Orange County

Facing diverse challenges, NC’s native bees find support in the Triangle

A bee pollenates lavender flowers in Hillsborough.
A bee pollenates lavender flowers in Hillsborough. TRAVIS LONG

A new exhibit opening Monday at the N.C. Botanical Garden is one of a number of local efforts to call attention to the global decline of pollinators like bees, butterflies and moths.

The exhibit, a series of illustrated panels on display until October 3, is accompanied by 29 activities and talks to be held over four months. The Botanical Garden will host garden tours, art workshops, scientific lectures, and even poetry readings to teach people about the science and beauty of pollination and its importance to plant life.

“We really want to spread the word about the diversity of native bees and how important they are,” said April Hamblin, a second year master’s student in the Frank entomology lab at N.C. State University. Hamblin was among the team that developed the exhibit panels for the Botanical Garden.

North Carolina is home to more than 500 species of native bees. According to Hamblin, these bees tend to be more efficient pollinators and better adapted to servicing native plants than non-native honeybees. Honeybees were brought to the U.S. from Europe beginning in the 17th century.

Bees and other pollinators are disappearing at a time when we are becoming increasingly dependent on them. While not all plants require animals to transfer pollen from the male to the female, many crops do.

According to a 2009 paper published in Current Biology, the production of pollinator-dependent crops, which include fruits, nuts and cocoa, has quadrupled during the past half-century. Crops such as wheat and corn that are pollinated by other means, such as wind, have doubled.

These crops are typically pollinated by commercial honeybee hives that are trucked from field to field all over the country. But researchers are beginning to recognize how much other insects might be helping to pollinate crops – at least 20 percent, according to Elsa Youngsteadt, a research associate at N.C. State University.

Many people are familiar with the odd and dramatic colony collapse disorder, which has devastated the commercial bee industry. But native species are suffering, too.

“There’s been a huge rising tide of interest” in preserving native bees and their habitat, said Johnny Randall, Director of Conservation Programs at the N.C. Botanical Garden. NCSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine and the Chatham County Center of the state Cooperative Extension Service both operate gardens designed to attract and protect native pollinators. And UNC Asheville recently began planting campus meadows with pollinator-friendly native plants.

N.C. State veterinary students chose to integrate native pollinator health into their on-campus garden, which also displays toxic and medicinal plants, because “environmental, human, and animal health are all intricately connected,” said third year veterinary student Lauren Brierley. “How healthy our environment is regulates how healthy our wildlife are” as well as human health, she said.

The issue coalesced on a national level last year when President Obama appointed a Pollinator Health Task Force to develop strategies to reverse losses of both commercial and native pollinators, whose services were valued at $215 billion globally for 2005, according to a paper published in the journal Ecological Economics. In its strategy, released last month, the task force calls for the restoration and enhancement of 7 million acres of land for pollinators over the next five years.

The reasons behind pollinator decline are complex. Pesticides and herbicides, diseases spread by non-native honeybees, and climate change have all been implicated as partly responsible for the decline.

“Wouldn’t it be nice to say there’s one thing and we could focus on that thing?” said Rebecca Irwin, an associate professor at Dartmouth College.

Irwin also pointed to the loss of bee habitat. Since many of our native bee species nest in the ground, paved surfaces and thick lawns pose a serious obstacle to their reproduction. Even agricultural land is poor habitat – land planted with just one or two crops will only be in flower for a part of the year, and that can make it hard for local bees to get enough to eat throughout the growing season. One way to mitigate that problem, Irwin said, is to plant a variety of flowering plants around agricultural land so that the bees have something to eat off-season.

The N.C. Botanical Garden exhibit and some of the talks will suggest pollinator-friendly plants for local gardeners to add to their gardens. At the opening reception on June 28, Hamblin and colleagues will also be passing out pieces of bamboo, which make good habitat for cavity-nesting bees, and will be displaying their collection of preserved bees caught in North Carolina. People are surprised to see that some of these species are blue or green – not black and yellow, Hamblin said.

Hamblin also pointed out the irony of North Carolina’s state insect: the non-native honeybee.

“Hopefully we can learn to value native insects more than we do at the moment,” she said.

Rimler: 919-829-4526

Bee-Hold the Humble Pollinator

An exhibit illustrating the importance of our native bees opens Monday and runs through October 3 at the Pegg Exhibit Hall of the Allen Education Center at the N.C. Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill. The exhibit reception will be held Sunday, June 28, from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. For more information about the exhibit and upcoming events, go to www.ncbg.unc.edu/pollinators/

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