Montana State University

Spring 2015

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Mountains and Minds

Sweet science May 12, 2015 by Suzi Taylor • Published 05/12/15

Quick…how many species of bees are found in Montana?
a) 18
b) about 175
c) between 500 and 1,000
d) we don’t know

If you guessed c, you’re likely in the ballpark, but if you guessed d, that’s the most accurate answer of all. There’s a lot we don’t know about bees, including which ones are even found in Big Sky Country. Unlike some states, Montana doesn’t have a detailed university publication like the “Color Pattern Guide to Bumble Bees of Illinois and Missouri” nor the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Pocket Guide to the Native Bees of New Mexico.” But we do have a cadre of researchers at Montana State University who are dedicated to finding out all they can about bee health, bee economics, bee sustainability and the role of bees in our environment.

The beekeeping bizz

To understand what is going on at MSU with bee research, the first thing to know about bees is that it’s not all about honey. While our minds go first to the gooey delicious stuff, honeybees comprise just a small portion of all the bees found in Montana and around the world. And, for those beekeepers making a living in Montana, honey sales might be just a small percentage of their livelihood. Most make their money in the pollination business.

“Beekeepers are migratory,” says David Baumbauer, manager of MSU’s Plant Growth Center and a hobbyist beekeeper. “The event that drives beekeeping in the U.S. is the almond pollination in California around Valentine’s Day.”

Unlike some trees, which are pollinated by wind, almond trees must be pollinated by bees. But not enough bees are present in California’s Central Valley during the almond bloom to pollinate the ever-growing acreage, so almond growers pay beekeepers to bring in their hives from across the country. The honeybees arrive on semi after semi…nearly 50 billion bees in all. Just one beekeeper may bring dozens of trucks to California.

“The price of pollination has tripled or quadrupled in the last 20 years,” Baumbauer said. “Almonds are super popular... and people understand the benefits of consuming nuts for human nutrition.”

The migratory lifestyle continues after those four to six weeks. Some Montana beekeepers take their bees farther south to Texas. Others wend their way back through Oregon and Washington, pollinating apple and cherry trees. Some maintain a second home in California or overwinter their bees halfway there, in southern Idaho.

Prices for honey—which the bees make during their Montana summers— are higher than they once were, as U.S. consumption has grown and imports have dropped. Beekeepers must manage colonies so that they are strong for both winter almond pollination and summer honey production, which means ensuring the bees have enough to eat, controlling mite infestation within the colonies, and orchestrating transport in a manner that minimizes stress.

Unfortunately, for the last eight years, beekeepers have faced a foe larger than the typical agricultural management decisions.

Since about 2006, bees have been prominent in the media for the high annual losses that beekeepers have experienced. Like all agricultural producers, beekeepers know they’ll lose some of their “livestock” from year to year. But annual losses that once averaged 10 to 12 percent across the industry have now burgeoned into an average of more than 30 percent. Some beekeepers report 90 percent of their bees have died, according to the USDA.

“It’s real,” said Baumbauer. “The commercial people are challenged. It’s heartfelt. What other industry can sustain a 30 percent loss? If you were a livestock producer and 30 percent of your cows died every winter? You couldn’t do that! Beekeepers do this and it’s the new normal and it’s not sustainable. It’s really, really challenging.”

Michelle Flenniken is an MSU virologist who studies host-pathogen interactions, meaning anything that infects organisms like honeybees, including viruses, bacteria, fungi and mites.

“Thirty-two percent annual loss is unsustainable,” she said. “Without bees, the diversity of fruits, nuts and vegetables in our diets would be drastically reduced. Bees are also important pollinators of oilseed crops, and even meat prices may increase, since alfalfa seed crops are also pollinated by bees.”

What’s most troublesome is that the cause is unknown.

“Bees are dying more and I think there are things to figure out, whether it’s bee nutrition, pathogens, or agrichemical exposure,” said Flenniken, an assistant professor in the plant sciences and plant pathology department and an Institute on Ecosystems faculty member at MSU.

“High annual loss of honeybee colonies is alarming. Research in my lab is focused on better understanding the role of multiple factors on honeybee colony health—pathogens, agrochemical exposure and bee nutrition.

“It is a complex puzzle and it’s easy for people to quickly attribute colony losses to agrochemicals, or large-scale transport of bees across the U.S. But, it is important to obtain data on the role of these and other factors on colony health before stating any one of them as the main culprit.”

One potential source is Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, but Baumbauer explains that CCD research is challenging, because it can’t be re-created in a lab.

