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Science: Protecting Invertebrates

The Xerces Society works to protect the habitats of invertebrates. It is vital work. What invertebrates eat, especially bees, greatly affects what we eat. Xerces hopes that increasing their food supply increases ours. It’s a great partnership they’re hoping grows to protect natural habitats.


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A bumble bee at work in a field of lavender. © Foreign Interest, 2009

For more information:
Xerces Society
National Resources Conservation Service
American Beekeeping Federation


Creating a Buzz: Architects for Green Spaces


By Sherry Harbert, Foreign Interest


There is a great push to create green buildings and spaces around the world. It is an increasing priority for governments, business and local communities. Most of the emphasis is directed at living and working spaces for people. Few recognize the importance of some lower species on our planet. One conservation group is changing that view.


The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation works to protect wildlife for invertebrates and their habitats. Invertebrates include bees, butterflies, worms, crabs, mussels and dragonflies. Xerces gets its name from the Xerces Blue butterfly, the first butterfly in the U.S. to become extinct because of the loss of habitat. The organization was formed in 1971 to bring scientists and educators together to affect policy and conservation efforts. Xerces is working to design sustainable environments for pollinators that are vital to the agricultural industry. Pollinators (which include bees) are an intrinsic part of plant life and agriculture. The severe loss of bee populations in recent years can devastate the agricultural industry and major food sources if it continues. Xerces is one of the organizations looking for ways to counter that loss.


Members of Xerces have worked with Senators Barbara Boxer, Robert Casey and Susan Collins to bring the issue to Congress. Xerces executive director, Scott Hoffman Black and Mace Vaughn, who heads the pollination program, testified before Congress last year about the critical need to protect the nation’s pollinators with funding for research and habitats. A Congressional report issued a month later found that honey bees were the most economically valuable pollinators of agricultural crops worldwide and that honey bees were the only species kept commercially in the U.S. Without pollinators, (bees, hummingbirds and bats), many plants and agricultural products would cease to exist. Almonds would literally disappear without bee pollination.


Since 2006, a phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has been named for the loss of one-third of the bee colonies in the U.S. The crisis is happening around the world. The sudden losses are of great concern to farmers, scientists, government agencies and environmentalists. Scientific studies have indicated possible causes ranging from pesticides, malnutrition and mites; but no one factor has emerged as a single culprit. Academic research at Pennsylvania State, Oregon State and the University of California-Berkeley, among others is looking to determine multiple causes, which will make it all the more difficult to counter CCD.


Until the causes are established, Xerces is working with a multitude of agencies and people to develop site-specific habitats for bees. The organization hopes to develop habitats that will protect the remaining populations while research continues to discover the causes of the severe losses. Vaughn’s work includes habitats in cranberry bogs in Massachusetts, fields of squash in Virginia, Wisconsin apple orchards, canola fields in California and cherry tree farms in Eastern Oregon. Part of his work includes outreach to farmers, landowners, scientists and government agencies. He travels to agricultural and entomology forums to talk about his work and learn from others. He also provides technical support to the West National Technology Support Center, part of the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).


Vaughn became the director of the pollination program at Xerces five years ago. He began as a volunteer with the organization because it combined all the things he thought were important, education and conservation of insects. “About 20 years ago, I started to keep bees. I grew interested in their diversity. I grew enamored with them and other insects. I would watch them and learn from them.” While doing research in Utah, Vaughn heard about the Xerces Society. In 1996, he became a member, but headed east to complete his graduate work at Cornell University. After earning a master’s in Education and another in entomology, he and his wife headed for Portland.


Vaughn joined a distinguished group of scientists and educators at Xerces who each embody the nonprofit organization’s model of advocacy, research, education and outreach. Part of their advocacy work is to make sure government funding is available for pollination research and habitat protection. Xerces was instrumental in pushing for funding in the 2008 Farm Bill with a consortium of other organizations. Two critical bills within the appropriations bill included the Pollination Habitat Protection Act and the Pollination Protection Research Act. The first extended support for established conservation and habitat protection programs. The latter designated funds for research to find the causes of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in honey bees and native bee populations, establish a nationwide surveillance program and fund research grants.


