The Buzz On Bees: Coping With Vanishing Colonies
IRA FLATOW, host:
Up next: bees. You know, the bees have been in the news lately for the phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder, which really continues to baffle scientists. They think they know what it is. They're not sure. They can't pin it down. You know, the bees left few clues behind when they disappeared from those nests, from the hive.
And so, apart from that, for many of us, when you think about bees, what? Bees, are the pests, that they're on our soda cans at a picnic. They sting you when we didn't expect them to. They're flying nuisances that must be tolerated. They did have their brief moment in the Hollywood sun in the "Bee Movie." And Seinfeld pleaded their case in that movie.
But for farmers and growers, bees are buzzing little machines making sure flowers turn into fruit. And perhaps, because of the colony collapse story, the public, I think, is beginning to take more notice of bees and what they mean to us.
So for the rest of the hour, we're going to get an update on the status of the bees. What about the colony collapse? Where is that these days? We'll talk about urban beekeeping. Yeah. Many of us probably - I'll bet you didn't even know there existed urban bees in the city. What kinds of bees forage in our window boxes? What do they mean for backyard gardens? How can you become an amateur bee scientist? We'll try to answer all those questions. Our number is 1-800-989-8255.
Why is it illegal on cities to raise bees? Yeah. A lot of places you can't raise - put up a beehive.
Joining me now are my guests. Dave Tarpy is an entomologist and extension apiculturist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina. He's attending a beekeeping conference there in Upstate New York.
Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Tarpy.
Dr. DAVE TARPY (Entomologist; Extension Apiculturist, North Carolina State University): Great. Thank you, Ira.
FLATOW: I think that's the first time I've used that word in 20 years.
Dr. TARPY: Apiculturist.
FLATOW: Yeah. I'm so - right.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: Also on the studio here today is urban ecologist Kevin Matteson at Fordham University in New York. He's a coordinator for the Great Pollination Project, which recruits volunteers interested in becoming citizen scientists helping to track bees in urban areas.
Welcome to the show, Dr. Matteson.
Dr. KEVIN MATTESON (Urban Ecologist): Thanks, Ira.
FLATOW: What are you - talking about up there, Dave, what kind of topics do you talk about at a beekeeping conference?
Dr. TARPY: Yeah. Well, I'm attending the conference - the annual conference for the Eastern Apicultural Society, which is the largest hobbyist, or part-time beekeeper conference in the nation. And it's really quite exciting. We're - the theme this year is moving away from chemicals for use of pesticide control in the hive. And there's a lot of topics going on. And the community really is gathering together in order to learn how to keep our bees better and to keep them productive and healthy.
FLATOW: Did we ever figure out whatever happened to the colony collapse? Why that did happen?
Dr. TARPY: Well, so far, no. All of the research over these past years have left us still kind of scratching our heads. In fact, one of the largest, kind of, meta-analysis findings we just published earlier this week, where at least 61 or so variables were investigated in colonies afflicted with the CCD or colony collapse disorder kind of syndrome. And the long and the short of it is, is that no one factor really seems to have a strong correlation with the disorder. And so what seems to be the case is that there's a combination of many different factors…
FLATOW: All right. Let me just break in to remind everybody that I'm Ira Flatow, and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
I'm sorry to interrupt you. You said there's a whole bunch of different problems that came together at once, perhaps.
Dr. TARPY: Well, there are many possibilities, I guess. You know, honeybee colonies are a social unit of 50, 60,000 individuals. And so they're very complex. And they come into contact with many different things. And so, trying to rule out or trying to test each of these possibilities that may result in colony-ill health - at least defined by the symptomatology of colony collapse disorder. And no one seemed - no one factor seemed to be a major agent, a major common risk factor. And so it's likely that there are combinations of different factors that make it very difficult to pin down.
FLATOW: Kevin Matteson, you work on bees in the city?
Dr. MATTESON: That's right.
FLATOW: It's hard to see a beehive in the city, isn't it?
