Natural Nicotine Heals Honey Bees

January 23, 2017

NEONICOTINOID INSECTICIDES (e.g. thiamethoxam, imidacloprid, clothianidin) developed at Bayer Japan as safer alternatives (e.g. to human spray applicators) to the natural nicotine once widely used by farmers and gardeners, is now suspected of contributing to honey bee health problems like learning disorders and colony collapse. In contrast, natural nicotine, found in honey produced by bees working tobacco fields, as well as in pollen, nectar, leaves and other plant parts, is a nutrient and medicine helping to heal weak honey bee colonies, said Susan Nicolson of South Africa’s University of Pretoria at “Entomology Without Borders,” a joint meeting of the International Congress of Entomology (ICE) and the Entomological Society of America (ESA) in Orlando, FL.

Natural nicotine, even if produced organically in a sustainable recycling sort of way from tobacco waste products, is mostly shunned in organic farming and gardening. “Over 120 million sites will be returned on a web search on tobacco, but most will not be associated with plant science,” wrote USDA-ARS researcher T.C. Tso in Tobacco Research and Its Relevance to Science, Medicine and Industry. “Many plant scientists in academic institutions cannot obtain grant support for projects using tobacco as a research tool. Some even have to avoid tobacco because of the applying of ‘political correctness’ to academic research. The tobacco plant has served as a valuable tool since the dawn of plant and biological sciences, so it is indeed a great loss to scientific progress that a research tool already invested with so many resources and about which there is such abundant knowledge and such great potential for new advancement is now being wasted.”

Honey bees readily consume bitter alkaloids such as nicotine mixed in sugary plant nectars. Adult honey bees excel at detoxifying alkaloids such as nicotine, which should not be surprising, as survival depends on it. Younger, larval honey bees have fewer enzymes to detoxify nicotine, but also survive quite well even when their royal jelly contains high levels of nicotine. Honey bees and insects immune to nicotine, such as green peach (peach-potato) aphids, transform nicotine into less toxic butanoic acid. A knotty question naturally arises: If natural nicotine heals honey bees, why are synthetic neonicotinoids so terribly different? Are natural compounds like nicotine inherently more beneficial and their synthetic analogs (e.g. neonicotinoids) inherently bad, perhaps due to subtle differences in molecular structure? If bees and other pollinators are a major concern, perhaps natural product restrictions on nicotine need to be relaxed to provide competition to the synthetic neonicotinoids.

“Alkaloids, especially in the nicotine family, have been the main focus of tobacco research because alkaloids are the characteristic product of tobacco,” writes Tso. Dozens of other tobacco molecules are relatively overlooked, including sugar compounds providing least-toxic botanical insect and mite control. Anabasine (neonicotine), an alkaloid found in tobacco and other plants, has also been widely used as a natural insecticide. Strangely enough, anabasine is also an insect attractant and a poison gland product of Aphaenogaster ants. In a strange urban twist to the wild bird practice of lining nests with medicinal herbs emitting essential oils counteracting parasites: Researchers in Mexico discovered urban birds lining nests with cigarette butts to similar advantage. In times past, organic gardeners soaked cigarette butts in water to get a nicotine spray brew. Historically, most commercial nicotine insecticide used on farms and gardens was a sustainable tobacco waste extract.

There are 60-80 described tobacco or Nicotiana species, some available in seed catalogs and grown as ornamentals. Most Nicotiana species grow wild in the Americas, with some in Australia and Africa. “Tobacco plants are easy to grow and have a short growing period,” writes Tso. “Each tobacco plant may produce 14 g or about 150,000 seeds which may provide seedlings for 2 to 5 acres (1–3 ha) of field tobacco, depending on the type.” In Europe, oil extracted from tobacco seeds is being explored for an alternative bio-diesel fuel industry, with dry leftovers as animal feed.

Native American Nicotiana species are being integrated into China’s ancient agricultural interplanting tradition. When tobacco is interplanted in vineyard rows, tobacco roots and grape roots intermingle. Perhaps some sort of biological soil fumigation occurs. Whatever the mechanism, vineyards are cleansed of soil-dwelling phylloxera aphids, a pest that almost destroyed wine grape growing in France in the 1800s and is still a worldwide problem. According to the journal Chinese Tobacco Science, intercropping tobacco with sweet potato also alleviates soil and other pest problems, maximizing profits per unit area of land. Burley tobacco is intercropped with cabbage and other vegetable crops, according to the Journal of Yangtze University (Natural Science Edition).

