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Bay Blog: insects

May
12
2017

Photo of the Week: Humble bumblebees create big buzz

A carpenter bee hovers long enough for a closeup in the backyard of a District of Columbia resident on April 13, 2017. Carpenter bees can often be mistaken for their similar-looking relatives, bumblebees. Carpenter bees typically nest in pairs, boring holes in soft, unpainted wood—including decks, siding and outdoor furniture. On the other hand, bumblebees are social insects that typically nest underground in small colonies, venturing out in search of flowers from which to harvest pollen (for protein) and nectar (for energy).

Two of the bumblebee’s best-known characteristics are its fuzz and its buzz. Researchers recently discovered that the bees use their tiny, fuzzy hairs to detect electric fields, helping them navigate toward flowers. Once they find a suitable bloom, bumblebees practice “buzz pollination”: they huddle up against the bottom of a flower and vibrate their flight muscles, producing a buzzing sound and knocking pollen out of the flower and onto their hundreds of feathery hairs.

There are more than 250 known species of bumblebee across the world, although only about 20 of those are known to inhabit the Chesapeake Bay region. In the past, one such species was the rusty patched bumblebee, although its future in the region is now uncertain. Once a common sight across the watershed, the bee has been sighted just a handful of times in the region in the last 20 years. In 2014, a single rusty patched bumblebee was caught by a researcher near Front Royal, Virginia—the first time the insect had been seen in the eastern United States in five years.

The bee’s sharp decline led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to place the rusty patched bumblebee on the Endangered Species List earlier this year, making it the first bee in the continental U.S. to be placed on the list. Pesticides, herbicides, loss of habitat, disease and climate change have all played a role in its disappearance, according to the agency.

Rusty patched bumblebees aren’t the only bees in trouble: a recent report from the Center for Biological Diversity found that populations of more than 700 bee species in North America are in decline. By planting native wildflowers, starting a pollinator garden and reducing the use of pesticides, you can help protect bumblebees and other pollinators.

Image by Will Parson

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the image as one of a bumblebee; the insect pictured is a carpenter bee. Learn about how to spot the differences between these similar-looking insects.

Stephanie Smith's avatar
About Stephanie Smith - Stephanie is the Web Content Manager at the Chesapeake Bay Program. A native of the Midwest, she received her Bachelor’s in Professional Writing from Purdue University and Master of Science degree from the University of Michigan. Stephanie’s lifelong love of nature motivates her to explore solutions to environmental problems and teach others what they can do to help.



Sep
01
2016

Photo of the Week: Monarchs prepare for a remarkable journey

A monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) alights on a flower to forage for nectar. The insect’s distinctive orange and black wings signal to predators that the species is poisonous. Milkweed, the preferred food source for monarch caterpillars and adults, produces toxic chemicals that accumulate in the insect’s body.

The bright, delicate flutter of a monarch is a common sight throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed—but in the fall, when the butterflies begin their migration south, the view becomes spectacular. From early September through late October, millions of monarchs in central and eastern North America make their way to the Gulf States and Mexico (while monarchs in the west migrate to southern California).

To avoid crossing large bodies of water as they migrate, monarchs are naturally drawn to peninsulas. This makes the Delmarva Peninsula a major player in the insect’s migration—but peninsulas on both the eastern and western shores of the Bay are opportune spots to sight the migrating butterflies.

Learn more about the monarch butterfly, or check this migration map to see where monarchs have been spotted near you.

 

Image by Will Parson

Stephanie Smith's avatar
About Stephanie Smith - Stephanie is the Web Content Manager at the Chesapeake Bay Program. A native of the Midwest, she received her Bachelor’s in Professional Writing from Purdue University and Master of Science degree from the University of Michigan. Stephanie’s lifelong love of nature motivates her to explore solutions to environmental problems and teach others what they can do to help.



Jun
17
2015

Nine buzzworthy facts about the honeybee

During the summer months, butterflies, hummingbirds, bats and beetles can be seen darting from flower to flower, collecting nectar and carrying pollen. But no pollinator has quite as close a relationship with humans as the European honeybee. Found on every continent except Antarctica, the honeybee has been facing enormous environmental pressure in recent years, resulting in mysterious mass die-offs. Learn more about this iconic insect—and what you can do to help—with this list of nine honeybee facts.