Dr. MATTESON: They are here. There are some feral colonies in the city parks, and there are some beekeepers that are on rooftops in areas of the city. But more of our focus has been on the other bee species that are present here. So we have about 227 bee species that have been identified in New York City, just in the five boroughs of the city. And, actually, across North America, there's 4,000 bee species. And worldwide, there's 20,000 bee species.
Dr. MATTESON: So, that's more than all mammals and birds combined.
FLATOW: So, would we see you walking the streets of New York from the Bronx to Staten Island looking for bees?
Dr. MATTESON: You just might. I've been known to stroll around different areas of the city. And recently, I was in the South Bronx. And then I was also in Staten Island, just kind of seeing what's on both the residential city blocks where people actually live. Because it's one thing to say there's biodiversity in large city parks, and that's great. But we're also interested in where people actually spend most of their time, and so what's living in their front yards and backyards.
FLATOW: Are there different bees in cities than there are in the country?
Dr. MATTESON: We have, in New York City, actually, a lot of exotic bees. So we found 10 out of the 20 exotic bees that are not native to North America right here in the city. And so, yeah. So, they seem to be doing quite well and…
FLATOW: Are the immigrants, just like everybody else in the city?
Dr. MATTESON: Pretty much. Yeah. Some of them are - were deliberately introduced for pollination, kind of like the European honeybee, originally brought over for honey or for pollination purposes or however it got to North America. But these other bees may have been stowaways on ships - not deliberately, obviously. But…
FLATOW: Hitchhiking bees, so to speak. All right, we're going to come back and talk with Kevin Matteson and Dave Tarpy on - talking about bees. 1-800-989-8255. You can also tweet us @scifri, @S-C-I-F-R-I. If you'd like to know about bees, not just in the city, but the country bees, stay with us. We'll be right back.
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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
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FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY on NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about bees this hour with David Tarpy. He's an entomologist and extension apiculturist at the North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Also, Kevin Matteson, who is at Fordham University and coordinator of the Great Pollination Project here in New York. We'll get to that in a minute.
But Dave, has the, you know, the colony collapse raised the awareness, do you think, in the public about bees?
Dr. TARPY: Oh, there's no question about it. It used to be that I had to justify why I had a college professorship, you know, in the past, that people didn't really see the connection of bees to society. And now, you know, rather than getting phone calls from somebody scared of having bees in their attic and how to kill them, they're calling and they're saying that, you know, hey, I know how important they are. I know how important they are for pollination and that our food supply is really dependent on that pollination. And, you know, how do I get rid of them without killing them? And there's been a very positive movement in the public consciousness.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And now, let's talk about the - this Great Pollinator Project, Kevin. What is this? Is it something kids can get involved in?
Dr. MATTESON: Kids can do it. Adults can do it. It's basically pretty easy. You just go outside, you sit in your backyard or your front yard or a city park and you stare at flower for a maximum of 30 minutes. This - and basically, you mark down on a sheet of a paper what bees you see or you don't see. And then you submit it to us online at our Web site, the greatpollinatorproject.org.
And if you're in New York City, you can go to that site. But there's also a national project called the Great Sunflower Project which our New York City project sort of came from. And these are just ways people can get involved and seeing what's around. And inevitably, people initially think that there's going to be more bees, and they watch for a while. And then, eventually, they do see the bees and we get this really excited emails. I saw my first bee.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: And, yeah. And you shouldn't be afraid of having that soda can, because those are really not bees.
Dr. MATTESON: Not bees. Right.
FLATOW: They're not - they're hornets or wasps.
Dr. MATTESON: I'm glad you can…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. MATTESON: Yeah. Usually. Yeah.
Dr. TARPY: But there are also other similar Web sites out there. There's one by the University of Illinois called BeeSpotter that has a very similar approach. There's another one that was launched in North Carolina called savethehives.com, where people go in and use Google Maps to actually pinpoint where feral honeybee nests may be, and so then these citizen scientists can really be proactive and help track the pollinator community.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. Just because I brought it up, the confusion -what is the difference between a bee and a wasp? A wasp - they're not the same animal, right?