Neonicotinoids are soluble in water and absorbed systemically by plants, and some are sprayed on urban lawns and landscapes. However, over 80% of synthetic neonicotinoids are applied to seeds prior to planting hundreds of millions of acres of corn, soybean, sunflowers and other crops. In Canada’s Ontario and Quebec provinces, 100% of corn seed is treated with neonicotinoids, said Nadejda Tsvetkov of Toronto’s York University at “Entomology Without Borders.” Though neonicotinoids were seldom found in corn pollen samples, somehow, perhaps by water transport, neonicotinoids are finding their way into clover and willow tree pollen far from corn fields.

“For a lot of farmers it is hard to get seeds untreated, especially corn,” as commercial seed is routinely treated with neonicotinoids regardless of need, said the University of Maryland’s Aditi Dubey at “Entomology Without Borders. In Maryland and other mid-Atlantic USA states where low pest pressures are the norm, neonicotinoid seed treatments are both unneeded and counterproductive. In 3-year Maryland rotations with double-cropped soybeans, winter wheat and corn, sowing seeds treated with thiamethoxam or imidacloprid reduced beneficial predatory ground beetles and increased slug damage to crops. Mid-Atlantic USA farmers typically apply 4 unnecessary prophylactic seed treatments every 3 years. Besides reduced biocontrol and more pest damage, soil accumulation over time is a disturbing agro-ecosystem possibility.

Alternative seed treatments include natural plant hormones such as salicylic acid and methyl jasmonate, which induce a natural immunity called induced systemic acquired resistance (SAR). Crops such as lettuce and argula (rocket) grown from seed treated with salicylic acid and methyl jasmonate also release volatile gases repelling pests such as sweet potato whitefly, a major worldwide pest, said Ben-Gurion University’s Mengqi Zhang at “Entomology Without Borders,” a gathering of 6,682 delegates from 102 countries. Numerous botanical materials and microbes have also been investigated around the world as alternative seed treatments.

A proactive approach to honey bee and bumble bee health includes a diversified landscape sown with herbs and medicinal botanicals for self-medication, not just natural nicotine from tobacco nectar or other sources. Thymol, an essential oil found in thyme and many other plants, is already sprayed in hives by beekeepers to combat Varroa mites. At “Entomology Without Borders,” North Carolina State University’s Rebecca Irwin reported laboratory choice tests where bumble bees rejected nicotine. In field tests, bumble bees were given a choice of different colored flowers each with a different botanical such as thymol, nicotine, anabasine and caffeine. Bumble bees only selected flowers with thymol to self-medicate. Interestingly, thymol and other herbal essential oils also synergize nicotine, boosting effectiveness against disease pathogens and perhaps also minimizing the likelihood of colony collapse.

Landscapes and hedgerows sown with medicinal plants such as thyme, sunflower and foxglove minimize bumble bee disease transmission, said Lynn Adler of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The current USA farm bill will actually pay farmers to plant bee-friendly sunflower edges or hedgerows around canola fields. Antimicrobial and medicinal honeys derived from sunflower, bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), black locust, etc., also effectively combat bee diseases like chalkbrood and foulbrood, said Silvio Erler of Martin-Luther-Universität in Halle, Germany at “Entomology Without Borders.”

Bee pharmacology is also useful in human medicine. In Oaxaca, Mexico gangrene is stopped and wounds are healed by combining maggot therapy and honey, reported Alicia Munoz. Maggot therapy uses sterilized (germ-free) green bottle fly maggots to disinfect and cleanse wounds by eating unhealthy tissues and secreting antibiotics, allowing healthy pink tissue to grow back under honey-soaked gauze. This cost-effective approach reduces hospital stays, lowers morbidity and can eliminate the need for surgery. It may sound yucky, but for diabetics and patients with bed sores or wounds where surgery is medically impossible, a few maggots and a little honey is preferable to amputating wounded or infected limbs.

