Bees and Butterflies in Trouble


(This 1213th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on June 22, 2014.)


What better sign of summer than honey bees and monarch butterflies? Unfortunately, both species are in trouble and need our help.


All insects have problems. They live near the bottom of the food chain and are preyed upon by just about every other creature from wasps to grizzly bears. Some of our favorite birds, kingbirds for example, love to feed on bees.


In defense against their larger predators monarch butterflies sequester poisonous chemicals called cardenolides from feeding on milkweeds. The foul-taste of these cardiac glycosides turn most predators away. But some birds like orioles eat only part of the butterflies, thus avoiding the toxins. Others like grosbeaks and appropriately named assassin bugs simply tolerate them.


And their enemies don't have to be larger than they are. Bees have serious problems with Varroa mites, tiny external parasites that suck their blood and are now believed to spread pathogens as well. They appear like little orange dots on the bees' bodies. Another bee parasite, the bee louse, is slightly bigger, has six instead of the mite's eight legs and is more circular in shape.


Monarchs are also attacked by tiny parasitoids. I once kept a monarch pupa in hope of observing the adult emerge only to watch a tiny fly drill out through the pupa skin after consuming its prey.


But today the situation for both species is more serious. Their populations are plummeting. According to one report, "In the last half decade alone 30% of the national bee population has disappeared and nearly a third of all bee colonies in the U.S. have perished." And the situation for monarchs is far worse. Their population during the 2012-2013 winter was less than 6% what it was in 1996-1997 and that decline is continuing at the rate of 50-80% per year. I saw just two last summer.


There are probably many causes for these declines. Harsh winters like our recent one in Western New York hurt bee populations and cold weather in Mexico has caused monarch declines.


But many beekeepers and butterfly supporters agree that a new range of insecticides, especially those identified as neonoctinoids that are implanted in seeds, is at fault. They feel that what has been termed colony collapse disorder is caused by these genetic modifying tools.


Two friends I spoke to last week, Sean Meagan, president of the Western New York Honey Producers Association, and David O'Donnell, who leads the Eastern Monarch Butterfly Farm, said essentially the same thing: "The biggest problem for these species is genetically derived crops." I had not thought of genetics in this way before, but it is clear that instead of spraying insecticides today the insecticides are inserted into the plants themselves. While that may indeed provide defenses against noxious insects, apparently it is also killing those we consider in positive ways.


This is, of course, not just a concern about attractive insects. Honey bees are our most important pollinator and without them we would face serious food shortages.


Okay, so we have problems. What can you do?


First, you can join beekeepers, the American Bird Conservatory and others in calling for a ban on neonicotinoid seed treatments because of their toxicity to wildlife.


You can also plant appropriate and pesticide-free flowers in your gardens.


And you can even raise bees and butterflies in those gardens. Here are two ways to get expert help in doing this:


You can visit the Eastern Monarch Butterfly Farm exhibit at the Clarence Farmer's Market on Saturdays beginning July 12 to obtain monarch chrysalides and appropriate milkweed plants for your gardens. Some of their materials are also available at the exhibit David developed recently for the Buffalo Botanical Gardens.


And you can attend the Western New York Honey Producers meeting at 9:00 a.m. at the Christ the King Seminary Auditorium on 711 Knox Road in East Aurora. The featured speaker at that meeting will be Deborah Delaney, who will talk about honey bee genetics and nutrition. Delaney is professor of apiculture at the University of Delaware.


At those meetings you can meet and talk with experts about how you can best support these insects. If, like me you love honey, you may indeed decide to maintain your own backyard hive.-- Gerry Rising