“That’s the classic thing in pathology in general. You have a sick organism, you isolate what you think is the causal agent, you infect a healthy organism and you see—if it gets sick, can you then extract that causal agent and back out? We can’t do that with CCD.”

Flenniken works side by side with Montana beekeepers to investigate the role of pathogens on honeybee colony health. She also researches bee immune responses by bringing bees into the laboratory, experimentally infecting them with a virus—in the presence and absence of an antidote—and determining how the bee’s immune system works using advanced molecular biology techniques.

“The long-term goal is to better understand the natural immune response to viruses,” she said. “Increased understanding may result in the development of strategies that stack the deck in the bees’ favor, by facilitating their natural ability to fight off the viruses.”

While Flenniken says she is grateful for the research support she has received, she and other researchers think additional funds are needed to tackle this complex and important problem. Last year, encouraging news came from the White House, as President Barack Obama signed a memorandum to promote the health of honeybees and other pollinators.

Last year, Project Apis m., a nonprofit organization that funds honeybee research, partnered with Costco, a wholesaler whose shelves are stocked with honey products and bee-pollinated fruits and vegetables, to grant a prestigious three-year fellowship to MSU’s Laura Brutscher, a graduate student working with Flenniken, to study honeybee pathogens.

This isn’t the first time in history that beekeepers have seen large unexplained losses.

“But those were times when we didn’t have the molecular tools of today,” said Flenniken. “We may be able to explain the factors involved in high annual losses experienced to date, and due to enhanced research efforts, we will have a better picture of bee epidemiology and be better poised to tackle future losses.”

Wild bees

Casey Delphia is an MSU researcher who studies bees…but not honeybees. Instead, Delphia wants to know more about Montana’s native bees—the insects that were here long before European honeybees were imported by settlers in the 1600s.

Like honeybees, wild bees need to eat. But, according to Delphia, native bees generally only travel about one mile from their nests, so when wild lands and farm lands are swallowed up by housing developments and shopping malls, bees have difficulty finding food. Meanwhile, farmers—who rely on bees to pollinate their crops—might find their farms walled off by cities and suburbs, effectively isolated from roaming bees.

“Farmers can’t control what the surrounding area is like,” said Delphia. “We want to see what that farmer (can) actually do to enhance their habitat
for bees.”

Delphia is working with Laura Burkle, MSU ecology professor, and Kevin O’Neill, MSU professor of land resources and environmental sciences, to investigate flower strips: long, thin rows of wildflowers planted amid or around traditional cultivated crops like squash and sunflower. Delphia studies whether the flower strips enhance the abundance and diversity of native bees, the presence of which may, in turn, improve the crops. She is also evaluating the economics of harvesting and selling the wildflower seeds.

Delphia said her team’s findings could also spur interest for homeowners who want to create pollinator gardens, or small, yard-sized oases of flowers that would allow bees and other native pollinators to hop from sanctuary to sanctuary.

Similarly, Flenniken is working to secure funding for an MSU Pollinator Garden, a public place where visitors can view native bee- and honeybee-friendly forage and habitat, honeybee colonies and an observation hive. Students will be involved in the Pollinator Garden’s creation, maintenance and research. Flenniken sees the site as an important outreach component for MSU, as well as a venue for beekeepers, scientists and the public to discuss new research findings.

Bees and fire

Burkle is also a researcher of native bees, but unlike Delphia’s project, which centers on agricultural lands, Burkle seeks out some of Montana’s wildest places. Using a team of more than a dozen student researchers and volunteers, Burkle studies the role of bees as pollinators in areas affected by wildfires.

With GPS units, insect nets and cameras, the researchers returned week after week last summer to three wildfire-affected sites: one in the Paradise Valley, one outside Helena and another near Whitefish. Some areas were burned recently; others were scarred several decades ago, and with varying degree of severity.

The work is tough, as researchers navigate deadfall, thick new growth and the typical hazards of Montana fieldwork: sun, mosquitos and larger predators.

“I have to select field assistants carefully in order for them not to have a nervous breakdown in the middle of the summer,” Burkle joked.

But the work, while tedious, is rewarding, she said.

“We can use these data to understand how species vary across space, what kind of species are around in different places, and we can create these interaction networks to get a better idea of who’s visiting who and where,” Burkle said. “Those networks tell us a lot about how healthy the community is and how it might respond to further disturbances like fire and other environmental changes.”

Burkle said she deliberately chose areas that are quite different in terms of altitude, moisture and plantscapes, because she ultimately wants to help land managers know how to recover from a catastrophic event like wildfire.

