By Minal Abhange
Most people tend to be paralyzed with fear at the sight of a bumble bee or be inclined to run away; however, Dr. Barry Hicks is someone who wants to see them… lots of them!
Hicks, an entomologist who teaches Comprehensive Arts & Science (CAS) Transfer Biology at College of the North Atlantic’s (CNA) Carbonear campus, has been conducted research on bumble bees for several years. His latest paper concludes that farmers who buy bees with the hopes of increased pollination may be in for some disappointment.
Many fruit producers think that there is not sufficient abundance of native bees to pollinate their crops. Plus, a small number of Newfoundland and Labrador fruit farmers forego purchasing new bumble bee colonies; instead, they purchase previously-used colonies that have been used to pollinate crops in other provinces. This is a practice that is not known to occur in other provinces. Hicks states this practice has potentially dangerous implications that may adversely affect native bee diversity in Newfoundland. Dr. Hicks recently published data on the claim that the non-native bees are required in cranberry farms and concluded that the importation of non-native bumble bees for supplemental pollination has no economic merit.
In addition, he suggests that the importation of bumble bees may have irreversible negative ecological consequences. His research paper on the observations of native bumble bees inside of commercial colonies of Bombus impatiens (Hymenoptera: Apidae) and the potential for pathogen spillover was recently published in the Canadian Entomologist. “The paper is the first to record the presence of native bumble bee species inside the colonies of new and pre-used commercial B. impatiens, and the first to look at diseases in native bumble bees from Newfoundland,” he says. “The mixing of native bumble bees in B. impatiens colonies increases the potential for pathogen that may threaten the small and vulnerable island bee fauna.”
The research paper describes how the imported bumble bees have a host of pathogens that are transmitted to native species putting native bumble bees at considerable risk. The native bees that make their way into the commercial bumble bee colonies pick up diseases which then can spread to local bees when they return to their own nests.
Many people are aware that both native bees (bumble bees) and honey bees are threatened worldwide. The cause for the declines is not apparent and there is much debate among entomologists over the root cause of declines. Most scientists agree that bees are affected by a myriad of causes including habitat destruction, pesticide use and diseases. Until recently diseases of bees were thought to be specific where bumble bees diseases only affected bumble bees and honey bee diseases only affected honey bees. Recently, it was shown by bee researchers in Britain that many bee diseases can be cross-transmitted between bumble bees and honey bees. Honey beekeeping is not a new practice, as people have been farming bees for centuries.
However, it is a fairly new exercise in Newfoundland and Labrador with more and more people either becoming beekeepers or who want to in the future. The insular part of the province is unique with regard to bees. Its isolation from the mainland has resulted in bee populations that are not affected by the diseases seen in other parts. Newfoundland honey bees are protected by an importation ban specific to honey bees and used honey bee equipment from outside of the province.
The importation of bumble bees is governed by the Wildlife Act and states that it is illegal to import any animal without permission from the Minister of Fisheries and Land Resources. With bee diseases now considered to potentially cross-transmit between species, the importation of non-native bumble bees for pollination will put Newfoundland’s ecosystems in jeopardy.
Saving the bees
According to Hicks, it is important that we minimize the impact on native populations. “Native bumble bees and other native bees contribute a big share in pollinating our food sources,” he says. “I don’t think many people realize that. If all the native bees were to die out, it would have a significant impact on our lives mainly by limiting the foods we eat.” He suggests that efforts to save bees should begin at the source – first step being educating farmers on the menace the non-native bees to the ecosystem and the importance of conserving native bee species. Secondly, to implement further stringent laws towards importation of non-native bees.”
Hicks holds a bachelor of science honours degree as well as a Master of Science Degree in Biology from Memorial University. He was the recipient of the Rothermere Foundation Fellowship in 1997 and completed a PhD in Forest Entomology at Edinburgh University in Edinburgh, Scotland.
For more information on Newfoundland and Labrador bees visit the website of the Newfoundland and Labrador Bee Keeping Association at www.nlbeekeeping.ca.