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Neonicotinoids: euphoria then death for bees

Two papers published in the journal Nature earlier this week are causing quite a stir in the bee world. The first, “Seed coating with a neonicotinoid insecticide negatively affects wild bees” by Rundlof et al. is unique in that the authors were able to perform controlled field experiments. This is often difficult to do because neonicotinoids are so prevalent in the environment that finding “clean” fields is tough.

But these scientists, working in Sweden, were able to obtain sixteen test plots of oilseed rape (canola). In eight of the plots, the canola seeds were treated with a combination of Clothianidin and a non-systemic pyrethroid. The other eight fields were planted without the insecticide treatment.

Not surprisingly, the wild bees in the treated fields were severely affected by the insecticides. What amazed the researchers was the amount of disruption. They found reduced wild bee density, reduced solitary bee nesting, reduced bumble bee colony growth, and reduced bumble bee reproduction. According to lead author Maj Rundlof, less than half as many wild bees were found in the treated fields, and colonies of bumble bees failed to increase in weight. Oddly, the honey bee colonies in the test appeared normal.

In the second study, “Bees prefer foods containing neonicotinoid pesticides” by Sébastien C. Kessler et al, researchers found that bumble bees and honey bees were unable to taste neonicotinoids but consistently chose syrup containing neonicotinoids over syrup that didn’t. Why? Some scientists believe that the effect of eating neonicotinoids may produce a euphoria in the bee similar to the effect of nicotine in humans.

So, given a choice of flowers—some with the insecticide and some without—bees may prefer the treated flowers because they get a high, even though that choice increases their overall exposure to the toxic chemicals and may cause impairment and death. Sound familiar?

In my opinion, these papers confirm what we bee-lovers have always suspected, which is that wild bees will be far more affected by field-applied pesticides than managed honey bees. Managed honey bees, after all, can be moved out of a field at the close of pollination season, whereas the wild bees cannot leave.

When compared to honey bees, most wild species:

  • Are active (and reproduce) during a short season, not much longer than the flowering time of a crop like oilseed rape
  • Fly only short distances and so are limited in their food choices
  • Live in the soil where the contaminants remain active for long periods
  • Have small populations sizes so the loss of a few individuals is significant

How important are these wild bees? How much pollination do they actually do? The answer, I think, is that we don’t really know. But having studied wild bees in graduate school, having spent years watching them, photographing them, and learning to identify them, I believe we underestimate their importance. I also think honey bees get a lot of credit for the work done by wild bees.

Determining their value is difficult because of their size. When we think of wild bees, we tend to think of the monsters: orchard mason bees, bumble bees, carpenter bees, even some of the diggers and miners. But many of the wild bees are so small that most people would never notice them. Some the size of fruit flies look like tiny splinters on a flower or a speck of dirt. Because they are so small and fast, it is hard to see what they are doing. It’s even hard to do controlled studies because they are difficult to screen out of a field or test plot.

But work? These little ones work themselves silly giving us flowers and trees, herbs, seeds, crops, medicinal plants and more.

If we studied only those living things that are easy to see—eliminating molds, viruses, bacteria, and single-celled plants and animal—we wouldn’t have a very good idea of how the world works. Similarly, if we study only the bees that are easy to see, we get a skewed view of how pollination works.

For example, I think a little sweat bee, Halictus rubicundus, may be one of North America’s premier pollinators. Found in all 50 states and most provinces, it seems to be everywhere, but no one has even bothered to give it a common name. When you walk through a field, they scatter like tiny flies, but work side-by-side with the recognized pollinators like honey bees and bumble bees.

Only after we eliminate them—along with the many other silent pollinators—will we know how valuable they were. When that happens, we will be sorry. We will wonder what was ever going on inside our maximum-crop-yield, perfect-produce, chemical-industry-protecting little brains. Of this, I am sure.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

 Halictus-rubicundus-male-on-mint.jpg
Halictus rubicundus are working hard all around us. This is a male on a chocolate mint. © Rusty Burlew.

How to build a slatted rack

I never go without a slatted rack in my beehives, and I extoll the virtues of them every chance I get. David Manning, a beekeeper in Missouri, makes some seriously good-looking slatted racks that you can see in the photos below. For those of you who are handy in the woodshop, David has graciously shared his method in the following write-up.

