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June 13, 2012

Pollinator Week Raises a Buzz for Bees

AUSTIN—Gov. Rick Perry has signed a proclamation making June 18-24 National Pollinator Week in Texas. This includes the Lone Star State in an international celebration recognizing bees, birds, bats, beetles and butterflies for their service to farmers and gardeners alike.

“The annual value of bee-pollinated crops to the U.S. economy is estimated at over $15 billion,” says Michael Warriner, invertebrate biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “In North America, most plant pollination is carried out by bees.”

Roughly one third of all the food we eat is because of pollination that happened in a farmer’s field, Warriner says. During a single day, a female bee may visit several hundred flowers, depositing pollen all along the way.

Bees are tremendously successful pollinators for two main reasons. Many people think that bees go from flower to flower to collect nectar for their hive and just so happen to be dusted with pollen but bees collect the pollen from the flower deliberately. Pollen is used as a food source not only for the bees themselves, but also for their young. The other reason is because bees tend to visit certain species of plant per trip, preventing cross pollination or pollen being wasted on a different species.

People are not the only species who are overwhelmingly impacted by the day-to-day life of bees pollinating. With producers such as plants, shrubs, grasses and trees being the lowest form of the food chain, they are a vital source of survival for most animals who consume those berries, nuts, fruits and vegetables. Native bee populations are vital to the ecosystems we are surrounded by today. The pollination service provided to U.S. agriculture by native bees has been estimated in excess of $3 billion annually.

“Bumblebees are among the most familiar native Texas bees,” Warriner says. “Their black and yellow bodies are easy to recognize as they buzz from flower to flower.  Like honeybees, bumblebees are social insects that live in colonies comprised of a queen and her daughter workers.  Bumblebees, in particular, are more effective pollinators than honeybees of such crops as blueberries, eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes.”

Although bumblebees are a crucial part of our ecosystem, they have been relatively unstudied until now, Warriner says. Recently, there has been a worrisome decline of bee species on several continents. The United Kingdom, being the first to report this decline, now has three species extinct. North America has been experiencing its own decline but researchers did not supply quantitative evidence until now.

Researchers from universities across the country have begun to study the cause and contributors of the decline and if it will continue. Some researchers came to find the decline was due to loss of optimal habitat for the bees. Other conclusions were the influx of commercial bumblebees onto wild colonies, pesticide use and competition with non-native bumblebees.

Warriner has also created a website where tips can be found on how to identify bumblebees as well as information on the nine species that occur in the state. Visit to learn more about this endeavor and how you can help during Pollinator Week and beyond.

“Contributing to this process can be as simple as casually snapping images of bumblebees on flowers, recording the date and location, and submitting the image online,” Warriner says. “There is a real need to evaluate the status of these insects in our state to assess how their populations are faring and if conservation actions are needed.”


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