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Local biologists worry over decreasing bee population

BY DORA GROTE | SEPTEMBER 26, 2011 7:20 AM

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Iowa's wild bee population has significantly decreased in the last decade.

And according to an ongoing study conducted by University of Iowa biology Professor Stephen Hendrix, that decrease could affect Iowa's crop production.

"Bees are just disappearing and not coming back," he said. "It looks as though the prairie plants threw a banquet for the bees, and they didn't show up."

Since Hendrix began collecting wild bees from prairies and farms across Iowa in 2002, he said the bee catch has decreased from 50 to 10 bees per hectare, or 10,000 square meters of land.

Though Hendrix is uncertain why the bees have disappeared, he said one possibility could be the transfer of a RNA — ribonucleic acid — virus from honeybees to wild bees.

He also said the wet summer could have contributed.

"We were alarmed when the [bee] proportions started being tallied," he said.

With the help of research assistants, Hendrix uses different colored Styrofoam bowls and nets to catch the bees. The bees are then sedated in tubes of cyanide, before they're pinned, sorted, and identified according to species.

"We noticed in June that there was a good number of bees. It took us five days to pin [the bees],"said Alex Alder, a UI junior environmental science lab assistant. The next sweep in July, we had so few bees that we pinned and sorted the bees within a day, and I'm not even kidding."

Hendrix said the wet summer is problematic for the wild bees, which — unlike honeybees who live in colonies — the females dig their nests in the ground.

"Little bees have to bury in lower parts where sediment is a lot more fine, exactly where floodwaters collect," Alder said.

Alder said wild bees are important to the Earth and are a vital source of pollination for farms by pollinating crops and continuing the food cycle.

"It's ridiculous how much we need bees for our own well-being," Alder said.

Mark Quee, a farm manager at Scattergood Farm near West Branch, said he was not aware of how important wild bees are before the study — which was partially conducted at Scattergood.

"When I was mowing buckwheat, I was in awe with all the wildlife on those flowers," Quee said.
Now, he said, he is making a commitment to let plants and wildlife flower as long as possible, so wild bees have resources to survive.

"In order to give wild pollinators something to work with in the heat of the summer, I am letting [buckwheat] spread all over garden," Quee said.

Hendrix said there are not enough floral resources to maintain species in the surrounding Iowa City.

The best way to maintain and increase diversity of the wild bee population is to use less pesticides and grow more flowers year round. Hendrix said people need to be more conscientious about spraying their own plants to not drive away the wild bees.

"Bees aren't wasps; they won't attack you," he said.


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