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Ecology

What 88 Bee Genomes and 10 Years of Studying Apples Tell Us About the Future of Pollinators

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A wild bee (Melandrena sp.) visits an apple flower.

A wild bee (Melandrena sp.) visits an apple flower. (Credit: Kent Loeffler)

Stroll through an apple orchard in bloom, and you’ll be surrounded with the buzz of busy bees. But unless the farm manager has rented hives of domesticated honeybees — which are not native to the U.S. — the bees at work will be a highly diverse crew that live in the nearby wild. Big or small, green or striped, shiny or fuzzy, bees come in all types.

While news of bee declines has almost stopped feeling like news, a group of researchers has figured out a new question to ask about these diverse wild bees that pollinate our apple crops. Are the species of bees most in decline closely related? And does it matter if they are? The answers could be a big hint for future research about the causes, consequences and solutions to the perilous state of wild bees.

The team, led by entomologists at Cornell University, studied apple orchards and their bees for ten years. Many of the orchards experienced losses of bee habitat in their surrounding landscapes in that time, and subsequently lost many of their wild bee species. But that’s not the news. When it comes to making apples, it turns out the relatedness of the wild bees makes all the difference.

Are More Bee Species Better?

Normally when ecologists talk about diversity, they’re talking about the number of species. A lot of research has shown that more diverse ecosystems are healthier. Why is that? You can think about healthy ecosystems being a lot like a healthy diet. Everyone knows that eating just donuts every day isn’t good for you. But neither is eating just blueberries. You need to eat many different foods to meet your nutritional requirements. Sure, some foods are probably better for you than others, and maybe you have certain needs or goals. But in general, a balanced diet is what gets the job done.

In the same way, a diverse ecosystem with lots of species is more likely to have all its roles filled and be functioning as it’s supposed to be. All the cogs are turning; everything is in working order.

But we can do even better. Back to our hypothetical diet, let’s say we eat blueberries and donuts (because, diversity) and we’re also going to add a few more foods. Should we add raspberries, strawberries and grapes? Or, should we branch out and add eggs, potatoes and spinach?

See what I did there? Just a little phylogeny humor for you there. That second diet has the same diversity if you just count the species, but it has more phylogenetic diversity — the species are less related. You can see how that will cover more bases, and result in better health.

Phylogenetic Diversity Means Relatedness

That’s why the researchers asked whether looking at the phylogenetic diversity of the bees could help us better understand patterns in bee declines — and their consequences for fruit growers. For example, distantly related bees might be more likely to target different flowers, for instance pollinating only the tops of trees or only the low-hanging flowers.

“If you think about all of the bees that are present in an orchard as being different branches of the tree of life, are we pruning off those tree branches randomly (when we lose them)?” asks Heather Grab, lead researcher on the study, which came out today in Science. “Or, are some branches being pruned much more heavily than others?”

The team surveyed bees in 27 orchards in New York for over 10 years, identifying over 8,700 individual bees. We’re not talking domesticated honey bees — they found an amazing 88 different species of wild native bees.

Over those years, they watched the landscapes around the orchards become more and more cultivated. Natural spaces like woodlands were replaced by alfalfa, corn and soybeans. And they saw fewer and fewer bee species in the orchards as the habitat around them disappeared.

Then they sequenced the genomes of all the species to make a phylogeny — an evolutionary family tree — to see how related the different bees were. They learned that the species that disappeared weren’t a random pick from the 88. Instead, the species lost were closely related to one another. Likewise, the species left behind were closely related to one another. Habitat losses had led to entire branches of the tree of life being pruned away — meaning phylogenetic diversity took a major hit.

The researchers estimate that for every 10 percent of land area that gets converted to agriculture, 35 million years of evolutionary history are lost from the bee community.

More Diverse Bees (Were) Better At Pollinating

They didn’t just track the bees over those 10 years — they also tracked the apples. They looked at metrics that would matter most to an apple farmer: number of seeds per apple, weight of individual apples and any malformation of the fruits. This all has to do with how well the flowers were pollinated.

They found that the number of bee species didn’t matter for pollination. But the phylogenetic diversity did. Their giant dataset allowed them to learn that although more agriculture in the landscape decreases both, the latter is what really hurts the fruit. Cutting away whole branches from the tree of life hurts the whole ecosystem.

These results will hopefully lead to more careful study of the complex relationships between wild bee declines, habitat losses, honey bees and fruit crops — and more emphasis on conservation and restoration of bee habitat in the landscape. Around these orchards, says Grab, the most important native bee habitat is likely woodlands. Part of that may be because today’s important apple pollinators — bees that are active early in the season, when apples are blooming — likely evolved pollinating native early blooming woodland trees like Hawthorne.

Grab talks about habitat loss as “simplification” — going from a diverse landscape with lots of different habitats, to a landscape that’s just agriculture. “We’re basically documenting here that there is a consequence to the way that we have simplified the landscape,” says Grab, “that has consequences not only for biodiversity of bees, but it also has negative effects on the very agricultural systems that are causing this simplification.”

