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December 16, 2005

Honey bees feel sting of deadly mite



September 20th, 2005

Bumblebee threatens Aust mainland
PM - Tuesday, 20 September , 2005 18:52:44
Reporter: Tim Jeanes
MARK COLVIN: The European bumblebee – beloved of English and American poets from Walt Whitman to Robert Graves – is, in Australia, nothing but a pest. Now there are fears that it could eventually prove as damaging to Australia's environment as the cane toad. The bumblebee has quickly spread across Tasmania, where it's out-competing other species. Now scientists say it's probably only a matter of time before the bumblebee arrives on the mainland, with dire consequences.

Tim Jeanes reports from Hobart.

(sound of bumblebees buzzing)

TIM JEANES: With their fat, colourful bodies, they're the cute and cuddly focus of many children's books and toys.
But the European bumblebee is far from friendly when it comes to the environment, says entomologist Dr Peter McQuillan from the University of Tasmania.

PETER MCQUILLAN: Environmentally they're as potentially damaging as some of the more familiar animals like cane toads, for example. I think they'll be remembered perhaps 50 years from now as one of the unfortunate introductions into Australia.

TIM JEANES: Bumblebees have now spread across the whole of Tasmania, since arriving by an unknown source 10 years ago.

Dr McQuillan says it's probably only a matter of time before they make it to the mainland, either accidentally through travel or trade, or deliberately by horticulturalists who believe bumblebees can help certain kinds of glasshouse pollination.
While research is still relatively scant, Dr McQuillan says damaging evidence is already emerging.

PETER MCQUILLAN: There's been some documentation in Tasmania that they might interact with swift parrots, which are an important pollinator of blue gums, for example – the swift parrot itself is an endangered species. So through competition with many, many species, they're like to result in these fairly unfortunate environmental outcomes.

TIM JEANES: Australia's mainland does already have introduced honeybees, but pollination ecologist Saul Cunningham from the CSIRO says bumblebees pose a special threat.

SAUL CUNNINGHAM: The really important thing to understand is that these bumblebees are quite different to the feral honeybee that's already established in Australia, because they have a behaviour called buzz pollination – they grab onto the flower, they buzz their wing muscles and they shake the pollen out.
Now, this is something that the feral European honeybee hasn't been able to do. So plants that are adapted to that kind of pollination aren't currently being affected by the feral honeybee, but will be affected when the buzz-pollinating bumblebee comes to Australia.

TIM JEANES: Then there's the possibility of disastrous new weed problems.

SAUL CUNNINGHAM: There's a couple of examples that we have already concern about. One is Scotch Broom, which is an invasive weed in Australia, especially south-eastern Australia – it's a real cost to pastoralists, and we know that that's adapted to pollination by bumblebees.
We also know that bumblebees are especially good at pollinating relatives of potatoes and tomatoes, and that includes Deadly Nightshade.

TIM JEANES: And it doesn't get any better when it comes to humans, with Peter McQuillan saying people who are not allergic to honeybees could well have problems with bumblebees.

PETER MCQUILLAN: They are quite aggressive stingers if they're threatened. The bees will in fact defend their nests quite aggressively. Unlike honeybees they can sting repeatedly, they don't have a barb on their sting, so they can certainly hit you many times.
The profile of proteins in their venom differs somewhat from honeybees, so different individuals could become quite allergic to them.

TIM JEANES: So this is not good news for the mainland?

PETER MCQUILLAN: I think when you look at the threat they represent to people, coupled with the fact that they are quite environmentally damaging, and the fact that they're likely to displace native pollinators, I think in general they're a bit of a disaster.

MARK COLVIN: Entomologist Dr Peter McQuillan ending that report from Tim Jeanes.

February 12th, 2004

BCM completes honey bee genome sequence

HOUSTON--(Jan. 7, 2004)--The Human Genome Sequencing Center at Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) in Houston announced today the assembly of the first draft sequence of the genome of the honey bee, Apis mellifera. For the first time researchers can access the majority of the genes that make up this organism.

The honey bee now joins the fruit fly and mosquito as an insect with a genome sequence. The honey bee is important in the agricultural community as a producer of honey and for pollination. It is also a model organism for studying human health issues including immunity, allergic reaction, antibiotic resistance, development, mental health, longevity and diseases of the X chromosome. In addition, biologists are interested in the honey bee's social instincts and behavioral traits.

"The honey bee project thrusts genomics into a new branch of the insect world with implications for agriculture, health, and behavioral research," said Dr. George Weinstock, co-director of the genome center at BCM.

