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tomatoplantsstandin formationinsideagreenhousein

Willcox,Arizona.Greenstemspokefromcoconut-fiberblocks,reachingtowardtheglass-

panedsky.Lab-coatedtechniciansonelevatedelectriccartsmeticulouslyprunethecrop.

EurofreshFarmsharvests130million poundsof

tomatoesa year from theseperfect plants,grown on 311acresin buildings outfittedwith miles of pipe to ferry water and a network of steelwire aboveto capturethe climbing vines.The ripen- ing fruit smells faintly artificial, all sweetness and no soil. But there is a natural presencehere too. It revealsitselfasa low hum thatsettlesdeepinside the ears:a thousand bumblebeeshard at work. To reproduce,most flowering plants depend on a third party to transfer pollen between their maleand femaleparts.Somerequireextra encouragementto give up that golden dust. The tomato flower, for example, needs a vio- lent shake,a vibration roughly equivalentto 30 times the pull of Eartht gravity,explains Arizona entomologistStephenBuchmann,international coordinator of the Pollinator Partnership. "The scaleis differentj' he says, "but considerthat fighter pilots usuallyblack out afterhalf a min- ute at four to six g's." Growers havetried numerous waysto rattle pollen from tomato blossoms.They've used shakingtables,air blowers,blastsof sound,and vibrators laboriously applied by hand to each bloom cluster.But the tool of choice in today's greenhouses?The humble bumblebee.Give a bee accessto a tomato flower, and she'll glom on and quiver fiercelyasshefeeds,Ietting loose a cloud of pollen that hits the plantt stigma(the tip of the female anatomy) and also sticks to the bee'sfuzzybody.Shethen ferriesthoseparticles to the r-rextblossorn.It'.scalledbuzzpollination, lundit worl<slikea clrlrrn.

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first appeared130million yearsago.As for bees, scientistshave identified some 20,000distinct speciesso far,and about one-fifth ofthose pol- linate flowers in the United States.Humming- birds,butterflies,moths,wasps,andantsarealso up to the task.Snailsand slugssmearpollen as they slideover flower clusters.Mosquitoescar- ry pollen for batchesof orchids, and bats,with diversemuzzlesand tonguesadaptedto tap dif- ferently shapedblossoms,move pollen for 360 plantsin the Americas alone. Evennonflying mammals do their part: sugar- loving opossums,somerain forestmonkeys,and lemurs in Madagascar,all with nimble hands that tear open flower stalksand furry coatsto which pollen sticks.Most surprising, someliz- ards,such asgeckosand skinks, lap up nectar

and pollen and then transport the stuffon their facesand feet asthey forage onward. Flowering plants-there are more than 240,000speciesof them-have evolvedin step with their pollinators,using sweetscentsand bright colorsto lure with the promise of a meal. Flower receptacles,like the animals' transport systems,are wonderfully varied, from tubes and gullets to flaps,brushes,and spurs.Match the right animal and plant parts-long tongue poked into narrow tube,furry facepressedinto

stickybrush-and

All that messydiversity,unfortunately,is not well suitedto the monocropsand mega-yieldsof modern commercial farmers.Bef<rrefarms got so big, saysconservationbiolclgistClairc I(rc- nrcnof thc UrriversityoI Oirlifirrtrirr,l]crl<clcy, "wc tlirlrr'llrrrvt'lo nllulilll('pollirrirlols. 'llrt'y wcrt' itll :rtorrnrllrt'i,rusr,ol Ilrt.rlivt'r's(.l,ln(ls(.ll)(,s.

pollen is soon on its way.

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U.S. CROP POLLINATION

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WHAT POLLEN IS WORTH Pollinators,especiallybees, makethe globalgardengrow.

Insect pollination isworth more than$200 billionworldwioe. Vegetables,fruits,oils,and some nuts,the biggestcontributorsto that total value,are alsothe mosi vulnerableto insectdeclines. Of lessconcern:cereals,sugars, roots.and tubers.which self-pollinateor relyon wind.

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sincepeoplebegantrucking them up and down highwaysin the 1950s.Now at leasta hundred commercialcropsin the U.S.relyalmostentirely on managedhoneybees,which beekeepersraise and rent out to tend to big farms.And although other speciesof bees-mason bees,for exam- ple-are five to ten times more eficient on a per- beebasisatpollinating certainfruits,honeybees havebiggercolonies(30,000 or more beesper hive),forageoverlonger distances,and tolerate managementand movementbetterthan m-ost insects.They'renot picky-they'll spend their time on almost any crop. Itt tricky to calculate what their work istruly worth; someeconomists put it at more than $200billion globally a year. Industrial-scalefarming, however,may be wearing down the system. Honeybeeshave suffereddiseasesand parasiteinfestations for

aslong asthey'vebeen managed,but in 20A6 came an extremeblow. In the U.S.and other countries,beesin massivenumbersbeganto disappearover the winter. Beekeeperswould lift the lid of a hive to find only the queen and a few stragglers,the worker beesgone.In the U.S.athird to half of all hivescrashed;somebee- keepersreported colony lossesnear 90 percent. The mysteriousculprit was named colony col- lapsedisorder(CCD), and it remainsan annual menace-and an enigma. When CCD first hit, many people, from agronomiststo the public, assumedthat our slatheringof chemicalson agricultural fieldswas to blame.Indeed,says |effPettis of the USDA Bee ResearchLaboratorv, "we do find more diseasein beesthat havebeenexposedto pesticides,even at low levelsl'But CCD likelv involvesmultiole