Dr. MATTESON: Right. So, one of the differences is that bees are going to collect pollen and use that to give to their larva that are developing. And so that's the main protein source that they utilize, whereas wasps often will use other insect, prey. So there's differences in terms of how they live.
But in terms of just looking at them, there's some generalizations. You can say that wasps tend to have a very thin waist and aren't quite as hairy. And often, depending on what type of wasp, they'll often have that very strong yellow-and-black coloration. Of course, there are some bees who can have similar coloration, as well.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Winnie(ph) in Virginia. Hi, Winnie.
WINNIE (Caller): Hi.
FLATOW: Hi, there.
WINNIE: Thank you for taking my call. This year, we had an infestation of what we were told were carpenter bees. Are they pollinators? That's one thing I don't know. And if they are, how do we get rid of them without killing them -which unfortunately what we did because they were eating our redwood deck, or destroying it.
FLATOW: Are these those black bumble bee-looking like bees that…
WINNIE: They are. Yes.
FLATOW: …drill a perfect circular hole in your post, lamppost?
WINNIE: Yes, exactly. You see a little pile of sawdust someplace, on the concrete, from our mailbox, either mailbox post…
WINNIE: …and on the wood deck below the railing that they had tunneled into. And I understand that it's actually the larva that bursts out of the - that eggs are laid in the wood and then they burst out. That's what causes the most of the damage. Is that correct?
FLATOW: Dave, want to comment on that? Dave?
Dr. TARPY: Yeah…
WINNIE: There are so much that I don't know…
(Soundbite of laughter)
WINNIE: …suggests the knee-jerk reaction of calling the exterminators. And now, you know, you're talking about bees and I feel terrible, I'd say.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. TARPY: Well, bee-for-bee - to answer your individual question, yeah, carpenter bees are really excellent pollinators. In fact, on a bee-for-bee basis, most of these native bees, including carpenter bees and bumblebees and, you know, alkali bees, and I'm sure Kevin can tell you more about them - on a bee-for-bee basis, they're usually much better pollinators than honeybees. The difference is that carpenter bees are in fact solitary in that you have individual females going out and creating their own nests individually. They may cluster together in the same substrate where they're making nests together, but they're not living together like honeybees, where there are tens of thousands within a single colony.
Dr. MATTESON: Yeah. But I'll just add to that that the carpenter bees are actually just fascinating to study and to look at, and especially the males. You can actually grab them. They don't have stingers. It's just the females that have stingers. So my son is turning three tomorrow, so I have to say, happy birthday to Eli(ph). But I've actually caught a bunch of these male carpenter bees and held them and showed them to him and - just to really get past that fear of bees that a lot of people have and start in early age is pretty important too.
FLATOW: Huh. But do they do damage to your deck, to your mailbox, you know?
Dr. TARPY: Those are the females.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. MATTESON: Right. Yeah. I think sometimes, they can get to a density. But in most cases, I haven't seen them at massive densities. In only a few cases have I seen them where they're really, really, really abundant and causing major damage. I've seen them in city parks in the wood of the benches and you'll just see a few holes there. And you can actually - you'll look very strange actually putting your ear to the city park bench but you can hear the chewing of the females excavating to burrow in it.
FLATOW: Well, you know, you talk to people about who want to raise bees, and they say, they don't allow us to keep bees in my city. I can't have a hive. Why is that?
Dr. MATTESON: So I guess there's some New York City ordinance going back that people were very concerned about stinging. And I believe that's where it came from. They are venomous insects. They can sting. They can cause an allergic reaction in some people. So it's not something to play around with if you don't know what you're dealing in. So I think that's where it originally came from.
FLATOW: Dave, do you agree?
Dr. TARPY: Well, I agree that there are some cities and local townships that have either outlawed beekeeping or made it very, very difficult in order to keep bees. But I echo that - that it's - if you don't know what you're doing, then there's more likely to be problems. But, you know, most beekeepers are very, very conscious about where they're keeping their bees and to make sure that their neighbors are safe. And it's pretty remarkable, in fact, that just by dissuading some of the fears that people have and placing them away from high traffic areas that, you know, you can have a colony of 10,000 or 20,000 or 60,000 bees and are - they're so cryptic that you barely even know that they're there. So it certainly can be done in urban and rural settings alike.
