DECLINE OF BEES
HOW TO ATTRACT BUMBLEBEES TO THE SUBURBAN GARDEN
NECTAR RICH PLANTS FOR ATTRACTING LONG TONGUED BUMBLE BEES
PESTICIDES TOXIC TO HONEY BEES
THE BUMBLE BEE

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