HONEYBEEHEALTH ln2O1O,scientistsreporteda possiblecauseofcolonycollapsedisorder (CCD), therapiddie-offof millionsof honeybeesinmanycountriessince2006.Geneticstudiespointedto a particularinsectvirus andfungusat worktogether.Butthosefindingshavecomeunderdebate,anddefinitiveconclusions remainelusive. "CCD islikelya complexinteraction,"saystheUSDA'sJeffPettis. "But theroleofthispair of pathogensisstillanopenquestion."Meanwhile,thebloodsuckingVarroamite(reddotsbelow),also implicatedinCCD,remainshoneybees'mostdevastatingpestworldwide.

U,S. honeybee colonies (in millions)

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stressors.Poor nutrition andchemicalexposure, for instance,might pummel a bee'.simmunities beforea virus finishesthe insectoff. Itt hard to teaseapart factorsand outcomes, Pettissays.New studiesrevealthat fungicides- not previouslythought toxic to bees-can inter- fere with microbes that break down pollen in the insects'guts,affectingnutrient absorption and thus long-term health and longevity.Some findings pointed to viral and fungal pathogens working together(see box, left). "I only wish we had a singleagentcausingall the declinesl'pettis says. "That would make our work much easier." As managedbeestake a hit, so too do wild pollinators,whosework pollinating U.S.cropsis

worth about three billion dollars annualiy.Some notablebumbiebeespeciesarerarely seenany- more,with othersbecomingincreasinglyscarce. But few of the scoresof native pollinators, Iess visibleand lessvaluedthan the big-money hon- eybees,havebeenmonitored long term. What to do? Give pollinators more of what they need and lessof what they dont, and ease the burden on managedbeesby letting native animalsdo their part, sayscientists.Reduced relianceon chemicalsin agriculture is part of the solution,saysBuchmann,sinceall animalsneed their immune systemsin top shapeto combat pathogensin theirenvironment. Meanwhile,habitatlossand alteration,he says, areevenmore of a menaceto poliinatorsthan pathogens.Claire Kremen encouragesfarmers to cultivate the flora surrounding farmland to help solve habitat problems. "You can't move the farml' shesays, "but you candiversify what growsin itsvicinity: alongroads,evenin tractor yardsi' Planting hedgerowsand patchesof native flowersthat bloom at different times and seed-

ing fields with multiple

monocrops "not only is better for nativepol- linators,but it'sjust betteragriculturel'shesays. Pesticide-freewildflower havens,addsBuch-

mann, would alsobolsterpopuiations of useful insectssuchasblueorchardbees-an extremely effectivepollinator of almondsin Calilornia. Native bumblebeesin Wisconsin aren't asfin- icky about cold, wet weather ashoneybees,so

plant speciesrather than

managingthe landscapefor their bene{itwould mean more buzzin the orchards in early spring. Even in the busiestcities,pollinators can be coddled with a little creativity. Recentstudies show that beesoff the farm have a healthier and more varied diet than those making the commercial-crop rounds. Rooftop beehivesin

New York City help urban gardensand Central Park foliage flourish. And ecologistsare now transforming part of what was once a 2,200- acre landfill on StatenIsiand into a flowering meadowto givenativepollinatorsa sugarboost. It'sa fairly simple calculation.If theres habitat, they will come. Fortunatelytoo, "there are far more general- ist plants than specialistplants, so there'sa lot of redundancyin pollinationl'Buchmann says. "Even if one pollinator winks out, there areoften pretty good surrogatesleft to do the jobi' The key to keepingour gardensgrowing strong,he says, is letting that diversitythrive. Take away that variety, and we'll lose more than honey.Many flowering plants would disap- pear,and with them apples,peaches,pears,and

a host of other crops.Without pollinators thered be no raspberries,blueberries,or evenmilk on

your cereal(cows feedon bee-pollinatedalfalfa and clover).No coffeeor chocolate.No canola,

a biofuel crop. No lnore summer watermelon or Halloweenpumpkins. U.S.almond growers,who provide 80 percent of the world's crop, employ a third or more of the country'scomrnercialbee- hivesduring the growing season-a beeextrava- ganzathat'sbeen calledthe largestpollination eventon the planet.That too would frzz\e. "We wouldn't starvej'saysKremen.But with- out the birds and the bees(and the bats and the butterflies), what we eat, and even what we wear-pollinators, after all, give us some

of our cotton and flax-would

cropswhosepollen travelsby other means. "In

a sensej'shesays, "our liveswould be dictated by the wind." I

be limited to

lennifer S.Hollandisa seniorwriter for the magazine.Mark W.Mofrtt, a frequent contributor, is theauthoro;fAdventuresAmongAnts.

POLLTNATORS

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