The honey bee sequence will also be very useful for comparative studies in which scientists examine the differences and similarities between DNA sequences of various species to find genes and regulatory regions within DNA.

The project began in December 2001 when four bee researchers - Danny Weaver, Gene Robinson, Hugh Robertson and Spencer Johnston - approached the BCM group with a proposal for the project. Subsequently, the project was funded with approximately $6.9 million from the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) and $750,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Sequencing began in early 2003.

"We recognized the potential of this genome project immediately," said Dr. Richard Gibbs, director of the BCM genome center. "It is less than one-tenth the size of the human sequence, but is packed with information. It has the potential to positively influence initiatives in both human health and agriculture."

The sequence information can now be used to study the molecular basis of specific traits in the honey bees. The data will be the basis of a comparison with sequence from the Africanized honey bee strains that have invaded the southern areas of the United States.

The current genome assembly was generated by the whole genome shotgun approach, first used for the fruit fly. Data from bacterial artificial chromosome clones will be added for the next release, early in 2004. The sequence results are available on both the Baylor Human Genome Sequencing Center and the public 'GenBank' websites.

NHGRI Director Dr. Francis S. Collins said, "We are excited that researchers around the world now have free and ready access to a first draft of the honey bee genome. This achievement lays the foundation for new genomic studies with benefits ranging all the way from the produce stand to the medical clinic."

Baylor College of Medicine, One Baylor Plaza, Houston, TX 77030 Phone: 713-798-4712 Fax: (713) 798-3692 E-Mail -

Copyright 1998-2003 Baylor College of Medicine. All Rights Reserved.

September 30th, 2003


There have been two national initiatives that have to do with pollination and pollinators in Canada in the last few months. The Canadian Pollination Initiative (provisional name) has been started by Laurence Packer and Peter Kevan. At present, expressions of interest have been received from coast to coast to coast (3 oceans). The first initiative has been an electronic mail list of Canadian botanists, zoologists and ecologists with interests in pollination. From that initiative has come the submission of a letter of intent to submit a Network Grant Proposal to the Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council of Canada. That resulted in an invitation to submit a more detailed pre-proposal, presently in preparation.

Pollination relations are part of another national Network Grant Proposal on Microgenomics, now finalized and under consideration by NSERC. NAPPC wrote in support of this proposal. The main thrust for pollination is the potential use of genetic barcoding for identifications of bees, and other pollinating insects. An extant Network funded by the same programme at NSERC is the Biocontrol Network. The pollination component is the delivery of biocontrol agents by pollinators to flowers for suppression of pests, insects and fungi. Progress on this phase of biocontrol has been excellent with success against greenhouse thrips and tarnished plant bugs in greenhouses and the field. There is growing sensitivity for the need to consider pollination and pollinators by the Canadian Pest Management Regulatory Agency.

Research projects with concerns for pollination and conservation have been initiated in the Carolinian forest fragments in Ontario. A recent and extensive survey of old-field sites in Ontario sampled about 30 years ago shows no decline in bee diversity. Research on pollination of Eastern Prickly Pear at Point Pelee National Park, Ontario, has been concluded with good news that pollinators do not seem to be a problem with respect to conservation of this rare Canadian plant. In Nova Scotia, pollinator inventories are being made with respect to blueberry pollination and apple pollination. A recently accepted multi-authored paper (Zayed, Roubik, & Packer: Proceedings of the Royal Society) points out that large numbers of sterile diploid male bees being counted in surveys give misleading data about effective (breeding) population sizes. Research continues on protecting beekeeping from the ravages of diseases. Integrated pest management is the central theme involving breeding, soft-chemicals, and good husbandry.

International activities based in Canada are the formation of The International Network of Expertise for Sustainable Pollination (INESP). This is a forum of scientists who wish to provide to all comers the most up-to-date and accurate information they can. So far advice has been provided to NAPPC, government officers in many countries, and individuals from around the world. Interested people may visit the web site at Membership in INESP is open to anyone who wishes to help. The Task Force on Declining Pollination of the Species Survival Commission of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) has also been established and is starting to play a role in international issues in conservation. Again, membership is open to anyone interested is helping. Temporarily at (this current site), the plan is for it to be moved to IUCN headquarters in Switzerland shortly. Staff from SSC of IUCN visited Guelph and pollination conservation sites nearby this summer.

September 26th, 2003

Rajasthan: World's first bee catalogue launched in e-book format From The Hindu

Jodhpur: The world's first annotated catalogue on “Bee Species of Indian Region”, covering almost all countries known in oriental zoogeographical realm, was launched on the Internet today.