“Local managers do not want an average suggestion for the whole state,” she said. “They want to know what to do in their forest.”

Burkle has other projects in the hopper, including a collaboration with Justin Runyon of the U.S. Forest Service that examines how different components of climate change—such as temperature, drought and carbon dioxide levels—affect plant traits that attract pollinators, such as smell.

“I think people are starting to understand that there are more than just honeybees. And honeybees are incredibly important for our agricultural system,” Burkle said. “They also make us very vulnerable…we’re relying on this one species to do all this work for us. We’ve shown that native bees are also incredibly important, not just for crop pollination but also influencing the behavior of honeybees to be better pollinators.”

Sweet collaboration

Amy Dolan, a graduate student in entomology, also studies wild bees and a unique symbiosis that she believes has never been studied before: the interaction between bees and huckleberries.

“Huckleberries are not just economically important to Montana,” said Dolan. “They’re culturally important and they’re ecologically important.”

Huckleberries are unique in that they really can’t be cultivated, said Dolan. Montanans who make a living out of collecting the berries for jams, syrups and ice cream must seek them out in Montana forests. Wild bumblebees pollinate huckleberries by sonicating them….buzzing the flowers closely so that the pollen is jiggled out.

Like Burkle and Delphia, Dolan noted that no accurate records exist of what and where bees are found in Montana, nor in what numbers.

“We look at soil and sunlight and temperature,” she said. “But I think the insects are a big piece of the puzzle we seem to have overlooked.”

Dolan set up shop in the Cabinet Mountains of far northwestern Montana, near Libby. Working in tandem with grizzly bear researchers, she netted and observed insects pollinating huckleberry patches.

“If something were to happen that the huckleberries started to decline and impact people, that would be a big deal. But we can’t tell if things are declining if we don’t have baseline data,” Dolan said.

Dolan, who is advised by MSU entomologist and beetle expert Michael Ivie, also hopes her data can contribute to the Montana Entomology Collection housed at MSU’s Marsh Lab. Ivie is
the curator of the collection, and some of the specimens date back more than a century.

“People are understanding that it’s
not just the honeybees that are important pollinators; there are a lot of other bees that have important pollination services,” she said.

Bee detection

Jerry Bromenshenk, an MSU alumnus and recently retired University of Montana professor, was a pioneer in using bees as environmental detectors, according to David Baumbauer.

More than 30 years ago, Bromenshenk began using honeybees to assess whether pollutants were coming out of the coal-fired power plant at Colstrip. Because bees collect pollen from the area surrounding their hives, researchers could analyze the pollen in the hive and see if heavy metals were present, an indicator of the overall atmospheric conditions.

“It was kind of a neat way of having the bees do the sampling for you and you could get some idea on the emissions from the stack—how far they went,” Baumbauer said.

In 2005, Bromenshenk coauthored an academic paper with MSU engineer and optical science expert Joe Shaw and other collaborators from MSU, UM and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association on the possibility of using bees to detect land mines. The scientists went on to develop and patent new laser sensor technology specifically for detecting bees and other insects.

“Bees do not cause mines to explode, do not require a handler, and can be trained more rapidly than dogs,” the authors wrote, citing a strategy that trained bees to seek out 2,4-dinitrotoluene (DNT), a chemical found in most land mines, by first conditioning the bees to associate the scent of DNT with a sugar reward. The researchers then used a lidar beam to detect areas where bees spent the most time—an association presumably linked to the presence of DNT, or land mines.

Another MSU project investigated whether bees could be trained to indicate a tracer gas associated with possible leaks from carbon sequestration.

Baumbauer trained some of the engineers and optical experts to be beekeepers. Shaw said his group used the training to develop a handheld thermal imaging device that could detect heat coming out of a colony, thus helping beekeepers assess hive health without opening up an overwintering box. MSU is still looking for a company to license the device.

“[The projects were] pretty cool and it was fun because you were working with engineers and they have a whole different approach as to how systems work,” Baumbauer said. “Sometimes it works with biology and sometimes it doesn’t. It was very, very interesting.”

Spelling bees

While bees are an accessible insect—even small children can identify them—the threat of CCD and the resulting research may be the lens that ensures the future existence of bees and their importance to the environment, Baumbauer believes.

“If anything good comes out of CCD, it’s that people are more aware of this relationship between insects and their food and the fate of things we put in our environment and what their legacy is,” Baumbauer said. “If we get more people growing flowers and vegetables and having native bee houses in their backyard and just being a little more astute on pollinator stewardship, I think it would have positive effects rippling out as far as good things on the environment.” ■