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Science: Honey Bees


Ramesh Sagili is looking for the causes of Colony Collapse Disorder, the term used to describe the plummenting numbers of honey bees. His research focuses on nutrition. His outreach focuses on education and building partnerships.


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Ramesh Sagili demonstrates how to calm honey bees.
© Foreign Interest, 2009

For more information:
Oregon State University, Department of Entomology
National Biological Information Structure
USDA Bee Research Laboratory

Saving the Honey Bee


By Sherry Harbert, Foreign Interest


It began with simple curiosity. As a young boy, Ramesh Sagili noticed one year that the bees had disappeared from his grandparents farm. They grew sunflowers north of Hyderabad, a city in the state of Andhra-Pradesh in India. The flowers were always gleaming with honey bees flitting from one flower to the next. Sagili was fascinated with the little creatures. He remembered that everyone sprayed to kill pests then, but did not relate it to the disappearance of the bees.


Sagili’s interest also disappeared over the years until he noticed a short course offered on honey bees while attending Andhra Pradesh Agricultural University. He took the course and rediscovered his fascination for the world’s greatest pollinators. Sagili earned his doctorate in entomology (the study of insects) from Texas A&M University in 2007. There was a bit of culture shock at first, but Sagili soon adapted to life in Texas. Though the culture was different, the weather was similar to India’s. Neither culture or weather were of much concern to Sagili. He found an opportunity to study bees in a preeminent program. Sagili has worked to discover why honey bees are disappearing around the world ever since. It is vital work that affects much of the world’s food sources.


Sagili was selected for a post at Oregon State University (OSU) to lead a program on honey bee research this year. He discovered an advertisement for the position in an academic research journal. Sagili still had three years of research guaranteed at Texas A&M. It was a risk to leave his post-doctorate position at Texas A&M for the one-year funded program in the horticulture department at OSU, but the chance to create a program that focused on the nutrition of honey bees was enough convince Sagili it was worth the risk. “At some point, you must take a risk.” Just days after arriving in Oregon in March, Sagili spoke at a public  session on honeybees at Portland‘s annual Living Green Show. Sagili described honey bees to an audience of commercial and hobby beekeepers as “the most fascinating insects in the world.” Two weeks later he addressed the crisis of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) to over 200 people at a master gardener’s event.


Sagili’s public role fits well with the vision of OSU’s mission for the program. He combines research and outreach in the quest to protect honey bees. Sagili’s work involves a sophisticated look into the nutritional levels of bees inside his lab at OSU, along with monitoring bees at several locations outside of the campus. He must combine his research with efforts to connect with farmers, landowners, hobby and commercial beekeepers. Sagili meets with both commercial and hobby beekeepers at meetings or in chosen locales.

“I see a big difference in the number of hobby beekeepers,” said Sagili. “The number has doubled since last year. I get lots of calls about bees.”


Each facet is important as the underlying need to counter a decade of population losses is critical to the state and nation’s agricultural future. “Too many crops depend on honey bees,” Sagili said. “One third of all food is directly pollinated by bees, so we need to help them get the same numbers before the losses.” He said there is a great need for research to help with that mission.


The Business of Bees


“There is a $20 Billion business in bees in the U.S.,” stated Sagili. “People tend to think of honey or wax, but there’s much more to honey bees.” He said that almond crops would likely disappear with honey bee pollination. He said that farmers in India were forced to hand-pollinate sunflowers by individually rubbing each flower with a cloth to spread the pollen. Most farmers cannot afford such labor-intensive work for their crops.


According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. has lost one-third of all honeybees. It is a complex issue. There are no single factors that have emerged to explain Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD, as it is called. In 1940, there were an estimated five million honey bee colonies. By 2007, the number dropped by half. The list of possible culprits include parasites and disease, pesticides, malnutrition, migration, lack of genetic diversity and intensive agricultural practices. Sagili, like most of the scientists researching CCD, believe all the listed culprits are responsible. But without more data, the search continues. The U.S. is not the only country experiencing the crisis. The numbers are just as depressed in the U.K. and other parts of Europe and Asia. Sagili’s job at OSU is to find out if and how the losses have been occurring from changes in the bees nutrition. He travels the state to talk to beekeepers and farmers to find out what they are seeing in the fields and to educate them in ways to protect the remaining bee populations. As with numerous beekeepers, farmers and organizations that meet to discuss bees, one topic is clear. The disappearance of large numbers of bees is a great concern. Together, they have come up with some managerial processes to stave off such stark losses, but the bee populations continue to plummet.