FLATOW: Yes. Steve(ph) in St. Paul. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
STEVE (Caller): Yeah. Thank you very much, Ira. Yeah, in St. Paul here, we allow beekeeping. I don't have bees myself, but my neighbor does. And they don't give us any problem at all. In fact, they're very - it's fun to go out to fill the bird bath. And I've been out there several times as we got a dry summer. So I fill the bird bath every day. And you go out there and sometimes there are dozens of bees all lined up around the bird bath drinking water.
And I also just wanted to clear up a misconception. I know you repeated this in your intro, but you just kind of fixed it in your conversation. But, yeah, a lot of people mistake bees for yellow jackets and wasps. And a self-respecting bee would never go in your soda can. I think those are yellow jackets and wasps. So bees are very tolerant of people unless you are very aggressive with them. That's all I had to say.
FLATOW: All right, Steve. Thanks.
Dr. MATTESON: So, yeah. I mean, the honeybees - it's great seeing the honeybee keepers in New York City that are kind of rallying to change the legislation because they're often very connected with the landscape. They know what's going on and what's blooming. And that's a little unique for people in urban areas to be connected to nature.
FLATOW: So they're keeping bees illegally?
Dr. MATTESON: Yeah. I guess, technically, they are. I don't think it's very heavily enforced right now.
FLATOW: Same with chickens in New York.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. MATTESON: Chickens, well…
FLATOW: A lot of chicken coops but no one's enforcing that law either.
Dr. MATTESON: And, you know - but again, just what we're really trying to do, and this is a program with the New York parks department and the Museum of Natural History, and we're just trying to promote biodiversity. And a lot of people come to us that are very concerned about bees and the decline of bees. Really, they're mostly concerned about honeybees. And so we're really trying to say, hey, that's not the only species. And, you know, hearing from David how complex CCD is just for honeybees, you can imagine for all the other thousands of species of bees that we know very little about the problems that they might be having in their populations and things we're not seeing anymore.
Dr. TARPY: Right. Right.
FLATOW: Dave, we never hear about bee diseases, you know? You hear - about cows getting all kinds of, you know, diseases, but you never hear about bee disease.
Dr. TARPY: Yeah. And they have a lot.
(Soundbite of laughter)
They have many, many different parasites and pathogens. They are, you know, a social kind of super-organism living in a colony, where, you know, 50,000 individuals are living in close proximity in really perfect environments for some sort of microbe, right?
Dr. TARPY: So they definitely have their share of diseases and, therefore, beekeepers - a lot of what we do as beekeepers is to try to promote their good health. And unfortunately, beekeepers have been struggling for decades now. Not just since CCD has made the headlines, but for a long time now, beekeepers have been struggling trying to keep the colony populations healthy.
This past winter, in fact, there's been an estimated - about a 36 percent decline in the number of beehives since last year. And so it's a constant struggle for beekeepers to - and grow more bees and to grow their numbers and keep the population healthy.
FLATOW: Well, let me ask you that question. Now, I hear that there's colony collapse, I hear what you're just saying about the shrinkage of the colonies. Let's say I want to take up beekeeping as a hobby, will I be - if I want to become a beekeeper, is that going to help the situation? I mean, should I do that?
Dr. TARPY: Yeah, I think it does. And I applaud Kevin's efforts and all the great efforts going all over the U.S. right now, that is huge…
FLATOW: And how difficult is it to do that? I'm not trying to rush you…
Dr. TARPY: Yeah.
FLATOW: …we have a few minutes left. If I want to start to become a beekeeper, what should I do?
Dr. TARPY: Number one is link up with an existing beekeeper group. It is - I think a lot of people are intrigued about keeping bees as a gateway into getting closer connected to their food supply and to nature. And it's an excellent system for that. But it's a little daunting to be - to read in a book and be told how to, you know, start managing your own colony of, you know, 25,000 stinging insects.
