The Bats and the Bees

  • Posted by Dawn Merritt

    At the end of our July convention, Ikes enjoyed workshops that offered an in-depth look at two species that play an integral role in ecosystems across the country: Bats and honey bees. These speakers were dynamic, informed, and clearly framed the issues that put these pollinators – and us – in peril.

    To Bee or Not To Bee
    “Honey bee populations are dramatically declining," says Jeremy Barnes, president of the York County Bee Keepers Association. "Over the past 50 years, the number of hives in the United States has declined by 55 percent. In the most dramatic losses, labeled Colony Collapse Disorder, almost all of the bees in a colony disappear overnight, as if they were called or pushed out of the hive and could not find their way back home.”

    Beekeepers see a direct correlation between what’s happening in the hives and what’s happening with pesticides on crops. "The wax that bees create to store honey and raise bee larvae acts as a filter, absorbing chemicals to prevent contamination of the honey," explains Barnes. "In 2009, researchers identified 78 different chemicals in beeswax, of which 46 were pesticides. These chemicals – from industrial pollution and car exhaust to agricultural chemicals – could contaminate stored honey or damage the bees themselves.”

    Beekeepers expect and can normally recover from winter losses of up to 15 percent. But over the past four years, according to Barnes, those numbers ranged from 29 to 35 percent – a level that beekeepers say is unsustainable. "Only 50 miles from this hotel is one of Pennsylvania’s largest commercial beekeepers. He was hit with Colony Collapse Disorder and it cost him $1.5 million to get reestablished. He just got hit again. He can’t handle those loses." Some commercial beekeepers are calling it quits, and the future of the many crops that depend on commercial bee pollination is now in question.

    Barnes told the Ikes that what will save the honey bees are the choices we make as consumers. "We need to ask questions about where our food comes from, how it was grown, and the chemicals that it might contain and to support with our dollars those who farm in conformity with our values. We need a revolution from below.”

    For more information about honey bee declines and what you can do to help – including the story of a Pennsylvania family making a difference by keeping their own bee hives and encouraging others to do the same – read Barnes' article in the upcoming issue of Outdoor America.

    White Nose Syndrome: Devastating Bat Disease
    Greg Turner, a wildlife biologist with the Bureau of Wildlife Management, Pennsylvania Game Commission, is at the forefront of White Nose Syndrome (WNS) research. He offered details on recent efforts to combat the fungus causing the disease and what the spread of White Nose Syndrome may mean to bat populations.

    “Bats provide valuable ecological services,” explained Turner. “One little brown bat can capture 1,200 insects in an hour. A nursing female eats more than her own body weight nightly – up to 4,500 insects, including mosquitoes that can transmit deadly diseases and moths that eat crops. Bats consume hundreds of thousands of tons of insects annually in this country alone.”

    White Nose fungus was first discovered in New York in 2007. According to Turner, it’s a fungus we’ve never seen before. It invades the skin and digests live cells, which is quite different from other fungi, which usually eat dead organic material. The fungus eats away bat wing membranes while they hibernate in the winter. “All it takes is one infected bat and the site is done. Within one to two years the mortality rate is 99 percent.”

    Turner emphasized that people are spreading White Nose Syndrome. "It has now spread to western bat species and must have been brought into those western caves by people because eastern and western bat species won’t mingle. Research shows clothing can contain and hold the fungus spores.”

    Turner’s research shows that hibernation sites are still infected with the fungus at least one year after a bat colony dies. Scientists can’t simply disinfect those sites because they host many other animals and ecosystems. He is working with other researchers on ways to prevent the spread of White Nose Syndrome, such as keeping uninfected bats blocked in their caves, and treating bats that have been infected.

    Turner provided a list of action items for Ikes, including

    -- Educate cave owners of caves about the moratorium on people entering caves, decontamination protocols, and why they should help minimize disturbance of bats in the winter. (You can find decontamination protocols on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Web site along with updates on cave closures nationwide.)

    -- Inform your political representatives about the need for political and financial support to investigate this ongoing disaster.

    -- Install bat boxes in suitable locations where bats can safely rear their young (these are called maternity sites) and conduct bat emergence counts at known maternity sites. (You can find bat box construction plans on the League Web site.)

    -- “Help us find survivors. We need to know where summer colonies are to protect them!” Check your state Department of Natural Resources Web site for contact information.

    -- Dawn Merritt

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