The catalogue, including taxonomical profiles of 1284 species under 92 genera and one yet to be named genus from the region was launched in an e-book format on the internet at www.Geocities.Com/beesind2 by leading taxonomist Dr Rajiv K Gupta, an Associate Professor of Zoology in Jai Narain Vyas University here.

"The e-book launched today is quite intensive with 2426 hyperlinks to open 178 visible files to download the full catalogue," Gupta said.

Gupta's another e-book “Bibiliography of The Bees of The World”, is already available on the net.

The web presentation providing complete knowledge on the various species of bees will provide information fundamentally needed by the entomologists all over the world.

More than 3,000 species of flowering plants depend on bees for pollination, he said adding, biologists world over are intensively working to establish distinct co-relationship between angiospermic evolution and bees.

August 8th, 2003

Large-Scale Study Shows Wildlife Corridors Benefit Fragmented Ecosystems
By Sarah Graham; September 17, 2002
Full article available at

Over the past few decades, wildlife areas have become increasingly fragmented. According to a report published online this week by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, wildlife corridors enhance crucial plant and animal interactions and significantly increase plant pollination. In their ambitious experiment, Joshua J. Tewksbury of the University of Florida and his colleagues created eight similar landscapes in the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, a federally protected research area. Each of the locations featured five patches of logged and burned ground cover surrounded by mature forest. To test the interactions between patches, the team planted male holly bushes in the middle site and female holly bushes in the four surrounding sites, one of which was connected to the central patch. Holly is not naturally present in the forest and the female plants cannot bear fruit unless they are pollinated. Compared to plants in unconnected patches, significantly more of those in the field linked to the central patch by a corridor bore fruit: the proportion of flowers that produced berries was 69 percent higher.

July 30th, 2003

From Summer 2003 Issue of Chicago Wilderness Magazine:

Native Bees: What's the Buzz?

July 28th, 2003

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

Biologists abuzz over bumblebees' decline
S.F. State student tries to determine what draws species to certain parks

July 16th, 2003

Protecting Plant Pollinators from 'Envirozine: This Week in Canada's Environment'

July 15th, 2003

February 15th, 2003

Modern Farming vs. Bees

From Monday, December 16, 2002; Page A10, Washington Post

Modern industrial farming techniques may, ironically, be contributing to a decline in wild bees, which could be playing a much greater role in pollinating crops, according to new research. Claire Kremen of Princeton University and colleagues spent two years studying watermelon farms in the Sacramento Valley in California, painstakingly measuring pollen grains deposited on watermelon flowers and counting the number of visits by bees. The number of native bees visiting dropped off dramatically at farms that were far from the bees' natural habitats, the researchers found. Also, farms that used large amounts of pesticides also were frequented less often by the bees, they found. Most large farms pay for beekeepers to bring captive, European bees to pollinate their crops. The new research indicates changes in farming techniques could increase reliance on wild bees. "Continued degradation of the agro-natural landscape will destroy this 'free' service, but conservation and restoration of bee habitat are potentially viable economic alternatives for reducing dependence on managed honey bees," the researchers wrote in a paper published online last week by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

November 28th, 2002

Large-Scale Study Shows Wildlife Corridors Benefit Fragmented Ecosystems

By Sarah Graham; September 17, 2002
Full article in Scientific American, at:

Over the past few decades, wildlife areas have become increasingly fragmented. According to a report published online this week by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, wildlife corridors enhance crucial plant and animal interactions and significantly increase plant pollination.

In their ambitious experiment, Joshua J. Tewksbury of the University of Florida and his colleagues created eight similar landscapes in the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, a federally protected research area. Each of the locations featured five patches of logged and burned ground cover surrounded by mature forest. To test the interactions between patches, the team planted male holly bushes in the middle site and female holly bushes in the four surrounding sites, one of which was connected to the central patch. Holly is not naturally present in the forest and the female plants cannot bear fruit unless they are pollinated. Compared to plants in unconnected patches, significantly more of those in the field linked to the central patch by a corridor bore fruit: the proportion of flowers that produced berries was 69 percent higher.

November 20th, 2002

Amazing Migrations: Pollinators on the Move

From October 2nd, 2002

With Halloween approaching, our minds turn towards pumpkins, candy apples, and evenings around the fire. This time of year sees a significant change in the seasons for the Northern Hemisphere. Indeed, Halloween originates from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. Marking one of the major turning points in the Celtic year, this celebration was to appease the gods so they would provide protection during the cold, dark months ahead. Of the flowers that graced our summer landscapes and gardens, only the fruits (such as pumpkins and apples) and seeds remain. But what of the pollinators that made these seeds possible? What happens during the fall and winter to the insects, birds, and other animals that pollinate flowers and enable them to produce fruit and seed?