So, it's a lot easier to get training and be mentored by existing beekeepers. And the community is so open and really willing to help out those who are interested in doing so that that is by far the easiest way and the best way to do it.
FLATOW: We're talking about bees this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. Talking with Dave Tarpy and Kevin Matteson. Kevin?
Dr. MATTESON: Yeah. You know, you can also be a beekeeper in a more informal sense just by how you landscape your yard and what we do in terms of how we manage our cities and where we put plantings and where we provide floral resources. And you can manage your landscape not necessarily - you may attract some honeybees, but you're also going to attract a lot of other bee species, many of which are having their own problems too. There's a few bumblebees in North America that are disappearing quite rapidly and seems to be something separate than…
Dr. MATTESON: …what's happening to the honeybees tied to - potentially tied to commercial rearing of these bumblebees. And so, there's things happening. In New York City, we can't find a bee known as macropis that was last seen in the 1890s in Flatbush, Brooklyn. We have no records of it in the city, and we're trying to track it down. It's one of these disappearing species that you just don't hear that much about.
FLATOW: You know, when people do bird watching, they put a birdfeeder up in the yard and they watch to see what kind of different birds come to it. Can you do that with bees?
Dr. MATTESON: Well, the flowers - you can put up a - plant a lot of flowers and certainly now we're promoting native flowers, but there are some other ornamental varieties that can be beneficial, things with pollen and nectar. So you do that. But the other thing you got to take into account is where they live and where they nest. And about 70 percent of bees nest in the ground. So…
FLATOW: Is that right?
Dr. MATTESON: Yeah. So if you don't have some bare soil or the right type of soil, those bees may not come in even if you have a lot of flowers in your yard.
FLATOW: Dave, any comment on that?
Dr. TARPY: Yeah. I totally echo that. That's absolutely right. Habitat restoration and preservation is, you know, a really great way that citizen scientists and concerned public can really have an excellent effect.
FLATOW: Okay. And if you had a place where you saw bees habiting, would you see as many or variety of bees as you would see watching birds in a birdfeeder?
Dr. MATTESON: Oh, yeah. You - well, like I mentioned, you know, 227 species just in New York City of bee. And even though, I think, there's more bird species that are known to come to New York City, many of them are migratory. And all of the bees are year-round residents. So they're really true New Yorkers in the true sense of the word, because they're actually going to over winter in the soil or wherever they have their nest site, in a cavity, within a bush or something like that. So, yes. So, we have more bee species than the birds and even the butterflies.
FLATOW: As you say, if just sit for an hour, right…
Dr. MATTESON: Mm hmm.
FLATOW: You can watch…
Dr. MATTESON: Half an hour.
FLATOW: Half an hour…
Dr. TARPY: Yep.
FLATOW: …and you can report what you see.
Dr. MATTESON: And report it and - you know, just - it's very quick and it's very easy and it's a good way to get in touch with what's around. And we've had people sending these digital images. Sometimes they catch an image of a very rare bee species and that's very exciting in their little corner of wherever they live. So there's all sorts of discoveries that come in when you have a lot of citizen scientists out there with eyes.
FLATOW: And where should we go to send those pictures and report these?
Dr. MATTESON: So they can go to greatpollinatorproject.org is the Web site. There is also, as I mentioned before, there's a national version of that great - the Great Sunflower Project. And there's a bunch of others that Dave mentioned that are - doing this. So just searching for bees and citizen science, you're going to find a lot of opportunities.
FLATOW: And on Facebook - on SCIENCE FRIDAY Facebook. Send us your bee pictures. We'll put them up there and have whole good collection for it. Thank you very much, both. This is fascinating.
Dr. MATTESON: Great.
FLATOW: I think I learned a lot. Didn't know that bees were living in the ground. I thought the wasps were in the ground.
Dr. TARPY: Yeah, great. Thank you, Ira.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Have a good weekend.
Dr. MATTESON: Thank you.
FLATOW: Dave Tarpy is an entomologist, an extension apiculturist at the North Carolina State University. Kevin Matteson is an urban ecologist based at Fordham University here in the Bronx. He's also coordinator of the Great Pollinator Project.
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