Endangered Species Handbook

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Bees and Other Pollinators

Project Summary
Study the behavior of bees, using written materials, films and observations of actual beehives.  Learn about plants that would become extinct without pollination by bees and what species of bees are indigenous to your area, especially those that are rare or declining.  Learn what plants and habitats these species require and, if possible, plant their preferred flowers and erect a bee house.
 
Background 
Many native bees in North America are important pollinators.  A growing number are becoming rare as a result of pesticides, competition with non-native bee species and destruction of natural habitats.  Very few types of bees sting humans.  There are 500 species of native bees in New England, for example, but the most commonly seen bees are the European honeybees used to pollinate orchards and other crops.  Some native bees are green, blue or red, and many are as small as flies.  Others are twice the size of bumblebees.  A few are nocturnal.
 
The communication system bees use to identify sources of nectar and pollen to one another was first discovered in European Honeybees (Apis mellifera).  When one bee locates a source of food, such as a flowering tree, it returns to the hive and through a complex series of movements with its feet, called dances, communicates to the other bees the location of the food source. The type of dance performed by the bee indicates the distance from the hive to the pollen and nectar.  This system of communication involves a highly sophisticated integration of perceived and memorized information and was first discovered by an Austrian scientist, Karl von Frisch, a world-renowned animal behaviorist.  He wrote two books on his discoveries:  Bees, Their Vision, Chemical Senses and Language; and The Dance Language and Orientation of Bees.  (See Reference list below.)
 
Methods
Learn about pollinators and their ecological importance and behavior.  The Natural History of Pollination, by Michael Proctor, Peter Yeo and Andrew Lack, describes bee communication in terms of the extreme importance of bees as the pollinators of many native plants.  Consult various reference books that describe bee behavior in detail.  "Dancing the Good News" in the book, Alien Empire. An Exploration of the Lives of Insects, by Christopher O'Toole, clearly illustrates this remarkable phenomenon.  This book is a companion to the excellent television series of the same name shown on Nature, the PBS program produced by WNET and filmed by BBC, which shows the dance of the honeybees as well as the behavior and ecology of many insect pollinators. 
 
Activities
o  Take a field trip to see a beehive. Teachers may contact local nature education centers, Audubon societies, state Natural Heritage Programs and US Department of Agriculture extension services to learn about local bee hives that could be visited.
 
o  Contact the Natural Heritage Program connected with your state wildlife department, and find out which species of wild bees live in your area and which species are rare or declining.  Discuss these species and what can be done to help them.  What plants would become extinct if pollinating bees were to disappear?  (The Natural History of Pollination is a good source of information for this subject.) 
 
o  Plant flowers and flowering trees that attract native bees.  Find out which plants are preferred by bees in your area.  Do not use pesticides or herbicides of any kind
 
o  Erect a beehouse in your back yard to attract native, stingless bees.  A few holes drilled in scrap lumber and mounted under the eaves of a house, or some paper straws glued into a milk carton and placed on a tree branch, will entice native bees.  To attract the large and colorful Bumblebees, build a house such as the one described in Attracting Backyard Wildlife, by Bill Merilees.
 
o  Using The Forgotten Pollinators, by Stephen L. Buchmann and Gary Paul Nabhan, The Natural History of Pollination mentioned above, and other references on insects listed in the Books and Publications section of the Appendix of this book, select one or more pollinators, whether butterflies, ants or other insects, birds, bats or primates.  Learn about these pollinators and which plants they pollinate, especially those that are threatened with extinction. 
 
o  By consulting the books mentioned above, the main text of The Endangered Species Handbook, and books listed in the Books and Publications section of this book, learn about the importance of pollinators in maintaining the world's ecosystems and how crucial it is to protect pollinating animals.  Describe a pollinator or group of pollinators that are crucial to an ecosystem.  For example, read the section in the Forests chapter in The Endangered Species Handbook concerning tiny wasps that pollinate a wide variety of figs which, in turn, nourish hundreds of species of wildlife.  Learn about mammals, such as bats that pollinate many types of plants, through descriptions in this book and others listed in the project, "Bats, Useful Insectivores and Pollinators."  Find an example of a species of plant that has lost its natural pollinator through extinction and now exists only through human intervention.
 
o  The economic importance of pollinators has been calculated in several books and studies.  In Nature's Services: Societal Dependence on Natural Ecosystems, edited by Gretchen Daily, for example, the role of wild pollinators, such as insects and other animals, is valued at $117 billion worldwide.  This means that the wild bees, ants and other species that pollinate commercial crops, such as fruit trees and wild plants, perform tasks that are worth $117 billion per year to the world's economy.  The authors of Forgotten Pollinators estimate that pollinators save farmers in the United States an estimated $1.6 billion annually.  Select a farm crop and find out from local US Department of Agriculture offices whether wild species of insects or other animals pollinate it.  Through data from the US Department of Agriculture and almanacs, calculate the value of this crop and the losses to farmers should the wild pollinators disappear.
 
o  Wild pollinators are in decline in many areas as a result of heavy pesticide use, which kills insects and other wildlife, and habitat loss, as in the cutting of forests, which causes declines in bats, tropical birds and insects.  The Forests chapter discusses this in detail.  Write a report on this problem, giving as many examples as possible of the loss in these essential species and the types of threats that pollinators face.    
 
o  Select a pollinator, such as a type of butterfly, and learn about what plants it pollinates.  Does it pollinate a single species of plant or many species?  Where does it live?  What is its status?  If threatened, how can it be helped? 
 
Books and Publications
Buchmann, Stephen L. and Gary Paul Nabhan. 1996. The Forgotten Pollinators.
  Island Press, Washington, DC.
Daily, Gretchen (ed.). 1997. Nature's Services. Societal Dependence on
  Natural Ecosystems. Island Press, Washington, DC.
Merilees, Bill. 1989. Attracting Backyard Wildlife. Voyageur Press,
  Stillwater, MN.
Proctor, Michael, Peter Yeo and Andrew Lack. 1996. The Natural History of
  Pollination. Timber Press, Portland, OR.
O'Toole, Christopher. 1995. Alien Empire. An Exploration of the Lives of
  Insects. Harper Collins, New York.
von Frisch, Karl. 1950. Bees, Their Vision, Chemical Senses and Language.
  Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.
von Frisch, Karl. 1954. The Dance Language and Orientation of Bees. Methuen 
  Press, London, UK.
 
Films
"Alien Empire. An Exploration of the Lives of Insects." 1995. PBS. WETA. 1
  hour.
"The Private Life of Plants." 1995. TBS/BBC. 6 hours. (Part 3, "The Birds and
  the Bees," concerns pollination.) Available from Discovery Channel School:
  888-892-3484; www.discoveryschool.com.


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