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National Pollinator Week • June 22-28

‘It’s tough being a bee’

Problems persist for honey bees, essential agricultural pollinators

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‘It’s tough being a bee’

A honeybee is covered in pollen as it feeds off the remnants of wild sunflowers in the summer of 2019.

ONTARIO — Did you know that the United States gives a nod to bees, birds, butterflies, moths, flies, bats, beetles, wasps and small animals this week? It was 13 years ago that the U.S. Senate designated a week in June as National Pollinators Week, and this year it falls on June 22-28, according to Pollinator Partnership’s website www.pollinator.org. The movement to spread the word about the vital role of pollinators — especially as it relates to our food chain — and how to protect them has now become “an international celebration of the valuable ecosystem services provided by” pollinators, reads the website.

Being situated in an agricultural area, which heavily relies on pollinators — namely honey bees — to increase crop production, The Argus Observer reached out to a local expert to get the lowdown on the importance of bees as it relates to crop production.

“It’s tough being a bee these days,” wrote Stuart Reitz, director of OSU’s Malheur Experiment Station in Ontario, in an email in May. “And the tougher it is for them, the tougher it is for farmers to get fruit, vegetable and nut crops pollinated, and for the rest of us to get those goodies on the table.”

While other bees and insects are pollinators, when it comes to crops, honey bees are the most efficient pollinators, he says.

“Other domesticated ones, like leafcutter bees in alfalfa or bumble bees for tomatoes aren’t as versatile as honey bees,” Reitz says. “So we need to hang on to them because we don’t have a replacement.”

Issues affecting survival rates for honey bees include pesticides, pathogens, colony collapse disorder and habitat degradation, he says. Recently northwest Washington and British Columbia saw a new threat to the honey bee: the murder hornet.

“As for the hornets, the entomology has been abuzz about them,” Reitz says. “So far large populations of them haven’t built up. If the hornets start to become more common, they will be yet another problem for honey bees and bee keepers.”

While the murder hornets, which are native to eastern and Southeast Asia, haven’t made their way to Oregon, the thumb-sized creatures are known to prey on honey bees to the point of devastating colonies.

Paper wasps and yellowjackets

Locally, “most of the ‘wasps’ we’ve been seeing are paper wasps,” Reitz said, and as the weather gets warmer, the “yellowjackets tend to get really active.”

He says more numbers of paper wasps early in the spring were overwintering queens from last fall, out busily building their nests.

“I suspect the reason for seeing large numbers now is the ‘winter’ we didn’t have,” Reitz says. “Without much cold weather, a lot more of the wasps from last fall were able to survive the winter.”

Yellowjackets predate on honey bees, as they often attack colonies and carry off both bees and honey. However, due to the fact that they play an important role in the ecosystem, OSU’s Extension Service says it’s best not to control them unless they are causing a stinging hazard to humans or are severely impacting honey bee colonies.

In his work field, Reitz has heard of several home remedies for combating wasps, he said. Among these is a fad to hang “blown up brown paper bags around a house,” in order to mimic hornet nests.

“Hornets can prey on paper wasps and yellowjackets. I can’t vouch for their effectiveness but some folks believe in them,” he says.

When it comes to telling paper wasps and yellowjackets apart, their body types are as different as their nesting style.

“Paper wasps are the one who build open, umbrella shaped nests in sheltered areas - under eaves, doorways, mailboxes or similar locations, but they’re always above ground,” Reitz explains. “Yellow jackets generally nest underground and have just one entrance to a nest.”

For those who need to control a paper wasp problem, he says a person’s first step is locating the nest, then waiting until evening or early morning “when the wasps are back in the nest and not active.”

“Then you can spray it with a household wasp/hornet spray. Use one with a long distance spray so you do not need to get close to any nests,” he says, adding to take care of following the product’s directions for use.

Equally important roles

Honey bees and yellowjacket wasps both play equally important roles in the ecosystem. According to OSU’s Extension Service, in a paper titled “Protecting Honey Bees from Yellowjacket Wasps,” yellowjackets are predators to common pest insects, as well as scavengers, cleaning up decaying animal material and detritus.

“Unfortunately for honey bees and their keepers, yellowjackets find a bounty of resources in a honey bee colony. By maintaining strong honey bee colonies, practicing good beekeeping habits and keeping apiaries clean, beekeepers can reduce yellowjacket predation on honey bees without destroying these important predatory insects.”

While honey bees are the most vital pollinator for agriculture, all pollinators are capable of transporting pollen grains as they move from spot to spot to drink nectar of feed off of pollen, according to Pollinator Partnership. This is important, because between 75% to 95% of all flowering plants on earth need pollinators.

How can you help?

In addition to planting flowers that attract them, there are many ways to get directly involved in helping increase pollinator numbers. This includes adding natural habitat areas into farm systems works and planting the right plants, according to Pollinator Partnership.

Other ways to get involved include spreading the word about the importance of pollinators, supporting farmers and beekeepers by buying local honey and locally produced organic foods and donating to legitimate research.

With many business closures still in place due to the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, Pollinator Partnership encourages establishments and buildings to help spread awareness this week by lighting up yellow and orange in support of pollinators.

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