Padilla is raising these honeybees for researchers like Maryann Frazier, who is studying the effects of pesticides on honeybees. But she says that as much as we rely on honeybees, we almost can’t even think of them as just a species anymore. They’ve become a system — a technology — that we literally pack in boxes, load onto semitrailers and ship all over the country to do work for us.
“The first crop to be pollinated in the spring is almonds,” Frazier says. “And about a third of the colonies in the United States are trucked out to California to pollinate one crop. And then they’ll come back to do apples and cherries and stone fruit, mostly in Pennsylvania and New York. Then they’ll go up to Maine and pollinate blueberries; then, Massachusetts and pollinate cranberries. And then they’ll come south and pollinate pumpkins and squash. It is a huge, huge business.”
But it’s a business that’s wearing honeybees out. A combination of diseases, stress, parasites, pesticides and colony collapse disorder — a mysterious phenomenon that scientists still don’t understand — has taken its toll on honeybees. And that could put our own species in a tight spot. Honeybees pollinate about a third of the crops in the U.S.: That’s about $15 billion of the food economy.
So is it time to panic? Not necessarily. Other researchers at Penn State are now investigating whether other bees — unsung bees — could start picking up some of the slack.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Lou Blouin