Thank you, David, for taking the time to share with us.

Materials List

(2) ¾” x 2¼”x 19⅛” for side boards
(2) ¾” x 2¼” x 16¾” for front and back board
(1) ¾” x 4¼”x 15¼” for shelf at front of rack
(10) ¾” x ¾” x 14” slats

Cutting dados on pieces

  1. On the ends of both 2¼” boards cut a dado ⅜” x ¾”. These front and back boards will be nailed to the end of the side boards making the side dimension a full 19⅞”.
  2. On the two front and back pieces cut a dado ¼” from the top of the 2¼” board. The dado needs to be ¾” wide by ¼” deep.
  3. On one of the 15¼” sides of the shelf board cut a ⅜” dado ½” deep the full length of the board, making sure that you have 3/16” on each side of the dado. One end of the slats will fit in this dado.
  4. On the two side boards where the shelf will set in a dado, a ¼” x ¾” dado will need to be cut ¼” from the top of the board the width of the shelf board – 4.0 inches. There are two ways of accomplishing this, dado past the 4 inch so that you have a 4 inch x ¼” dado cut with the curved cut beyond the cut. The second way is to cut the dado 4 inch long and using a chisel, remove the part of the dado that needs to be cleaned out in order to have a full 4 inches.
  5. On one end of the ¾” x ¾” x 14” slats, set up a dado blade to cut a 3/16” wide x ½” deep area from opposite sides of the same end of the slat. This should leave a joint on the end of the slat that has a centered ⅜” x ½” area. This is the end that will fit in the ⅜” x ½ “deep dado on the shelf board. The other end of the slat stays ¾” x ¾” and fits in the ¾” dado in the back 2¼” board.

Spacing of the slats in the frame

The purpose of this slatted rack is to have the 10 slats line up with the bottom of each frame in the brood super. To achieve this, the two end slats, #1 and #10, those closest to the sides, need to be spaced so that there is a 5/16” space between the slats and the side board. The remaining 8 slats will have an 11/16” space between each of them.

Securing the slats to the shelf board and the back board

  1. Using Titebond III Waterproof wood glue put glue on edges of boards that will come in contact with another board. In other words, any where there is a dado.
  2. Using 5/8” brads or brad nailer with 5/8” brads or staples, place the brad 5/16” from the edge of the shelf board where the slats mate with the board.
  3. On the outside of the back board draw a line 5/8” line all the way across the length of the back. Place a 1½” brad on the line and centered on a slat that has been correctly spaced.

If your brads are countersunk, on the outside of the frame, fill with wood putty, sand, and then put several coats of sanding sealer on the outside of the assembly that will be exposed to the weather and on the top and bottom edge of the outside frame.

Apply primer and several coats of good exterior paint. I use an exterior paint that the primer and paint are combined.

David Manning
Sparta, Missouri

For more on slatted racks, see:

How to use a slatted rack

Slatted racks: how should the slats be arranged?

Hive five: the best ventilation equipment

 

Top-view-of-slatted-rack-David-Manning
The top of the slatted rack is the shallow side. © David Manning.
Bottom-view-of-slatted-rack-David-Manning
The bottom side of the slatted rack is the deep side. © David Manning.
Rack-positioned-on-hive-David-Manning
The end of the slatted rack with the crosswise shelf goes on the front of the hive, above the entrance. © David Manning.
Homebuilt-hive-and-stand-David-Manning
A complete hive with the slatted rack in place. © David Manning.
Active-bees-David-Manning
The bees are happy with it. © David Manning.

 

Notice Board . . .

In case you missed it: A Song of the Bees

Homes for the underground majority

Most of us who want to attract native bees to our yards and gardens do so by providing housing in the form of tubes, straws, hollow reeds, or drilled wood. While there is nothing wrong with this, the irony is that fully 70%—or nearly three-quarters—of all bee species live underground. Above ground cavities are completely useless to most bees.

So, if we really want to attract a variety of bees, we need to prepare space for the ground-dwellers. This is not an easy task, which is why it is frequently overlooked.

Many people don’t have land available for bee habitat. Some folks live in apartments, condos, or subdivisions where it is easy to have a few drinking straws on the porch but impossible to have a patch of bare earth. Others live in areas where bare earth is considered an eyesore. Still others live where the soil is mostly covered in asphalt and concrete. Nevertheless, there are things we can do.