Cancer-fighting bee propolis products were touched upon at “Entomology Without Borders” by Chanpen Chanchao of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand, where hives of stingless bees are reared like conventional honey bees. Cardol, a major component of propolis from the Indonesian stingless bee, Trigona incisa, causes early cancer cell death by disrupting mitochondrial membranes and “producing intracellular reactive oxygen species (ROS).” ROS are essential to energy, immunity, detoxification, chemical signaling, fighting chronic and degenerative diseases, etc. Cardol “had a strong antiproliferative activity against SW620 colorectal adenocarcinoma,” killing colon cancer cells within 2 hours, followed by complete cell necrosis within 24 hours. Thus, cardol is an “alternative antiproliferative agent against colon cancer.”

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Insect Perceptions, Irrelevant or Important

February 23, 2016

“IT WAS THE BUTTERFLIES, my people say, who brought the first human babies to their feet,” writes Canadian Richard Wagamese in “Butterflies Teachings,” an essay touching on “what’s called Enendamowin, or Ojibway worldview” in his brilliant collection, One Native Life. “Before that, the New Ones sat in innocence beneath a tree, watching the world around them with wonder. But Creator had planned more for them. Their destiny called for them to move throughout the world. These human babies were meant to walk upon their two legs, and as long as they sat under that tree their destiny could not be fulfilled…The air seemed to tremble with butterflies. The human babies were entranced. Each time they tried to snare a handful of colour, the cloud drifted away. They stretched their arms higher. They thrust out their hands. But it was to no avail. When the butterflies danced just out of reach a final time, the New Ones lurched to their feet and raced after them across the meadow. The Animal People celebrated quietly, then returned to their dens and burrows and nests. The human babies never caught those butterflies, but they kept on running, right into the face of their destiny…”

Quite a different worldview from Prague and Eastern Europe, where Franz Kafka’s famous novel Metamorphosis begins: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” According to the “wall notes” in the exhibit “Disguise: Masks & Global African Art” at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, Kafka’s words inspired South Africa artist Walter Oltmann. Among neon masks, dancing mask videos and sculptured African animals wearing masks are Oltmann’s large anodized aluminum and brass wire caterpillars in the midst of “transformation and change” (metamorphosis) and fashion sketches titled “Beetles & Suits.” The suit coats are gracefully curving, shell-like beetle elytra (outer wing covers) fashionably topped off with the latest antennae, and looking both business-like and sci-fi out of Star Wars or Star Trek at the same time. I can easily imagine a cell phone age makeover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band regalia and long hair with “beetle suits” and high-fashion antennae. Perhaps too much entomology affects the psyche. Oltmann writes that “spending an inordinate amount of time on making something that is usually considered insignificant like an insect, does make us look differently at them.” He says it “speaks of neither this nor that,” but I’m not so sure.

Insect observations appear in haiku by Japanese master Matsuo Basho, whom I think of as the late 1600s slightly more refined counterpart of 20th century Los Angeles poet Charles Bukowski, who was too busy with “other interests” to notice beetles, flies, mosquitoes and roadside weeds. In Moon Woke Me Up Nine Times: Selected Haiku of Basho, translator David Young writes: “Odd numbers predominate; a dance is occurring, and each third of the poem is a turn, a gesture, a refining or revelation… The poem seems to end almost as soon as it has begun, a small flash of lightning…A more literal version of the haiku cited (below) would be something like: What can save your life? / one leaf, with an insect / sleeping on its journey… the journey, which refers to a Chinese story that Basho’s readers would know but that is largely meaningless to English readers…‘Basho mash-ups,’ I have sometimes called my versions”:

One insect
asleep on a leaf
can save your life

Perhaps Basho was thinking of medicinal silkworms slumbering on mulberry leaves, or perhaps his mind was journeying among high mountains where ghost moths metamorphose with fungi into plant-animal hybrids that have been used in Asian medicine for centuries. David Young says about haiku: “They love to startle, first the writer and then the reader. As though a hummingbird were to land suddenly on your resting arm. It is the way the world so often surprises us.”

