York researchers publish bee study in prestigious UK journal

The sex lives of bees and their effectiveness in reproduction is a subject of concern for York researchers Amro Zayed (right) and Laurence Packer. Zayed, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Biology, Faculty of Pure & Applied Science, has travelled as far as the jungles of Panama to study the world’s champion pollinators. What he and fellow researchers discovered has made news in the Nov. edition of Biology Letters published by Britain’s prestigious Royal Society.                     

Zayed co-wrote the article with David W. Roubik of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and York’s renowned bee expert Laurence Packer, professor of biology and environmental studies. What Zayed and his colleagues discovered will help conservationists protect these vital insect-workers, estimated in 2001 to be worth about $782 million to Canadian agriculture.

In the study, Zayed and his colleagues found that traditional census methods of monitoring bee populations can be misleading leaving bees at risk of dying out with little warning. Bee populations around the world are declining, posing a serious threat to 70 per cent of the world’s crops that depend on them as pollinators. In 2000, pollination services from honeybees generated $14.6 billion in the US alone.

The research involved a study of the orchid bee Euglossa imperialis Cockerell (left), a species native to Panama. The team found a high number of bees in the total population were “sterile diploids” meaning the bees were incapable of reproduction. Using mathematical formulas to forecast the success of bee reproduction the team found that, although seemingly healthy in number, orchid bees in those areas were actually dying out, a catastrophe that threatens the area’s ecosystem and its orchids. What made the findings more disturbing was that the problem was occurring in large, protected forests where the bees are relatively safe from threats such as pesticides and loss of habitat.

The study concludes that these findings have “far-reaching implications for the conservation of the Hymenoptra (bees)” and recommends using a genetic technique as a more effective means of detecting problems in time for conservationists to institute measures to save them. There are about 30,000 species of bees worldwide including several key types that are used in commercial pollination. In Canada, bees are essential to the success of field crops such as tree fruits, berries, cucurbits (cucumbers, melons, pumpkins), oilseeds, forage legumes (alfalfa, clover) and buckwheat.

Bees are also crucial to large commercial operations such as greenhouse tomato growers who spend hundreds of thousands a year on colonies raised by commercial apiaries. Apiaries are having trouble producing sufficient numbers of European honeybees, which are susceptible to pests and disease, prompting researchers such as Zayed and his colleagues to study hardier, native species.


*Photographs courtesy of Amro Zayed.