What the bees need

Ground-dwelling bees like sandy soil, such as sandy loam, that is damp but not wet. It should be bare—free of plants and their annoying roots. It should be gently sloped, about 30 degrees is nice, and should face south or southeast in a sunny location. In addition, it should not be covered with mulch of any type. But here is the kicker—something that’s easy to forget: it must remain undisturbed nearly all year.

Why undisturbed? Because unlike honey bees, most native bees hibernate underground for about ten months of the year. They spend this time as a pupa or an adult, depending on the individual species. If we disturb their nests by tilling, disking, or shoveling the soil, we kill the bees.

How to do it

Researchers have found that even small bare patches can be useful for bees. While some native bees nest in large aggregations containing thousands of nesting holes, others build off by themselves wherever they find a good spot.

You can build “scrapes,” which are simply patches of earth with the plant life scraped free. You can build forms out of wood or brick, and fill them with sandy loam sloped toward the sun. Or you can truck in soil and just mound it in a sunny location.

Even a flower pot can be used. So if you live in condo with a balcony, for example, you could have several pots with flowers and one with bare soil that you water occasionally. Dampness is necessary for the bee tunnels to maintain their shape; if the soil gets too dry, the tunnels may collapse.

The sandy loam should be about 50 to 70% sand. Since you are not growing plants in it, the percentages of clay, silt, and organic matter are not too important. To make loam for bees, in most cases you can just take your native soil and mix it with an equal amount of sand.

When will they come?

In a study in Oxfordshire UK, where they dug four 3 x 5 m nesting plots, solitary bees nested in the first year. During the next three years, 80 different species of solitary bees and wasps colonized the plots [1]. Other similar experiments in Europe and Oregon have produced nests during the first one to three years.

Give it a try

If you decide to build an underground bee bed, take some photos and let us know what you did. This is new territory for most of us, so any hints, suggestions, or bee stories would be especially welcome.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite


[1] Gregory S. & Wright I. (2005) “Creation of patches of bare ground to enhance the habitat of ground-nesting bees and wasps at Shotover Hill, Oxfordshire, England.” Conservation Evidence, 2, 139-141.

 

Alkali-beds-underground-irrigation
This large managed alkali bee bed is in Touchet, WA. The pipes you see are for underground irrigation that keeps the soil slightly moist. The white on the soil surface is salt, the requirement that gives alkali bees their name. The bees that live in the bed pollinate the alfalfa fields that you see in the background. © Rusty Burlew.
Sandbox-for-bees
This tiny sandbox for bees is at Oregon State University. The soil was taken from the university golf course where a large natural bee bed was discovered in a bunker. © Rusty Burlew.
Bee-scrape
Remember: sunny, south-facing, gently sloping, sandy loam, no vegetation, slightly damp, no mulch, leave undisturbed.

It’s time for pollinator habitat

There’s a place in front of my top-bar hive where I back my truck and turn around. I was doing that yesterday, having just retrieved a load of tree seedlings, when I saw the strangest sight in the mirror. Strange for this time of year, at least—a cloud, dark as chocolate, spinning above the hive.

I don’t ever remember seeing so many airborne bees on a February day. The front of the hive was coated and the air above was thick. The temperature had spiked to near 60 and the bees careened all around as I watched, totally fascinated.

What came to mind as I lingered near the hive was all the partly made pollinator domiciles I have in bits and pieces scattered about the house, the shed, the barn. These are projects I began last fall, thinking I had forever to get them done because spring was so far, far away.

So besides planting all those seedlings, my plan for the weekend includes drilling holes, cutting reeds and elder stems, and completing my native bee habitat. I also have to fill the bumble bee houses with bird nests I saved from last year.

This post serves as a reminder that, even up here in Washington, the native bees are on their way. Some of the bumble bee queens emerge as early as February and start patrolling the ground looking for vacant rodent holes. Many natives begin foraging much earlier than honey bees, so now is the time to sweep the welcome mat, plant some flowers, and beehold.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Elder-stems
Elder stems are popular bee habitat. The pith is soft, so the bees can dig a hole of the perfect diameter. © Rusty Burlew