A haiku by Los Angeleno Mark Jun Poulos, whose observation of the seemingly mundane urban habitat nagged at me long after I thought I had dismissed its ordinary elements from consciousness:

restroom sink-—
ladybug cooling off
in a drop of water

What nagged at me was water, a vital ingredient of life, which as hard sprays of rain washes away pesky mites and aphids that are ladybug prey. Water (H2O) is also a missing ingredient in most ecological studies of interplanting, a habitat diversity strategy designed to boost populations of lady beetles and other beneficial insects providing natural pest control. Australian grape vineyards and California lettuce fields have had some success interplanting blooming rows of sweet alyssum to provide pollen, nectar and alternative prey for ladybugs, lacewings, hover flies and other beneficial species consuming aphids and other pests. Sweet alyssum is also host to micro-wasps helping Michigan asparagus growers by parasitizing leafmining pest insects, Amanda Buchanan of Michigan State University reported at the Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting in Minneapolis. But if habitats are missing water, then perhaps lady beetles, which do not puncture plants to drink fluid, will leave to find restroom sinks, puddles or other water sources. Perhaps, like providing water bowls for pets, something similar needs to be researched as part of biological control habitat alternatives. Though I would draw the line at alcoholic drinks, except perhaps beer in snail and slug traps. Another urban haiku observation by Mark Jun Poulos:

sultry afternoon—
wasp hovers over a whiskey bottle
held by a drunk bum

Ethanol or ethyl alcohol, by percentage the main chemical component of distilled whiskey, should not be abused, nor perhaps should it be so heavily subsidized as a biofuel, as that incentive exacerbates huge landscape changes measurable as reduced biodiversity. At Synergies in Science, a rare Minneapolis gathering of the ESA, American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America and Soil Science Society of America, the diminishing biodiversity of a Midwest USA with 21% less wheat, 16% less hay and much more GMO corn to distill into ethanol motor fuels was as hard to ignore as a drunk with a whiskey bottle on an urban bench. Jonathan Lundgren of the USDA-ARS in Brookings, South Dakota said we need to get away from our “very pest-centric approach” and adopt a more holistic biological network approach. Instead of a Midwest saturated with pesticides to grow GMO corn to distill into fuel tank ethanol, something as seemingly simple as adding biodiversity via cover crops amongst the corn rows could produce enough soil biocontrol of corn rootworm to eliminate wasteful neonicotinoid seed treatments whose honey bee and beneficial insect friendliness is being hotly debated. Karen Friley of Kentucky State University reported at the ESA that something as seemingly simple as native plant border rows around sweet corn fields “provide microclimates in the form of moderated temperatures, which offer shelter” for numerous natural enemies controlling corn pests.

Curiously enough, ethanol (alcohol) like that in whiskey bottles and vehicle fuels also attracts pine beetles and ambrosia beetles considered destructive forest, landscape, street tree and nursery pests. Perhaps more curiously, the very trees being attacked are producing the ethanol and releasing it into the atmosphere when stressed (e.g. by drought or flood), decaying or dying. Trees may look perfectly healthy on the outside, but inside the tree is another story, because ethanol emissions are signs of sickliness and ill health. Chemical ecologist Christopher Ranger of the USDA-ARS in Wooster, Ohio said it is a real problem, for example, when nursery seedlings are used to replant spruce forests or with dogwoods, magnolias, pines, etc. in nurseries, backyards, along streets, etc. It is definitely ecology, as the ethanol is luring in the beetles to help “recycle” the trees back into the soil as nutrients.

I liked Ranger’s reasoning: Find the tree equivalent of driver breathalyzer tests as a beetle-attack early warning system. SCRAM wrist bracelets worn by offenders for transdermal drug and alcohol detection were tested, but were not sensitive enough; taking a week to detect low tree ethanol exhalations, whereas beetles detect a few parts per million of alcohol and get to trees almost on day one. The solution was a portable ethanol monitoring device with a detector tube and a plunger to pull in air samples; developed using Japan’s Gas Tech industrial gas leak detection technology for quick detection of “inebriated” trees.

So, which is more startling and surprising: art, haiku or entomology?

Strange brew: September 17, 2015 daylight turning to dark, caught in one of those infamous, almost proverbial L.A. traffic jams at a freeway underpass on Church Lane transitioning from Sunset Blvd to Sepulveda Pass on my way past the Getty Museum to Mulholland Drive, listening to the Moody Blues Live at Red Rocks, going nowhere. Haiku and fireflies flashing internally, and externally the blinking side turn lites and red back brake lights suddenly and surprisingly metmorphosed into synchronous fireflies, albeit of a mechanical or robotic nature:

Tail and Turn Lights
Flashing like Synchronous Fireflies
In the Los Angeles Traffic Jam

 


An Eco-Organic Ode to Ethanol (Ethyl Alcohol)

June 6, 2012

ETHANOL, AN ANCIENT DISINFECTANT commonly used in today’s medical and health-care hand sanitizers, is also produced by microbes in food fermentation and natural ecosystems. A simple two-carbon molecule abbreviated EtOH by chemists, ethanol (ethyl alcohol) is also routinely used in organic chemistry and commerce as a solvent for natural essences or tinctures like perfumes, food flavorings, and medicinals.

