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International Pollinator Conference Highlights Importance of Bees

U.S. continues efforts to protect declining pollinator populations

International Pollinator Conference Highlights Importance of Bees

Numbers of bees, birds and other pollinating animals are declining, posing a threat to the survival of thousands of plants used for food, fibers and medicines, according to scientists and government officials at the eighth annual international conference of the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign (NAPPC).

Scientists, farmers and environmental advocates met in Washington October 22-24 to find ways to increase public awareness of what Robert Lang, chairman of the Pollinator Partnership, termed “a potential health crisis for the planet.”

Flowering plants require pollination, the transfer of pollen grains between flowers of the same species, in order to reproduce and bear fruit. Birds, bees, bats, butterflies, moths, beetles and even the wind transfer pollen among flowers.

The worldwide economic value of pollination is estimated at more than $215 billion, or about 9.5 percent of total agricultural production, according to a recent study in the journal Ecological Economics.

Pollinator Partnership is a nonprofit organization that oversees the NAPPC, a group of more than 120 organizations, government agencies and individuals that promote and implement activities to protect the population of all pollinating animals in North America. The U.S. Department of State hosted the 2008 NAPPC conference.


Honeybees in particular are central to pollination. Farmers frequently rent commercial honeybee colonies: bee colonies are driven to the farms, allowed to pollinate crops and then removed. Commercial colonies can be driven around the country to pollinate multiple farms.

The number of commercial honeybee colonies dropped 31 percent in 2007, according to bee researcher Jeffery S. Pettis at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A 2006 report from the National Research Council found that bee numbers were so low that honeybees were imported from outside North America for the first time since 1922, in an exception to the Honeybee Act, which banned imports for fear that they would introduce non-native pests.

Such alarming statistics have led some advocates to compare declining pollinator populations to economic indicators that warned of the 2008 financial crises.

Laurie Davies Adams, executive director of the Pollinator Partnership, told conference participants that pollinator decline is a warning sign of an impending agricultural collapse. The Pollinator Partnership wants to raise public awareness to prevent a pollinator crisis. “If one out of every third cow was falling over, we’d do something,” Adams said.


One of the primary causes of honeybee death is Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), characterized by a nearly complete absence of adult bees with little or no dead bees in and around the colony. Without adult bees to work, the colony is doomed to collapse.

Scientists are unsure as to the causes of CCD. A 2007 study published in Science magazine found a correlation between collapsed colonies and infection with the Israeli acute paralysis virus. However, researchers did not show that the virus causes CCD. Other scientists speculate that a combination of factors, such as poor nutrition, pesticide exposure and mite and viral infections leads to CCD.

At the conference, Adams said that while scientists continue to examine the causes of pollinator declines, it is crucial to improve the habitats of pollinating animals.

The State Department has partnered with NAPPC since 2001 and is currently working to conserve pollinators by planting native pollinator-friendly plant species and using integrated pest management techniques at diplomatic missions outside the United States, according to Daniel A. Reifsnyder, deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Oceans, Environment and Science.

“Some United States embassies are leading the way in pollinator-friendly landscapes,” Reifsnyder said, citing embassies in Athens, Bangkok, London, Niamey (Niger) and Yaounde (Cameroon) for their efforts.

The United States also donated $26 million in 2008 to the Global Environment Facility (GEF) as part of a five-year project to conserve and manage pollinators in Africa and South Asia. The GEF is a partnership among 178 countries, international institutions, nongovernmental organizations and the private sector that addresses global environmental issues while supporting national sustainable-development initiatives. The partnership has provided $7.6 billion in grants since 1991.

In North America, NAPPC and the Pollinator Partnership produced free eco-region guides that suggest appropriate pollinator-friendly plants based on geographic location. Available online, these guides identify ecological regions based on city or postal code.

Eco-region guides for Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico are in the works, Adams said. “This is what we mean by ‘think globally, act locally.’”


As part of their conservation efforts, NAPPC presents an annual Farmer-Rancher Pollinator Conservation Award to an individual or family who has “contributed significantly to pollinator species protection and conservation on working and wild lands.” The 2008 winner is Chuck Hurd of Lister Acre Farms in Harrington, Delaware.

Hurd developed and uses pollinator-friendly farming practices, such as using minimal amounts of pesticides and only after sunset, to protect foraging bees from contact. He also maintains a native wildflower meadow and installed a butterfly garden on part of his property. This is “the first time I’ve planted and watered weeds on purpose,” he said.

NAPPC also funds research on bee health, some of which was featured at the 2008 meeting. Marla Spivack, an entomologist at the University of Minnesota, studies propolis, a tree resin that protects leaf buds from infections.

Propolis has anti-microbial properties and has been shown to suppress HIV replication in the laboratory. Bees line their hives with propolis like caulk. Spivack’s preliminary studies suggest that treating laboratory bees with propolis reduces the number of bacteria and helps their immune responses. She is now repeating these studies in the field using more bees, hoping that propolis may be a useful tool in the fight to save the bees.

Updated : 2021-09-20 04:08 GMT+08:00