Many bees and other insects die, leaving their eggs or pupae to lie dormant. These are tucked away in sheltered places—behind bark, under dead leaves, buried in soil—where they are protected from frost until the following spring, when life can continue. Others survive as adults, hidden in similarly sheltered spots. In contrast, some pollinator species undertake astonishing journeys to avoid unfavorable weather conditions. Monarch butterflies and rufous hummingbirds fly thousands of miles across North America. Long-nosed bats make shorter, but no less important, migrations over hundreds of miles of desert. For these migrants, national borders are irrelevant. Their journeys tie together the environment of our entire continent, for as they travel they pollinate flowers and contribute to long-distance gene transfer that helps to keep plant communities healthy.

Long distance travelers The monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), called mariposa monarca in Mexico, has arguably the most amazing migration of any creature. During the summer, monarchs may be found as far north as central Canada, but as summer fades millions of butterflies head south towards a few small patches of forest in the mountains of Michoacan, Mexico. Some fly more than three thousand miles, taking over two months to complete the journey. There are also many smaller overwintering sites on the coast of California, but the Mexican sites are the winter home for more than 99 percent of the population. Here they gather to overwinter in the cool, stable conditions provided by forests of oyamel fir (Abies religiosa). The journey north is undertaken in two generations. As they fly north from Mexico, the butterflies lay eggs on the flowering milkweed (several species of Asclepias). They may lay eggs for a thousand miles before dying. The generation born from these eggs will fly further north again as the milkweed flowers. The monarchs that reach Canada may be two generations removed from those that overwintered in Mexico.

An equally impressive trek is undertaken by rufous hummingbirds (Selasphorus rufus). These birds overwinter in central and northern Mexico—where local names include chupamirto dorado and colibri rufo—flying north to summer breeding territories along the Pacific coast states and provinces from northern California to Alaska. For some birds this is a journey of well over two thousand miles. Along the migration route, they stop at flower patches, lapping up carbohydrate-laden nectar and feasting on fat- and protein-rich insects that together provide energy for the exhaustive flight. Rufous hummingbirds are known to live for eight years. To have completed this annual migration so many times is a pretty astonishing achievement for a bird that weighs less than a nickel!

In the Southwest, deserts span the border between Mexico and the United States—as do the journeys of bats that pollinate the saguaro cacti and agave. The lesser long-nosed bats (Leptonycteris curasoae) overwinter in Mexican caves and migrate several hundred miles north into southern Arizona and New Mexico on the crest of a floral wave as warmer temperatures and longer days cause the deserts’ flowers to bloom.

Overwintering Sites and Nectar Corridors
To maintain the phenomena of migrating pollinators, we need to ensure the survival of three types of habitat: summer breeding areas, overwintering sites, and nectar corridors and rest stops along the way.

The text was prepared by Matthew Shepherd, Pollinator Program Director, The Xerces Society.
Contact the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign for more information.

November 7th, 2002

Which Apples Make the Best Dads?

From the October 23rd Issue of @Guelph

Pioneering research on apple paternity is believed to be the first of its kind in Canada

By Lori Bona Hunt

Prof. Brian Husband covers a pollinated apple blossom with a special bag to keep bees away, as part of his research on apple paternity.

It's amazing how much information a paternity test can provide, even when the father in question is an apple tree.

Paternity tests on apple seeds can reveal such intimate details as which apple varieties are the strongest "fathers," the father/mother combinations that produce the largest and best-tasting fruit, how far bees are moving pollen and even how many fathers sired a single apple.

"One apple might have 10 seeds in it, and each seed may have a different father," says botany professor Brian Husband, who, along with researcher Paul Kron, has spent the past three years conducting genetic analysis of apple seeds. Their pioneering research - believed to be the first in North America - is part of a broader collaboration with Prof. Peter Kevan, Environmental Biology, on pollination in apple orchards. It has provided answers to an array of previously unanswered questions about the paternity of apples, the fruit's genetic makeup and bee pollination patterns.

Answering those questions is important to apple growers because larger, more shapely apples are what bring the highest prices, says Husband. "And shape and size are determined by the number of seeds and how many different 'fathers' fertilized an apple. The more diversity, the better the fruit."