“By far the most common natural source of ethanol is fermentation of fruit sugars by yeasts,” wrote Douglas J. Levey in The Evolutionary Ecology of Ethanol Production and Alcoholism, an article in Oxford Journals’ Integrative & Comparative Biology. “Although ethanol is an end product of fermentation, the fungi that produce it are locked in a complex set of interactions with fruiting plants, frugivorous vertebrates, and other microbes. Given that ethanol affects both vertebrates and microbes, it is likely to have at least some adaptive basis. In particular, it may be viewed as a defensive agent, used by yeasts to inhibit growth of competing microbes in much the same way as penicillin is thought to give Penicillium fungi the upper hand in competition with bacteria.”

“In an anthropological context, fermentation can be viewed as controlled spoilage of food,” wrote Levey. “The microbes responsible for the later stages of food spoilage generally cannot grow in alcoholic or acidic environments. Thus, by culturing the production of alcohols and in many cases organic acids via limited exposure to oxygen, the food is protected. Long before refrigeration and synthetic additives, fermentation was one of the most important food preservation technologies… As they discovered the inebriating qualities of some fermented foods, they focused attention on those fermentative processes, ultimately leading to the beer and wine industries of today.”

Ethanol and fermentation are part of fruit plant reproductive ecology. Ethanol molecules multi-task: Fruit pulp is protected from microbial decay by ethanol. Ethanol also attracts fruit pulp-eating (frugivorous) animals aiding plant reproduction via seed dispersal. In essence, fruit pulp is redirected in the ecological food chain from microbes to higher animals, to the benefit of fruit plant reproduction.

“The low molecular weight of ethanol and its substantial concentration within fruit pulp well suit this molecule for long-distance signaling of availability to appropriate consumers,” wrote Robert Dudley in an article titled Ethanol, Fruit Ripening, and the Historical Origins of Human Alcoholism in Primate Frugivores in a 2004 issue of Integrative & Comparative Biology. “Ripening involves production of a number of fruit volatiles, but ethanol is perhaps the only olfactory commonality to an otherwise bewildering taxonomic array of angiosperm fruits.”

“As with longevity and fitness benefits of ethanol exposure in fruit flies, epidemiological studies in modern humans demonstrate a reduction in cardiovascular risk and overall mortality at low levels of ethanol consumption relative either to abstinence or to higher intake levels,” writes Dudley. “If natural selection has acted on human ancestors to associate ethanol with nutritional reward, then excessive consumption by modern humans may be viewed as such a disease of nutritional excess. Availability of ethanol at concentrations higher than those attainable by yeast fermentation alone (i.e., 10–12%) is a very recent event in human history.”

Underscoring the importance of ethanol in ecosystems, yeast fungi survive up to 15% (v/v) ethanol concentrations that are lethal to most microbes. Distillation, a technique known to ancient alchemists that survived the transition from magical potions to modern chemical science, of course boosts ethanol concentrations to much higher and more lethal/toxic levels than those found in natural ecosystems.

Ethanol is also an ecological feedstock. Yeasts and certain bacteria further transform (oxidize) ethanol into acetic acid or vinegar, which besides being culinary is toxic to many microbes. In India and elsewhere, anti-microbial solutions of vinegar and baking soda commonly replace harsh commercial chemicals for floor and surface cleaning.