Image by bjonesphotography/Shutterstock

1. The European honeybee is an introduced species. Honeybees may be one of the most recognized insects in the nation, but they’re actually relative newcomers to North America. Just like sheep, cows and chickens, honeybees were brought from Europe by early settlers, arriving in Virginia around 1622.

2. Those swirling swarms are nothing to worry about. A teeming cluster of honeybees may seem menacing, but a swarm of honeybees is actually when the insects are at their safest. When a colony gets big enough, the queen bee will fly off in search of a new home, taking a portion of the colony with her, while a new queen takes her place in the old colony. Because they’re not defensive of a hive or stores of honey, these swarms pose little threat to humans. They may make brief stopovers on tree branches, walls or road signs, but will most likely take off on their own within a day or two. If a swarm makes you nervous, call a local beekeeper to come safely remove the bees.

3. Honeybees typically only sting when they sense the hive is threatened. When out foraging, bees will rarely sting unless they’re roughly handled. If a bee is buzzing around you, she may smell a flowery perfume or lotion and think the smell is a food source—but if you stand very still, she will realize there is no nectar and fly away.

Image by Shaiith/Shutterstock

4. The average American eats one pound of honey each year. To make that pound of honey, a colony of bees would have to fly more than 55,000 miles and visit two million flowers. One bee collects just 1/12 teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.

5. Close to one-third of all the food Americans eat is directly or indirectly benefitted by honeybee pollination. This amounts to more than $15 billion in crop production each year. Crops like fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts benefit from honeybee pollination, and some foods—almonds in particular—are completely dependent on honeybees.

6. A syndrome has caused the honeybee population in the U.S. to drop by more than half since the 1940s. Colonies affected by Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) appear as a suddenly empty colony—no adult bees or dead bee bodies are near the hive, but the queen and some immature bees may still be present. No causes have been proven, but scientists are researching pesticides, disease, parasites and habitat degradation as possibilities.

7. Honeybees are highly social insects that are able to communicate through complex movements. Their “round dance” and “waggle dance” allow them to communicate the direction and distance to nectar and pollen. But the use of pesticides—in particular those containing neonicotinoids—may cause disorientation and memory loss, meaning bees have difficulty finding food or returning to their hive.

8. A diverse diet helps bees resist the effects of disease, parasites and even pesticides. But single-crop fields often lack the variety of plants needed by bees for proper nutrition. By planting wildflowers in marginal land, at the end of fields or along streams, farmers can help provide the variety of pollen and nectar that bees need.

9. To a honeybee or other pollinator, a manicured lawn is more like a desert. Reducing the size of your lawn and allowing native wildflowers to grow benefits honeybees, native pollinators and other wildlife. You can also plant a pollinator garden, with native plants that flower at different times to provide a consistent source of food.

Looking for ways you can help protect honeybees and other pollinators? Learn what you can do to provide habitat to pollinators and protect them from pesticides.

Stephanie Smith's avatar
About Stephanie Smith - Stephanie is the Web Content Manager at the Chesapeake Bay Program. A native of the Midwest, she received her Bachelor’s in Professional Writing from Purdue University and Master of Science degree from the University of Michigan. Stephanie’s lifelong love of nature motivates her to explore solutions to environmental problems and teach others what they can do to help.



Sep
10
2014

Restoration Spotlight: Protecting pollinators as important pieces of environmental puzzle

Think of a food, any food. It could be what you had for breakfast, or something you’ve been craving. Once you have an image in your mind, imagine what that snack would look like without the existence of fruits, vegetables or grains. Would it completely disappear? Would only a portion remain? Now ask yourself, “What is the common link—the necessary life source—behind the production of our food?”

The answer lies in the simple act of pollination. It is nearly impossible to think of something within our diet that can exist without it. Pollination, or the transfer of pollen between like species of flowers by wind or wildlife, leads to the formation of healthy fruit and seeds. It is estimated that nearly one-third of all plants and plant products consumed by humans depend on bee pollination alone.