There are some major causes that are being investigated at numerous academic institutions. Pesticides are one of the main focus causes. There is also research into fungus, mites, stress, genetic diversity and nutrition. Sagili is concentrating on the nutritional aspect, finding that when the basic primary source of nutrition is restricted, the affects on the bees can be a factor in their losses.


Until a cause or causes is known, much of the current work centers on developing procedures in the field to protect bee habitats. “They are more careful with pesticides and they are tracking better,” said Sagili.

Sagili also travels to producers to provide them ideas of how to use pesticides in ways that lessen the impact on bee populations. “That’s exciting,” said Sagili. “We’re always trying to meet producers.” Producers, as Sagili calls farmers, is key to discovering the causes of CCD. Farmers are also key benefactors of the work of bees. “Farmers must understand that use of pesticides can kill everything around their crops, even bees. We need to find a way to keep it only on the crops.” Without these vital pollinators, the state’s blueberry, cherry and pear crops would disappear. Most food sources rely on pollination from bees. So any loss in numbers directly affects the agriculture and most of our food.


Sagili said it is important to consider the benefits of hedge rows to border plants and crops. These micro environments provide bees with a place to forage. They need a diversity of plants for better nutrition. Sagili points to greater numbers of pollen colors attached to the legs of bees when they are provided with diverse plants. Such diversity is crucial to building strong and resilient bee colonies. As more farmers become aware of the need to protect bees, they can help end the huge losses.


“The Pacific Northwest does a little better than the country on the whole,” said Sagili. “Last year the losses were at 36 percent. This year it’s closer to 29 percent.” Without knowing the cause of the losses, beekeepers and producers are trying to do what they can to protect current populations. “Beekeepers are doing better than last year,” said Sagili. “But we still need to be vigilant.” To counter some of the greater losses, commercial beekeepers have been transporting their colonies across greater distances. This in turn creates greater stress on the colonies to cause even more losses. Sagili said that messing with the biological clocks of the bees is another concern. He also added that transportation is an important factor to study. Bees will not defecate inside their colonies, so the longer the journey, the longer the bees hold their waste.


Bees by the Numbers

With over 4000 species of bees worldwide and around 900 species in the Northwest, the crisis in the bee world rarely generates public attention. The attention is gaining on farms across the nation. “They understand that there’s a problem,” said Sagili. “But they’re more concerned about the crops. So education is so important.” Even commercial beekeepers are feeling the pinch on their livelihood. Requests for bees have increased, but they cannot sustain the numbers. Honey bees are indispensable pollinators. They forage for nectar and pollen on a wide variety of plants, extending to many crops and plant sources. Honey bees are unique in that they will visit the same plant species until they exhaust the nectar before moving on to other plants. Plant species benefit from pollination within their same species, so honey bees create the best growing environment for the plants. It helps maintain crop constancy.


While there are many species of bees, there are only eight species of honey bees in the world. Five of the species are European and the other three are centered in Europe. Some in Asia are very small compared to their European cousins. Honey bees are very docile, unless alarmed, and are mobile. It is why farmers pay to have colonies transported to their fields at specific blooming times.


Honey bees were in introduced into the U.S. in the 1600s. Prior to that only native species of bees pollinated the wilderness. With the increasing need to produce food at greater levels, the honey bees have become instrumental in that growth. Grains like corn, wheat, rice and soy beans, don’t require pollination. Fruits, nuts and most vegetables are directly affected by bee pollination. To pollinate such crops, there must be a sufficient number of bee colonies in the area. The key factor of any bee colony is the existence of the Queen.


There are only about 500 breeders of honey bee Queens in the U.S. Sagili says such low numbers can affect the genetic diversity of honey bees. It means they are all closely related and thus more likely to all be affected by outside influences. Greater diversity guarantees greater survival. The Queens are the epicenter of life in the colony. Each colony has a single Queen, who is the only means of reproduction in the colony. All other female bees are sexually sterile. Bees begin as their life as serving inside the colony. Once mature, the bees will leave the nest to become foragers. They collect pollen and nectar onto their legs, then bring it back to the colony for food and for production of honey. The production value of one large colony is far greater than that of two colonies with the same combined number. So the healthier and more productive the Queen, the greater output of the colony.


With other species of bees, the adult population dies at the end of their season. Only the Queen survives. She leaves the nest, locates a place for hibernation, then begins a new colony after three or four months. Sagili said that honey bees are different. The adults do not die off at the end of the season and the Queen never leaves her nest. Queens do their best work during their first two years. Sagili tracks the Queens in each colony be painting a tiny green dot onto them. Though the Queen is slightly larger than the other bees, the green dot makes it easy to follow her constant movements inside the nest.