He notes that although researchers know a lot about the maternal roles of apple trees - bearing the fruit and seeds - the paternal role - supplying and disseminating pollen - is understudied.

"Growers have realized that pollination is important, but we've had no idea which trees are actually siring the apples and what differentiates a good father from a bad one. It's much more challenging to follow how the pollen leaves the tree and gets to where it needs to be. As far as I know, there have been no other studies done on apple paternity. That's why this research is so important. Everything we're learning is brand new, which makes it very exciting."

Apples trees, like most other plants, are hermaphrodites, with both male and female sex organs. The maternal organs are the ovary and eggs, which later become part of the fruit; the male function is supplying pollen. To produce fruit, an apple tree must be pollinated by another variety - a Golden Delicious, for example, might be pollinated by a Fuji. But apple varieties differ in their ability to sire seeds, and the key to bigger, better-tasting apples is finding out which varieties make the best parental pairs.

This can only be determined by looking at the offspring - apple seeds - and pinpointing who sired whom.

"We literally conducted paternity tests on the seeds," says Husband. "We cracked open the fruit, pulled out the seeds and did genetic analysis."

It was Kron's job to conduct the tests. "After doing this isozyme analysis on thousands of apple seeds, whenever I walk by the apples in the grocery store, I can't help thinking about the different varieties in terms of their six-locus maternal genotypes," he says. "I find this amusing, but on the other hand, having that connection between research I've done and something that's part of people's everyday life is gratifying."

Husband and Kron's research focused on four apple orchards near London and Guelph. Most were high-density orchards, meaning the apple tree varieties have been grafted on to dwarfing rootstocks, creating miniature trees that mature and produce fruit more quickly than older traditional trees do. The smaller trees can be planted in greater numbers and closer together, increasing yields and reducing workloads such as pruning and picking. The scientists focused on high-density orchards because it's unknown whether the new planting technique is affecting apple production.

One of the most significant findings is that apples waste an enormous amount of pollen. Although bees are capable of moving pollen as far as 18 rows away, Husband's genetic tests showed that most pollen winds up close to where it originated.

"About 75 per cent of pollen doesn't go any farther than three trees away from the source," he says. "Growers usually group trees of the same variety in rows, which saves time and money when it comes to fertilization and harvesting. But if the pollen of, say, a McIntosh lands on a McIntosh flower, the tree will recognize the pollen as its own and reject it."

This is costly to the grower, who pays for the services of bees to move pollen.

The paternity tests also revealed that some apple varieties have more aggressive pollen than others. The researchers performed a series of carefully controlled tests where identical amounts of pollen from five apple tree varieties (Fuji, Ida Red, Northern Spy, Vista Bella and Granny Smith) were applied to three other varieties (Golden Delicious, Red Delicious and McIntosh). The pollinated apple blossoms were covered with special bags to keep bees away, so the test results would be comparable.

"In nearly all instances, how aggressive pollen is has a lot to do with who the mother is," says Husband. For example, pollen from a Granny Smith tree "fathered" only about 50 per cent of the seeds of the McIntosh apples, but the same pollen sired more than 85 per cent of the seeds in a Golden Delicious.

"Why some varieties are good with some apples and lazy with others, we simply don't know. We're trying to understand why it happens."

They're also hoping to figure out whether some pollen superiority is universal. "Our research shows that Fuji is the absolute stud of all apples," says Husband. "With Fuji, it didn't matter who the mother was, the pollen was always the most aggressive." In the three mother varieties studied, Fuji was the dominant father nearly 90 per cent of the time.

The research findings have already been published in the journals Horticultural Science and the Journal of Horticultural Science and Biotechnology, and another paper is currently in preparation. The studies have been supported by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, the Ontario Apple Commission, Agriculture and Agri-food Canada and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. Husband hopes to use the research to develop a computer model that would allow growers to plug in their existing orchard design and get advice on improving yields. It would also help in planning and designing new orchards.

Husband, who joined U of G in 1993 and received a Canada Research Chair this summer, has a long-standing interest in the sexual systems of plants, concentrating almost exclusively on wild plants. A few years ago, he was convinced by Kevan, who studies bees and pollination patterns, to get involved in apple research.

"It was just one of those things - as soon as I started it, it just felt right," says Husband. "I love apples - they've always been my favourite fruit. And I've always been intrigued by apple orchards. I think they're fascinating and have so much cultural history. People joke about winning millions and retiring to the romance of a vineyard. Me? I'd buy an apple orchard and spend all my time just walking up and down the rows of trees making sure everything was all right."