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Progress on 'collapsing' beehives

Some warned of crop disaster when honeybees started to disappear. Crops didn't fail, but farmers and beekeepers aren't out of danger yet.

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We're "not really at a crisis situation," says Jeff Pettis, research leader at the USDA-ARS's Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Md. "We just don't have much in the way of a buffer."

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A paper recently published in the journal Virology hints at a possible fix. One of the scientists who originally identified IAPV, Ilan Sela of Hebrew University in Jerusalem details a honeybee strain that's resistant to the virus. The bee has retained bits of IAPV genetic material in its own genome – a naturally occurring phenomenon – and gained some immunity, he says.

"The whole problem could be addressed by using these transgenic bees," says Dr. Lipkin.

Meanwhile, honeybees' predicament has brought long-sought attention to the usefulness – and plight – of natural pollinators. A 2006 National Academy of Sciences report on the status of pollinators in North America cites "direct evidence for decline in some pollinator species." And yet, in a forthcoming study in Ecology Letters, Rachael Winfree, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of California, Berkeley, finds that, when present, wild pollinators can do much of the pollinating.

In the New Jersey watermelon farms she studied, they did 90 percent. As compared with the vast monocultural fields of California's Central Valley or the Great Plains, the eastern agricultural landscape is dominated by many small farms interspersed with patches of natural habitat.

"Native bees are doing close to complete pollination," she says. "It would be good to have that kind of backup plan" in other places.

And that means different land-use practices. Indeed, recognizing wild pollinators' importance, some states already offer incentives to restore pollinator habitat.

For three years, the National Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) in Montana has offered cost-sharing incentives for farmers and ranchers to grow pollinator-friendly plants. More recently, NRCS in New Jersey began offering $750 per acre to landowners who restore "wildflower meadows for pollinators."

Conservationists hope for $3 billion to $5 billion more from the new Farm Bill to boost such cost-sharing measures, says Tom Van Arsdall, the public affairs representative for the Pollinator Partnership in Washington, D.C. Although the authorized funds may not make it through appropriations, Van Arsdall already counts one victory. The Farm Bill now contains the word "pollinator," he says. It didn't, before.

"You could call it a watershed moment," he says.

To learn more about honeybees and pollinators in general:

• The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation offers a wealth of fact sheets and information on natural pollinators: www.xerces.org/Pollinator_Insect_Conservation/xerces_publications.htm

• Of particular note is Xerces' Pollinator Conservation Handbook, downloadable at: www.xerces.org/Pollinator_Insect_Conservation/Farming_for_Bees_2nd_edition.pdf

• Bee Culture magazine has bountiful information relating to honeybees.

www.beeculture.com/

• Tips on natural pollinators from the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service: www.nrcs.usda.gov/feature/pollinators.html

Pollinator-friendly land

Scientists have long warned that reliance on one species for pollination services – the honeybee – leaves pollination-dependent crops at greater risk of failure. "We've been saying that for a while. It's crazy to rely on a single species," says Claire Kremen, a conservation biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and a recently named MacArthur Fellow.

A decline in wild pollinators has only exacerbated the problem. Farmers can't count on native pollinators for backup. But certain land-management practices can "bring back some floral diversity" and entice natural pollinators back to the farmscape, says Dr. Kremen. Here are a few:

• Learn to tolerate weeds around field edges. They provide food and habitat for pollinators.

• Plant "insectary strips" – strips of flowers for insects. They should include plants that bloom in succession – spring, summer, and fall – so pollinators have forage at any given time of the year. In very large fields, grow not just strips, but islands of habitat.

• Grow hedgerows at field boundaries. They provide good habitat. They also block wind and halt erosion.

• Leave some land unplowed. Tilling kills native bee species that nest in the earth.

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