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Ecology

Yukon and Northern BC First Nations tackle climate change using Indigenous knowledge and science

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YUKON, June 18, 2021 /CNW/ – The Government of Canada is working together in partnership with Indigenous and Northern communities in finding solutions to adapt to the impacts of climate change in the North.

Today, Minister of Northern Affairs, Daniel Vandal, along with Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages (Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency), Larry Bagnell, highlighted progress on three unique, Indigenous-led projects that are helping communities in Yukon and Northern British Columbia adapt to the challenges posed by climate change.

The Minister and Parliamentary Secretary met virtually with Carcross/Tagish First Nation (C/TFN) to learn about their community-led climate change monitoring program. C/TFN has partnered with Tsay Keh Dene Nation (TKDN) and Chu Cho Environmental of Prince George, British Columbia, to build a community-led monitoring project that examines environmental data and Indigenous knowledge to create a holistic picture of how the climate is changing across C/TFN and TKDN traditional territories. The project combines tracking of current and historical climate trends with knowledge shared by Elders while also providing opportunities for youth mentorship and climate change awareness.

The Taku River Tlingit First Nation (TRTFN) is also leading a unique project to assess the impacts of climate change within their traditional territory. Climate change is causing many of the culturally significant ice patches to melt, exposing organic artifacts to oxygen and leading to rapid deterioration. The TRTFN ice patch mapping project will involve performing archaeological assessments to prevent the degradation of artifacts. Research will be guided by traditional knowledge, Elders and oral histories, when available, and heavily involve community, Elders, youth and Knowledge Keepers.

The Pelly Crossing Selkirk Development Corporation is leading the Selkirk Wind Resource Assessment project through the installation of a Sonic Detection and Ranging (SODAR) system. The initiative includes a feasibility study leading up to the construction of a renewable energy facility, including wind, solar and battery energy storage. Expanding clean energy within the region will have direct benefits for communities, including reduced reliance on diesel, job creation and revenue generation for Selkirk First Nation. 

These projects are delivering important environmental, social and economic benefits that lead to healthier, more sustainable and resilient communities across Yukon and Northern British Columbia. They also build community clean energy capacity and help to avoid the impacts of climate change.

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Ecology

Atlantic Provinces Ready For Aquaculture Growth

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Aquaculture is an important economic driver for rural, coastal and Indigenous communities, and Atlantic Canada is well positioned to increase aquaculture production as global demand for sustainably sourced seafood grows.

That is why the ministers responsible for aquaculture in the Atlantic provinces have agreed to the ongoing development and management of their industries based on common principles. A new memorandum of understanding has been signed by the four ministers, which extends the previous agreement signed in 2008.

“In a time when food security is especially important, it is good to see our aquaculture industry has grown steadily and is poised for continued growth in 2021 based on environmentally responsible, science-based policies and practices,” said Keith Colwell, Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture for Nova Scotia. “Our Atlantic partnership continues to help the industry grow sustainably.”

Cooperation between the provinces and the aquaculture industry has led to improvements in pest management, environmentally sustainable aquaculture methods, aquatic animal health and policies to support the shared use of marine and freshwater resources. It also aims to align regulation and policy between the provinces to make the regulatory requirements easier to understand by industry and the public.

Each province has a comprehensive and robust legislative and regulatory framework to ensure environmental sustainability, economic prosperity and public accountability. The provinces update their legislation and regulations regularly. Nova Scotia revamped its regulatory framework in 2015; New Brunswick received Royal Assent for a new Aquaculture Act in 2019 and is working on the supporting regulations; Newfoundland and Labrador completely revised its aquaculture policy in 2019; and Prince Edward Island has recently drafted a new Aquaculture Act.

The ministers have agreed to continue to use science-based evidence for management decisions, thereby increasing public and investor confidence in the Atlantic Canadian aquaculture industry.

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Ecology

COMING SOON: A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy 2.0

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We all want the same thing: a clean and responsible energy future for our children and future generations while continuing to enjoy a high standard of living.

On December 11, 2020, the Prime Minister announced a new climate plan which he claimed will help achieve Canada’s economic and environmental goals.

The proposed plan by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) entitled “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy” will have an initial investment of $15 billion of taxpayer’s money. It is built on 5 pillars of action:

  1) Making the Places Canadians Live and Gather More Affordable by Cutting Energy Waste

2) Making Clean, Affordable Transportation and Power Available in Every Community

3) Continuing to Ensure Pollution isn’t Free and Households Get More Money Back

4) Building Canada’s Clean Industrial Advantage

5) Embracing the Power of Nature to Support Healthier Families and More Resilient Communities  

In my paper, “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy 2.0” I will objectively critique each pillar in the government’s new climate plan and provide alternative solutions to the same issues.

  This is an alternative plan that supports workers, protects lower income earners and creates economic growth while respecting the environment and focusing on the dignity of work.

  This plan abandons virtue-signaling projects and relies on Canadian ingenuity to build our economy and restore Canada’s role of responsible leadership in the world.

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