Pollination by more than one bee species found to improve cherry harvest

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The combination of honey bees and mason bees as pollinators yields a much bigger harvest than with only one species. Credit: Julia Osterman

To obtain the biggest cherry harvest, trees should be pollinated by both honey bees and mason bees. A new study led by a researcher at the University of Gothenburg shows yet another benefit of biodiversity.

Like many other , most sweet cherry cultivars depend on cross-pollination to produce their . This means that there need to be several different cultivars of sweet cherry trees in an for the to transport pollen from one to another.

“Sweet cherry trees are usually planted in alternate rows of different cultivars. In some cases, you can put different cultivars in the same row, but this can make the harvesting logistics tricky. In other words, the bees have to fly from one row of trees to the next to ensure that the trees set fruit,” says Julia Osterman, a biologist at the University of Gothenburg and lead author of the study.

The paper, “Mason bees and honey bees synergistically enhance fruit set in sweet cherry orchards”, has been published in the journal Ecology and Evolution.

Hexbyte Glen Cove Two bee species produce a synergy effect

Working with German researcher colleagues at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, Julia Osterman found that if trees were pollinated by more than one bee species, they produced more cherries. The researchers observed bees in a total of 17 cherry orchards in eastern Germany. Some growers used bees in hives as pollinators, while others used wild mason bees. Some orchards used both species to different extents. The researchers noticed a synergy effect in those orchards in which both species of bee were present.

Installing bamboo canes or wood with drilled holes attracts mason bees to orchards. Credit: Julia Osterman

“It had an impact on the sweet cherry fruit set. The orchards with honey bees and lots of mason bees could have cherries on up to 70% of the blossom. In orchards with only honey bees or only mason bees as pollinators the rate could be as low as 20%,” says Julia Osterman.

Many growers were already using two species of bees, often as a back-up if the weather was too cold for the honey bees when the cherry trees were in bloom, as cherries flower early. Honey bees only become active once the temperature is above 12°C, but mason bees can cope with lower temperatures. The sharp increase in fruiting occurred when both species were active. The researchers are now speculating on the reasons for this.

Hexbyte Glen Cove Bamboo sticks as nest material

“One theory is that the presence of mason bees affects the foraging behavior of honey bees,” says Julia Osterman. “This disturbs them and so they change rows more often, resulting in more cross-pollination. But all we know at the moment is that interaction between the bees produces a synergy effect.”

Of course, this is valuable data for cherry growers who can attract wild mason bees to their orchards by providing good nest material.

A mason bee collecting pollen in a cherry orchard. Credit: Maxime Eeraerts

“Mason bees are solitary and don’t make honey in honeycombs like honey bees,” Julia Osterman explains.

“They are more focused on collecting pollen to feed their offspring. They like to crawl into tube-shaped spaces where they can lay their eggs. Fruit growers can encourage mason bees to nest in their orchards by placing bamboo or wood with holes drilled in it at the site. However, it only seems to work up to a certain limit, after which you won’t attract any more mason bees, no matter how much nest material you bring in.”

Similar results have been observed in almond orchards and Julia Osterman’s next step will be to investigate whether this synergy effect applies to other fruit , as well as trying to determine exactly how the two are affecting each other.

The study was conducted in Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia in Germany in spring 2020 with researchers from Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg and a research institute in Erfurt.

More information:
Julia Osterman et al, Mason bees and honey bees synergistically enhance fruit set in sweet cherry orchards, Ecology and Evolution (2023). DOI: 10.1002/ece3.10289

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Immune-boosting therapy helps honey bees resist deadly viruses

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Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

Scientists have successfully tested a novel way of boosting honey bees’ immune systems to help them fend off deadly viruses, which have contributed to the major losses of the critical pollinator globally.

In a new study, the research team, which includes entomologists with the University of Florida, the Agricultural Research Service-USDA, Louisiana State University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, showed that prompting honey bees’ cells to produce helped the bees weather a host of viruses. In fact, the treatment greatly reduced, and in some cases, nearly eliminated in full scale field studies.

“This approach is especially exciting because it doesn’t just target a specific type of virus but helps with many different viruses,” said Daniel Swale, senior author of the study. Swale is the associate director for training and special projects in the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute and associate professor in the UF/IFAS entomology and nematology department.

“Additionally, we demonstrated that our treatment works both in the lab and in colonies that each contain 80,000 bees in the field. This is huge because, in a hive setting, bees are exposed to so many different viruses and stressors, so successfully controlling viruses in that environment is very encouraging,” said Swale, who completed some of this research while at Louisiana State University.

Honey bee colonies, and the beekeepers who manage them, play an important role in food production by pollinating many crops. In recent years, honey bee populations have seen significant declines, and viruses, while not the top cause of honey bee deaths, are among the main contributors.

“Varroa mites are the number one cause of honey bee losses, but it’s important to point out that varroa mites, aside from physically weakening bees, also transmit viruses to bees. If we can mitigate viruses in , that would be a big step forward,” said Michael Simone-Finstrom, a co-author of the study and a research with the ARS Honey Bee Breeding, Genetics, and Physiology Research Lab in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

In the experiment, the researchers used a compound called pinacidil to alter potassium ion channels, a protein found in the cells of bees’ and most living things. Altering these channels produced slightly more free radicals.

“While free radicals are often bad for cell health, in moderate amounts they can be therapeutic, as we see in this study. In this case, the additional free radicals signal to the immune system to ramp up, which helps the bees fight off viruses,” said Troy Anderson, a co-author of the paper and a professor of entomology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The scientists administered the drug to honey bee colonies by mixing it into sugar water and drizzling the water over the honey comb at night. The bees then consumed the sugar water and fed it to their young. During the day, bees are constantly moving in an out of the hive, so giving them the treatment at night maximizes the number of bees that will receive it.

The treatment protected bees from six potentially deadly honey bee viruses: Israeli acute paralysis virus, deformed wing viruses A and B, black queen cell and Lake Sinai viruses 1 and 2. The researchers also showed that pinacidil helped more bees survive in colonies heavily infested with .

Administering pinacidil to commercial honey bee hives may only be feasible for some beekeepers, the researchers said, but the study opens the door to identifying other active ingredients that may work better and cost less.

“One of the big take-aways from this study is that potassium ion channels can be a target for improving function in honey bees and possibly other insects. We would like to find a molecule, such as a peptide, or a new technology that has the same effect as pinacidil but is more accessible to beekeepers,” Swale said.

The study is published in the Virology Journal.

More information:
Christopher J. Fellows et al, Potassium ion channels as a molecular target to reduce virus infection and mortality of honey bee colonies, Virology Journal (2023). DOI: 10.1186/s12985-023-02104-0

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