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Just Bee cause: Pollinators are responsible for foods, medicines and more

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 21, 2011 - When St. Louisans think of bees, 4,400 different species don't come to mind.

"When talking to people about native bees, we needed to get people to realize that there's more than one kind," said Ed Spevak, curator of invertebrates at the St. Louis Zoo. According to Spevak and others, Missouri only sees 427 species of bees, and their effect can be vital to human life.

"Bees are important for everything from the food that we eat -- almonds, fruit and other crops -- to certain medicines and even beverages," Spevak said.

Mike Arduser, natural history biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, helps to keep track of insects, and thinks that bees are getting a lot of spotlight.

"They're in the public eye, because they're so interconnected with human life. There's been a little bit of media exaggeration, but there has been a real concern," said Arduser, referring to stories about hive collapse.

The concern he has relates to a noticeable lack in judgment when St. Louisans use pesticides in gardening or other yard work. When toxins are sprayed on pollinated plants, bees are less likely to do their job.

Spevak, along with other Zoo field researchers, are studying bumblebees in Forest Park. The program was started five years ago by researchers who were concerned with the how pollinators were doing out in the open ecosystem.

The study is being highlighted now because June 20-26 is National Pollination Week. The St. Louis Zoo is hosting a series of activities and a dinner to focus on the current situation for bees and their importance to the ecosystem.

"We do the majority of research in Forest Park, but we also work with the Missouri Research Park in St. Charles. The first thing we want to do is identify the types of bees that we find," said Spevak.

The Missouri Research Park, which is set up to be an incubator of high-tech companies, redesigned its campus to better accommodate the researchers.

"They've really developed a terrific vegetation; it's also encouraging to see their staff attain Wildlife Certification. One of the companies, Novus International, has been very pro pollinator for the food that they manufacture out in the research park."

A spin-off of Monsanto in 1991, Novus approaches feeding animals and cattle in a holistic manner. Novus also provides seeds, crops and vaccines, which can be affected if pollinators aren't doing their job properly.

When designing the park, Spevak says developers carefully created the area to promote and encourage some of the right ways to plant flowers and foster wildlife.

Spevak says that when people use pesticides, they can affect not only bees but other pollinators such as butterflies and caterpillars.

The Missouri Department of Transportation is slowly changing its outdoor work to avoid problems, he said.

"It seems that MODOT's really cut down on their use of pesticides. We try to encourage them to cut back on their mowing and also spraying pesticides," said Spevak.

May Berenbaum, head of entomology at University of Illinois, says that chemicals can affect everything from beehives to rural environments where they pollinate.

Honey bees are not like other plant-eating insects, according to Berenbaum. Many bees have evolved along with the flowers. This makes them more readily susceptible to over exposure from the chemicals.

Arduser and Spevak agree that cutting down on the use of pesticides in one's yard can be very simple. When Arduser works in his back yard, he uses a water hose to get insects off flowers and plants. Water is a natural pollinator helping pollen float on top of the water to the plant, according to the U.S. Forest Service's website.

Spevak and his wife built a bee block to help native bees by providing a safe environment. They started with a block of wood, and he poked holes into it. This helps the bees to feel safe, creating a hive, which leads to more nectar and pollination.

"The risks of using pesticides outweigh the bad outcomes. It's like someone taking an antibiotic, you can take it once and be fine, but everyday" and it become ineffective, Arduser said.

"Honey bees seem to be a totally different subject from other bees; there's a huge amount of interest in the agricultural economic sector," said Arduser.

Bernbaum says that bees produce a vital chain for food production. As natural workers, honey bees produce nectar coming from plant tissue. This nectar is a result of the pollination that comes from flowers.

Honey bees are essential to the production of fruit from peaches to apples and more. The food industry has invested millions of dollars in honey bees, according to both Arduser and Berenbaum.

Arduser is not too concerned with the steep decline in bee populations, "We can't make a blanket statement about the bees. It's not very clear," Arduser said.

For example, around 10 years ago, Penn Bumble Bees would have been more common to see, but they haven't been seen this season, he said.

Honey bees have not been declining as rapidly in Missouri as in other states because we have large rural areas unaffected by industrial development. In fact, sweat cutter bees and leaf bees have not a seen a decline at all, Arduser said.

"The benefits of bees can go in many directions; they can affect what we eat directly and indirectly. They also affect other wildlife such as robin and blue birds; creating a diverse and natural community, we need bees," Arduser said. Birds need the nectar that comes from plants and flowers.

Spevak will be the host at the Zoo's special Pollination Dinner at 6 p.m., June 23, at the Living World Exhibit dining and conference center.

"I want people to get more knowledge about the subject. About 80 percent of our flowers are dependent on pollinators, we need to think more about pollination and vice-versa," Spevak said.

Spevak wants to focus on Missouri's past and future relationships with pollination.

Tickets are $31.50 for adults and $20 for children 12 and under.

The festivities will begin with hors d'oeuvres such as Blue Diamond almonds and a variety of honeys. "There's also going to be different kinds of honey Bourbon that people can taste at the cash bar," Spevak said.

The dinner -- an all-you-can-eat buffet -- consists of food that comes from pollinators.

Other organizations that will be present include the Butterfly House and The Missouri State Beekeeper's association.

Spevak encourages families to come and learn about the importance of promoting pollination and pollinators' affect on society.

"They really do create and maintain our ecosystem. Bees are really a keystone species," Spevak said.

Ray Carter, a senior at Purdue University, is a Beacon intern.