Ethanol’s role as an animal attractant can be turned to human advantage: for example, in ecological pest control as part of traps or trap crops. Christopher Ranger and Michael Reding of the USDA-ARS in Wooster, Ohio, and Peter Schultz, Director of Virginia Beach’s Hampton Roads Agricultural Research and Extension Center told the Entomological Society of America (ESA): Ethanol released by stressed (e.g. lack of water) or doped (injected with ethanol) forest or nursery trees (e.g. magnolias) attracts ambrosia beetles (Xylosandrus species). “A successful trap crop strategy might include 75ml (2.5 fl oz) of 90% ethanol injection of cull or park grade trees of an attractive species within the field production block or along the border between a woodlot and the high value nursery crop species,” said Schultz.&&

In the USA, where the federal government controversially subsidizes corn ethanol and mandates its use as a fuel, Douglas Landis and University of Illinois-Urbana colleagues Mary Gardinera, Wopke van der Werf and Scott Swinton wrote of the deleterious ecological consequences of growing too much corn in a 2008 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. In contrast to intercropping strategies promoting landscape diversity and biocontrol of pests by natural enemies, increasingly large almost monoculture acreages of corn create a less diverse landscape with less biocontrol in other regional crops like soybeans. Too much corn in the landscape costs soybean producers in Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin an estimated $239 million in reduced yields and increased pest control costs.

Not that planting corn need be bad. Indeed, the Native Americans traditionally interplanted corn with squash, beans, strawberries, sunflowers, and diverse weedy species that promoted ecological balance between pests and natural enemies. “Biological control of insects is an ecosystem service that is strongly influenced by local landscape structure,” wrote Landis et al. “Altering the supply of aphid natural enemies to soybean fields and reducing biocontrol services by 24%” from planting too much corn cost an estimated $58 million in soybean crop loss and control costs for just one pest, the soybean aphid.

Distiller’s dried grains (DDGs) leftover from ethanol production could potentially be utilized in innovative ways. Though with billions of gallons of corn ethanol being distilled, the emphasis is understandably on utilizing big tonnages of DDGs for animal feed, mulches, etc., rather than really innovative research that could yield niche corn-based products for medical use. Yiqi Yang, a Professor of Biological Systems Engineering and Charles Bessey Professor in the Nebraska Center for Materials and Nanoscience and the Departments of Biological Systems Engineering and Textiles, Clothing and Design at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, believes that small research investments could yield niche innovations like medicines (e.g. corn-derived cancer-fighting molecules small enough to enter the brain) and biodegradable filters that can be left in the human body.


Native Bees Pick Up Pollination Slack (Combating Colony Collapse)

May 3, 2012

HONEY BEE COLONY COLLAPSE Disorder (CCD) is a murky headline catch phrase, a scientific-sounding term that is almost a euphemism, to describe a population decline. In other words, there are fewer honey bees than there used to be, which is bad for agricultural crops dependent upon these domesticated insects for pollination.

Why a population decline is called a “disorder” is a bit beyond me, though it sounds almost clinical or medical. Perhaps that is the point; and calling it a disorder makes it a more respectable object of study and aids in obtaining funding and public support for research and finding a remedy. The declining human populations in Russia, Italy, Germany, Japan and other developed countries are not called a disorder; which perhaps implies an underlying value judgment. Might be nice to discover a Bed Bug Colony Collapse Disorder (BBCCD) to give cause for celebration. Though the acronym BBCCD in the Google search engine would confusingly yield CDs from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

Wikipedia makes it sounds like honey bees are being kidnapped: “Colony collapse disorder (CCD) is a phenomenon in which worker bees from a beehive or European honey bee colony abruptly disappear. While such disappearances have occurred throughout the history of apiculture, the term colony collapse disorder was first applied to a drastic rise in the number of disappearances of Western honey bee colonies in North America in late 2006…” If such occurrences have been happening throughout history, then the “disorder” sounds more like normality. In any case, times are tougher for those relying upon domesticated honey bees for crop pollination.

The interesting flip side of honey bee colony collapse disorder is the almost metaphorical return of the natives: Really a rediscovery and new appreciation of overlooked native pollinators like North American squash bees, digger bees, miner bees, sweat bees, bumble bees, and syrphid flies.

Whether you call it a disorder or a population decline: Nature abhors a vacuum or an empty ecological niche, like an absence or paucity of pollinating honey bees in a flowering agricultural ecosystem. Niches tend to get filled in nature, though the process may take years. With fewer honey bees (Apis mellifera is an introduced species in the Americas) in the fields, native bees hitherto ignored or overlooked are taking over the pollination chores on certain crops, according to research presented at Entomological Society of America (ESA) meetings.