His first outdoor test site is a Honey Bee Laboratory located about a mile from the OSU campus. Next to a row of trees and other vegetation, the standard white boxes, Langstroth deep-hive bodies, hold dozens of colonies. There are one and two-story models, which hold frames of honeycomb mesh. While mostly docile, opening up the covers to a colony will agitate the bees. For safety, Sagili practices a old method of smoking the bees. He takes some wood remnants, places them in a spouted tin can, then lights the fragments on fire. The smoke is pushed into the hive to replicate fire danger. Bees will remain docile when smoke enters the colony. It makes it much safer for a beekeeper to peek inside. Sagili uses this technique when he wants to check on the progress of the colonies. It not only protects him, but lessens the disruption of the work going on inside.


Bees will look for protected areas to build their colony. Once they find a suitable location, they will protect it. “Bees look for a place that is safe and secure,” said Sagili. “There are so many predators, even humans.” The scouts search out safe havens which will maintain a temperature of 33 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit). Sizes can vary, depending on the colony and structure of the location.


Sagili described the initial steps creating a colony. He said colonies will divide in the summer when they get too large. A swarm will exit the colony and travel with scout bees to look for new locations. He said they travel about 300-400 yards at a time. They look for places tucked away from movement, which can mean the ground, trees, bushes, tree stumps, buildings. “When they find a place, the scouts will return and do a dance,” said Sagili. “They will dance out the location for the others to follow. Then they all go to their new location.”

Sagili has captured hours of those dances on video to study the bees movements and actions. The dance conveys the distance and direction of the new location. There is a definite difference to the shimmying movements of the scouts dancing to that of the other movements within the colony.


Looking at the Larger Picture

Sagili’s research at OSU also includes studying the affects of nutrition levels of honey bees that are contained in a large meshed tent that sits on the grounds of the Lewis-Brown Horticulture Research Farm. The farm is a testing site for plants and crops, which works closely with the adjacent USDA National Clonal Germplasm Repository. It preserves a large variety of crops and fruit trees. The pear gene bank is one of the largest in the world. Along the rows are pear trees from France, Israel, China, Syria, Turkey and the U.S. Pears are a huge business in Oregon, so studying the best practices is critical to maintaining a bountiful produce. The unique setting would seem an ideal habitat for the Sagili’s bees, but the honey bees are reach the crops or trees. The long mesh tent is meant to provide an outdoor experience, but keep them contained for specific tests. Inside the tent dozens of sections are cordoned off so Sagili can monitor their growth and health from specific diets. He hopes to discover what works best for honey bees by assessing the nutritional status of bees with hypopharyngeal gland proteins.


One of the known causes that may be contributing to CCD is a noticeable lack of food diversity for honey bees in many regions of the country. Part of this is due to agricultural practices of one crop with little other sources available to the bees. Sagili is looking at ways to increase the food sources for bees, which will may in turn increase their numbers. He meets with commercial and hobby beekeepers, and farmers to find out what they are seeing and offers ways that protect bee habitats. He said lavender and buckwheat are good sources for bees. Even leaving some dandelions around is a good emergency food source for bees, though it may be much more difficult to convince homeowners that the flowering weeds are a good addition to their lawns. “Bees are the most important pollinators,” said Sagili. “They were taken for granted, before, but people now understand their importance.”


Sagili said there must be a mutual relationship between bees and farmers. The loss of bees is not an issue that farmers can ignore. But they are not the only key audience for Sagili. “They need to think of the big picture. It’s all trickle-down and it all goes to the consumer. Sagili has seen an increase in the amount of hobby beekeepers, which helps create both a broader awareness and habitat for bees. Organic farmers are also important to the bees survival, because their practice to not use pesticides creates greater and safer environments for bees. There are even bee schools hosted in agricultural communities to bring together people together to understand what is needed to protect bees in their communities.


Sagili attends as many local meetings as a representative of OSU. “OSU recognizes the importance of bees,” said Sagili, which is one of the reasons he left Texas to begin his work in Oregon. But his work may soon end if the program fails to get additional funding. Sagili said donors are needed, along with grant money to continue the program. He is hoping to concentrate on his research and building community relationships, rather than worry about funding. Even a research program on bees needs those mutual relationships to survive

October 12, 2009
© 2009, Foreign Interest

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