The Power of the Honeybee

Posted in Pollinators on Thursday, July 07, 2022

The Power of the Honeybee

A colony of honeybees works just as hard as Washington farmers.

Pollination is required for nearly all of the world’s seed plants. This is true for Washington’s beloved hemlocks, rhododendrons, apples, potatoes, spinach, and every other crop you see. Pollen, which often looks like yellow dust, is the plant’s male sex cells and is a vital part of pollination, or the reproduction cycle. Pollen creates more than just an allergic reaction. Pollen from a flower’s anthers (the male part of the plant) rubs or drops onto a pollinator like a honeybee or a butterfly. The pollinator then takes this pollen to another flower where the pollen sticks to the stigma (the female part). The fertilized flower later yields fruit and seeds. This is how plants survive and multiply naturally. More than 150 food crops in the U.S. depend on pollinators, including almost all fruit and grain crops.

Some plants don’t need a physical pollinator to move pollen around. Wind also works on some crops, like wheat, rice, corn, rye, barley and oats. Nut-producing trees, such as walnuts, pecans and pistachios, are usually wind-pollinated as well as pines, spruces, firs and many hardwood trees. Spinach is also a wind-pollinated crop, which means spinach seed farmers require large isolation distances between fields so they don’t cross-pollinate with the wrong varieties.

Other crops rely on insects to pollinate between plants. Insect-pollinated vegetables include asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, celeriac, celery, collard, cucumber, eggplant, gourd, kale, kohlrabi, muskmelon, okra, onion, parsley, parsnip, hot pepper, pumpkin, radish, rutabaga, spinach, squash, turnip and watermelon. Since insects can travel for miles, seed farmers growing these crops must keep their fields at least one to three miles away from other varieties so they can keep their seed pure.

Bees are vital workers for Washington’s farms and food lovers. Whether it’s the standard honeybee that spreads pollen over thousands of apple trees in our state, or the unique alkali bee that nests in the ground and pollinates our alfalfa fields, bees are critical to agriculture in our state. Scientists around the world are studying the health of bees, and Washington State University (WSU) is a leader in this research. Dr. Steve Sheppard is an entomologist from WSU and works on honeybee breeding and genetics, as well as colony health research. Over the last decade, beekeepers have seen a disastrous decline in the health of honeybee colonies, often averaging over 30 percent loss annually. Varroa mites, and the viruses they proliferate, play a major role in those losses. There are more than 60 factors that play a role in the recent colony collapse disorder. According to Sheppard, it appears to be several stresses that happen together to cause the problem. To provide solutions, researchers in Washington are working on multiple fronts. One potential solution involves fungi. According to a recent paper from WSU scientists, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Fungi Perfecti, a business based in Olympia, a mushroom extract fed to honeybees greatly reduces virus levels. The study suggests that bees with Lake Sinai virus and deformed wing virus could benefit from extracts of polypore mushroom mycelium, which were shown to reduce viral counts within the bees.