With the losses of honey bees, support for native bees is important to sustain agriculture. “We walk an interesting line between supporting agriculture and habitats in the same area,” said Vaughn. “Look at weed impacts. It’s really interesting.” Xerces designs general guidelines for farmers to show local habitat needs within the farming landscape. Xerces works in all the regions of the U.S., but oversees their main projects in California, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New Jersey. The projects look at native communities and native bees. “We live in a very diverse country, so it’s important to design guidelines for local diversity,” said Vaughn. Xerces develops habitats that support agriculture, by incorporating sustainability and productivity of agriculture with conservation.


Funding for a Future

With two recent grants awarded by the National Resource Conservation Center of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) this summer, Xerces is partnering with more educational and scientific institutions to extend best practices for future habitats.

Both grants enhance the work Xerces has been building upon for the last five years with pollination projects. It began by looking at natural habitats around farm land and the pollination populations in those habitats. The grants will expand those projects and Xerces growing partnerships.


The first grant focuses on developing partnerships with academic researchers and some agricultural and conservation groups throughout the U.S. “With our partners, we’re developing a recipe, a plant list for the regions which are localized to their environments,” said Vaughn. He said they are looking at bloom times of crops and other plants to increase the season of the plant life. “The longer the bloom season, the more bees flourish.” He hopes to develop a pollinator plant list for pilot tests.


Vaughn explained that some crops, like blueberries and apples, offer a limited number of weeks of blooms. The blooms are the primary source of food for bees. They collect the nectar and pollen from the blooms, and in turn pollinate the plants. The grant is providing funding to discover other crops and plants that bloom before and after the main crops that are specifically adapted to the region.


The grant is divided into six sets of partners, each working with the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and the NRCS Plant Material Centers. “It’s a managerial challenge, but very exciting,” said Vaughn. A significant amount of the grant funding will go to the partners in the projects.


The second grant focuses exclusively on research in California. Xerces, the University of California at Berkeley and several other organizations created a pollination restoration program in 2006 to offset the loss of diverse habitats in the area. Xerces’ grant extends that program to discover which plants work best in habitats.


Canola plants will be one of the crops used to test habitat conditions. The aim is to determine the distances between crops and habitat that is best for the bees. Xerces has spent 15 years researching the role of insects, plants and habitats in its partnership with UC-Berkeley. They have been testing which plants benefit not only bees, but ladybugs, spiders, beetles and other insects. “This grant means a ton of work over the next two to three years,” said Vaughn. “But we’ll get more diverse habitats.”


The tests should prove valuable to farmers in the future. “Now there is about a 10 percent service rate for wild bees, (native bees),” said Vaughn. “We’re looking at increasing that number to 40 percent.” The increase means renting less honey bees for crop pollination. Growing the numbers of local bees requires customizing habitats that attract and sustain local bee populations. “We really believe agricultural diversity and the flower sources are important. We’re working on carefully chosen diversity, what crops are best for farmers and at the same time support the honey bees.”


Designing Livable Landscapes


Xerces emphasizes four priorities to create a proper habitat for bees. Plant diversity is the first priority. The greater the variety of plant sources for bees helps keep their populations strong.


No other insects are important to the survival of the bee, but other insects are important to the survival of agriculture. Even predator species like lady bugs, ground beetles, spiders feed on insects that damage crops. They also need undisturbed habitat for their food sources. They feed on caterpillars and aphids. Some feed directly. Vaughn said they need undisturbed areas for their food sources, to lessen the competition for pollen and nectar which is so critical to the bees.


