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Pollinators in peril Saving South Mountain's Pollinators

According to the Penn State University Center for Pollinator Research, beekeepers in the United States have been losing about 30 percent of their colonies every year for the past decade. These trends are reflected in the population of wild bees as well, with a number of species now listed as threatened or endangered.

pollinators in South mountain

Dave Biddinger has been doing research on the Japanese horn-faced bee, a mason bee species introduced more than 30 years ago that is commonly used for commercial apple pollination in Japan.

In the South Mountain region, pollinators play a crucial role in the agriculture industry. Farmers rely on pollinators, primarily wild and domesticated bees, to pollinate their crops during vital periods of growth. Honey bees have been a staple pollinator on farms and orchards since the dawn of agriculture, according to research published in Nature, an international science journal.

Honey bees in particular are seen as valuable contributors to the agriculture industry, with colonies being shipped across the nation throughout the year for pollination during growing seasons. However, it just so happens that honey bees are at the forefront of bee decline.

U.S. agricultural statistics show a honey bee decline from about 6 million hives in 1947 to 2.4 million hives in 2008, a 60 percent reduction in just over 60 years.

To combat this decline in the abundance of available honey bee colonies, orchards and farms in the South Mountain area have begun taking advantage of wild bees to ease the reliance on honey bee pollination.

"I've actually collected 268 species of bees from orchards in Adams County alone," said Dave Biddinger, a tree fruit research entomologist based at the Penn State Fruit Research and Extension Center in Biglerville. "Relying on wild pollinators really works. Over half of our apple growers don't use honey bees anymore for apples."

If the numbers of these wild bees and other wild pollinators start to dwindle, Biddinger says farmers will be forced to return to using the already declining population of honey bees for pollination, which is not optimal for apple orchard pollination. Biddinger explained that the growing season for apples is too early for honey bees to be effective, but later in the year when their populations are built up, honey bees can be effective in pollinating other crops such as squash.

But as long as we take care of the flora and landscape surrounding these orchards, Biddinger says we should not have too much to worry about for the time being.

"As long as we keep fairly small orchards that are surrounded by good habitat, we'll be okay," Biddinger said. "Relying on wild pollinators doesn't work well when you've got no habitat for the bees to nest. In Pennsylvania, our orchards are smaller and on the sides of mountains, so they tend to be surrounded by a lot of wooded areas."

What is killing the honey bees?

Attacks by parasites, pesticide use, climate change, loss of the natural abundance of flora due to increased land use and habitat destruction are a few of the causes researchers have associated with worldwide honey bee population decline.

For those in the agriculture industry and for consumers who love their fresh produce, these declines are for concern. Nearly 75 percent of major food crops, including fruits, vegetables and nuts, depend on honey bees and other pollinators. In Pennsylvania alone, these crops contribute $260 million to the economy annually.

Beekeepers in Pennsylvania produce around 600 tons of honey annually and honey bee pollination is valued at about $60 million annually, according to the Pennsylvania State Beekeepers Association

According to PSU's Center for Pollinator Research, a major factor contributing to the decline in bee colonies is poor nutrition. Poor nutrition can make bees more susceptible to parasites and pathogens that infect and destroy colonies. These deficiencies in colonies can be caused by the overcrowding of colonies, the use of bees to pollinate crops with low nutritional value and the reduced abundance of flowering plant species in the area surrounding the colonies' nests.

Just like for humans, a bee's diet is incredibly important to its health. Bees acquire their sugars from nectar and their proteins, fats and micronutrients from pollen. This means that they must gather pollen and nectar from a wide range of species to balance their diets.

How can you help?

Brandon Hoover, the director of sustainability at Messiah College, says one of the biggest ways that people can help the bees is through their landscaping.

"We have kind of landscaped our suburban environments away from bee habitats. We plant these beautiful flowers, but bees don't like hydrangea, they don't like azaleas. The majority of our landscaping is not promoting bee colonies," Hoover said. "There are beautiful flowers that do promote bee health, and that would be my biggest encouragement — to find landscaping that is going to be both beautiful and good for bees."

Hoover suggests planting flowers such as coneflower, milkweed, mountain mint (or any form of mint) and salvia.

Milkweed, coneflower, mint, and salvia are just a few examples of plants which pollinators enjoy.

"I think part of the reason we've unintentionally or intentionally pushed bees out of our landscape is that people don't want bees around," Hoover said, "They fear bees and they're like, 'I don't want to get stung,' and I get that, especially for people who might be allergic, but bees are so unlikely to sting unless they feel threatened."

Even taking a small strip of your lawn and planting pollinator-friendly flowers and other flora will provide some shelter and aid to the pollinators buzzing around in your area, according to Hoover.

"If you're able to plant a small pollinator garden somewhere on your property, especially in South Mountain where there are quite a few large property owners. Just take a small strip of lawn and plant some pollinator mix. Those kinds of things encourage habitat growth," Hoover said. "If bees have a strong habitat, they can withstand a lot, but if they don't have a strong habitat, they're not going to be healthy. It's not unlike humans."

"If bees have a strong habitat, they can withstand a lot. But if they don't have a strong habitat, they're not going to be healthy. It's not unlike humans," says Brandon Hoover, director of sustainability at Messiah College.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has put together a simple seven-step process to building a pollinator garden for your backyard, school, church, business or even a pot on the front steps of your house. Read more about planting a pollinator garden here.

For more information on pollinator gardens and for help finding native host plants, consider contacting the Master Gardeners at your local Penn State Extension office or go to the Pennsylvania Native Plant Society website for a resource list.

This project was financed in part by a grant from the Community Conservation Partnerships Program, Environmental Stewardship Fund, under the administration of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Bureau of Recreation and Conservation. The South Mountain Partnership is an alliance of organizations working to preserve and enhance the cultural and natural assets of the South Mountain Landscape in Central Pennsylvania. To learn more about the Partnership, please visit www.southmountainpartnership.org.

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