“Nearly 4,000 species of native bees are found in North America,” said the University of Kentucky’s Amanda Skidmore. Integrated Pollination Management (IPM) or Integrated Crop Pollination, jargon phrases that sometimes popup at meetings, refers to managing crop ecosystems as habitats for native pollinators.

“In order to best utilize bees as pollination service providers, agro-ecosystems must be managed to attract and sustain them based on their natural history biological requirements,” Skidmore told the ESA. These habitat requirements include “energy (nectar), larval food proteins (pollen), and protected nesting sites (i.e. untilled earth, nesting boxes, dead plant matter).”

Native long-horned bees (Melissodes bimaculata) take up some of the slack from depleted honey bee populations in Kentucky by pollinating squash, melon and vegetable crops. Sweet alyssum (white-flowered variety), a flower interplanted in agricultural crops to promote biological control of pests by natural enemies, was heavily favored by the native pollinators; along with bee balm (Monarda didyma) and wood sage (Teucrium canadense). The idea is to plant a succession of flowering resources, including native wildflowers, shrubs and trees, to sustain native pollinators from very early season to late season. Research on habitat plantings is on-going.

Native North American sweat bees (Halictidae) and digger or mining bees (Andrenidae) are abundant pollinators of Michigan’s important blueberry crop in some locales, Michigan State University researcher Rufus Isaacs told the ESA. Nearby meadows “grow” sweat bee populations that move into blueberries to provide pollination services. Well-drained soils mean more nesting habitat for digger or mining bees that also pollinate blueberries. Several dozen wild native annual and perennial plants with varied bloom periods are being test-grown near Michigan blueberries to determine which best boost native bee populations and reduce the need for honey bee pollination.

Similar strategies for adding habitat for native pollinators are also being researched in crops as diverse as apples, cherries, squash and watermelons in regions as far-flung as Florida and California.


Interplanting, Ancient Roots

November 26, 2009

INTERPLANTING IS ANCIENT. It predates agriculture. Interplanting even predates the dinosaur, going back to the first plants growing side-by-side on planet EARTH. Indeed, interplanting is a natural ecological phenomena, existing much like the stars in the night sky.

On farms and gardens, interplanting is sometimes called companion planting. Ancient farmers observed natural interplanting or companion planting in their fields, along with winds, rains, heat, cold, insects, solstices and lunar and planetary movements across the sky. Today, much of the natural interplants occurring in farm fields and gardens is derisively referred to as weed growth (though major crops like maize and wheat still contain the genes of weed ancestors). Indeed, it is a value judgment when native wildflowers like prairie sunflowers are labeled weeds and destroyed by cultivation or herbicides.

In the U.S. state of Tennessee in the 1930s, during America’s Great Depression, the insect factor in interplanting was first subjected to scientific experimentation by an entomologist named Marcovitch. Writing in a 1935 issue of the Journal of Economic Entomology, a still extant publication of the Entomological Society of America (ESA), Marcovitch traced his interest to experiment station reports by other entomologists. Much like the ancient farmers who based planting decisions on empirical and astronomical observations, an entomologist writing in 1906 “advocated for the control of the melon louse the planting of mustard or kale or rape around the melon field. The lady beetles would thus become plentiful after feeding on the cabbage aphids and be ready to attack the melon louse.”

Marcovitch’s penchant to begin the modern era of experimental companion planting was also inspired by a 1929 entomological report that woodlots fostered populations of aphid-eating syrphid flies that destroyed aphids in garden peas. In contrast, pea fields away from woodlots were devastated by aphids and sometimes yielded no crop. Figuring that aphid damage to vegetables was a consequence of an absence of biological control by aphid natural enemies, Marcovitch began a series of scientific interplanting experiments to boost natural biological control in crop fields.

Tennessee turnip strips planted in March yielded aphid natural enemies like lady beetles and small parasitic wasps that migrated later into adjacent strips of peas, beans, corn, okra, cotton, cucumbers and watermelons. Aphid populations declined in the main crops, thanks to the adjacent natural enemy-laden turnip rows. In contrast, “control” watermelon plots lacking adjacent turnip rows to provide natural enemies were destroyed by aphids early in the season.

Since Marcovitch’s pioneering 1935 report in the Journal of Economic Entomology, books have been written on interplanting experiments to increase natural biological control in crops.