Parasitoids that eat the host outright or leave eggs inside their prey which hatch and eat their victims are also necessary for agriculture. This group is usually made up of flies and small wasps. They also need plants and flowering plants. and are found in the headlands of agriculture fields.


Nesting sites are the second important factor for a good habitat. Bees seek out areas that offer protection. They need to be in areas where they are not disturbed. Disturbances can be anything from mowing to pesticide spraying. Bumble bees can nest in soil, but they need loose ground with a thin layer of vegetation to support a hibernation destination for the queen. Some bees will use burrowed tunnels of beetles. Farmers who turn the soil along the very edges of their fields risk damaging bee habitats.


Drainage is not as important as protection, but cannot be ignored. Vaughn found bees living near the cranberry bogs in Massachusetts adapted to the heavy moisture surroundings. In other states, bees will build nests in trees.


Xerces points to pesticides are the third concern. “We can create fantastic habitats, complete with wonderful meadow buffer areas that provide pollen,” Vaughn said. “But if the farmers feel its safe to spray at certain times of the year, the wind can bring all those pesticides into the habitat. When it drifts into this concentrated environment it can effectively kill large numbers of bees.” Xerces is looking for ways to create an oasis away from the fields to lessen the impact from spraying. “We’ll still see bees in sunflowers, squash and blueberries and living around the fields, but we can show there are better ways to protect the bees.”

Vaughn points to cranberry bogs as a tricky crop, which tend to produce weeds, which in turn are sprayed. He is looking for ways to create bee habitats 500 to 1000 feet away from the bogs to lessen the impact of pesticide spraying.


Ongoing management is the fourth priority for maintaining bee habitats. “We can have success with open habitats, but we need to address disturbances,” said Vaughn. “We need to address strategies for disturbances.” The reality of bees and agriculture means there will always be some amount of disturbances to the populations, so Xerces is developing strategies that land owners and farmers can use to determine best times to mow, spray and open areas to animals. Vaughn said timing is important. Xerces is working on guidelines that address these concerns within one quarter to one third of the year. It is not a blueprint for best practices on a large scale, since the agricultural landscape throughout the U.S. is as diverse as the habitats that should surround them. Instead, Xerces is developing localized plans that most suitable to specific regions.


Increasing Participation


Xerces is working to increase the outreach of its program to communities. A recent NRCS survey of farmers in Washington and Oregon found more people indicating a need to protect bees and their habitats and they want to know how to do it. Even responding indicates a greater need to be engaged in the issue. Vaughn said they are recognizing the need for insect populations. Now it’s Xerces job to build upon that engagement.


The organization sees an increasing number of small farmers (50 acres or less) more positive about developing habitats. “They are interested in cultivating markets,” said Vaughn. Xerces is working with apple and cherry farmers in different regions of the U.S. Vaughn traveled to Massachusetts to talk with cranberry farmers last month.


Many farmers are turning to technology for help in all operations. Vaughn said technology in the field of entomology is both simple and complex. “Managing bees is simple technology, but there is nothing simple about designing best habitats. It requires knowing what plants work best in any given area, along with the distance between plants and insects. “How do we measure all of that?”


Xerces also looks at how to measure habitats and their economic benefit. Vaughn explained how that takes sophisticated modeling. One of their programs works with potted plants and seed sets to measure how bees respond in certain landscapes. Xerces is building economic models for different areas using pollination numbers to help growers make better decisions. “The tools are simple,” said Vaughn. “But the technology is complex.”


Xerces’ goal is to create clear documentation in an area that shows how habitat designs will work. Designs need to be very specific to a given area. They need to show how much land is needed. There are several reasons why landowners are becoming more engaged. Vaughn said they want to protect their land, protect the environment and to see more wildlife. Others just want to see their crop productivity grow. “If it’s just the economic bottom line, that’s okay,” said Vaughn. “There’s a whole multitude of reasons, like water conservation, air quality, it’s the big picture. It will take time to see success.”


October 12, 2009
© 2009, Foreign Interest


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