Educators at Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center in Millersville, Maryland, understand this fact and work to teach others about the important role that pollinators—like bees, butterflies and bats—play in our ecosystem. For the past 17 years, the center has partnered with the Anne Arundel Beekeepers Association (AABA) to provide a home for more than 80,000 honeybees each year. When needed, AABA donates bees to Arlington Echo to replenish the center’s four outdoor bee boxes and two indoor observation hives. While the outdoor apiary is used for ecological purposes—providing habitat for the bees—the observation hives are used to teach children and adults alike about insect anatomy and life cycles, pollinator survival, community roles and math.

While it started as a recreation center, Arlington Echo quickly evolved to support authentic, hands-on learning. Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center is part of Anne Arundel County Public Schools and has been for 45 years. In fact, it is visited by every fourth grader in the county. “Education facilitates change,” said Sheen Goldberg, Teacher Specialist at Arlington Echo. The volume of students they reach each year provides a valuable opportunity to plant the seed of environmental awareness in many young minds. Here, people learn to make the connection between pollinators and the food they eat.

“One of the major issues we face today… is a lack of knowledge about the environment and where things come from,” said Melanie Parker, Coordinator of Arlington Echo’s Environmental Literacy and Outdoor Education Department. “[Food] doesn’t come from the grocery store. And it’s not just our kids [who are unaware]. Sometimes, it’s parents. Sometimes, generations don’t have that connection with the land and nature. There’s not that experience or exposure. All people see is that chicken comes in a package and isn’t an animal that’s running around on the ground. There is a detachment to where our stuff comes from.”

Spreading knowledge and linking people to their natural environment is a vital part of Arlington Echo’s mission. By connecting the dots between healthy pollinators and a healthy environment, they hope to incite positive change and help pollinators overcome the challenges they face. Population growth and development have encroached on pollinator habitat; chemical contaminants harm their health; and both native and invasive pests, parasites and diseases threaten populations.

“Right now, pesticides are a really big deal. Bees are going through something that we are calling Colony Collapse Disorder because we don’t actually know what causes it,” said Heather Calabrese, Program Assistant at Arlington Echo. “There is some research that points to a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids. It’s interesting how it, and many other pesticides, work. It doesn’t actually kill the animal right away. It effects the nervous system, disorienting it, [the animal] stops cleaning itself, eating, feeding other animals, and then it starves to death or dies of disease.”

Although honeybees, like those kept at Arlington Echo, are not native to North America, they are not considered invasive. Instead, they are considered an important part of our natural ecosystem, and their decline is directly linked to habitat loss. Development fragments wildlife habitat and pushes native species out. “Because of development, we lose native plant populations. If there is not enough food for our pollinators because we have built on their habitat, then we won’t have the native pollinators,” Parker explained.

Over the past 60 years, managed bee populations have declined from 6 million to 2.5 million, an alarming number that has sparked many states and organizations to offer financial and tax incentives to encourage people to keep bees.

Parker, Goldberg and Calabrese are all enthusiastic about keeping bees and claim that once you start, you can’t help but become fascinated by the social complexities of the critters. “You can put as much or as little work into maintaining the hive as you would like,” said Goldberg. “The bees are clean, hardworking and good at taking care of the hive for the most part.”

The educators at Arlington Echo stress the importance of making connections between the natural world and human health. Many of the things that harm pollinators also pose a threat to humans, water and other wildlife. “There is the developmental part of… pollinator population decline, but also the pesticide use,” Parker said. “Those pesticides end up in our waterways. You know, everything is connected. You pull one string and the rest unravels. So, even though it seems like a small piece, it is part of a bigger issue.”

To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page.

Jenna Valente's avatar
About Jenna Valente - Jenna developed a passion for conservation through her outdoorsy nature and upbringing in Hawaii, Washington State and Maine. A graduate of Virginia Tech's Executive Master of Natural Resources program and University of Maine's School of Communication and Journalism, she welcomes any opportunity to educate the public about the importance of caring for the environment.



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