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Status of Pollinators in North America


These are exciting times for pollination research, worldwide. The complete genome for the honey bee was recently sequenced and reported in Nature, as were the genomes of two major honey bee pathogens, Ascosphaera apisand Paenibacillus larvae. At about the same time, gene sequence data was used to re-evaluate our previous conceptions of the evolution of bees. IN 2006, a Science report documented what appears to be a major decline in bees in England and The Netherlands  (possibly a 30% loss in species richness since 1980), especially among specialist bees, and a corollary decline in wild plant species that require insect-pollination. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) also recently assembled a committee to review the status of pollinators in N. America. This committee has completed their report, and published their report in 2007, and can be viewed at the NAS website. Of course, this is only a fraction of the bee research activities reported; however, to have so many reports on bees in key scientific journals that cater to a broad audience is not common in our field. It highlights how bees, and especially bees as pollinators, are now well recognized as being very important for both wild ecosystems and agricultural systems, and a growing concern that we may lose this valuable resource. The NAS report, Status of Pollinators in North America, highlights areas of concern with regard to pollinator declines, and recommends continued and increased research efforts in many areas that relate to PIRU. In particular, they recommend that USDA: (1) conduct studies to document long-term population trends in pollinators, especially bumblebees; (2) address the taxonomic impediments to assessing pollinator status; (3) take measures to prevent pathogen spread from managed to wild bee populations; (4) identify the effects of habitat loss and fragmentation on bee populations; (5) establish long-term bee diversity monitoring projects; and (6) conduct a rapid one-time assessment of the current status of wild bee populations in N. America.

PIRU is uniquely qualified to address these questions; however, we are also dedicated to directly assisting agriculturalists with their pollination needs. To some, these two areas of research may seem dichotomous, and perhaps even unrelated. They are not unrelated-besides providing an ecosystem function, wild pollinators provide pollination services to agriculture, and a source of future crop pollinators, who's populations could be directly managed for agricultural purposes. Also, by helping agriculturalists meet their pollination needs, we reduce social and economic pressures that may lead to the introduction of bees from outside the U.S. Bringing exotic bees into the U.S. increases our risks to the accidental introduction of bee diseases and parasites, or the accidental release of bees that may competitively displace native bees.

1Honeybee Genome Sequencing Consortium. 2006. Insights into social insects from the genome of the honeybee Apis mellifera. Nature, 443:931-949.

2Qin, X, Evans, J.D., Aronstein, K.A., Murray, K.D, Weinstock, G.M. (2006) Genome sequences of the honey bee pathogens Paenibacillus larvae and Ascosphaera apis, Insect Molecular Biology, 15:715-718.

3Dansforth, B. N., S. Sipes, J. Fang, and S. G. Brady. 2006. The history of early bee diversification based on five genes plus morphology. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., 103:15118-15123