Eagles and Bees

Clearly the American Bald Eagle is not bald - the term is a corruption of the Middle English word balde, meaning white. Nor is it America’s national bird.  There is a national mammal (bison) and national tree (oak) but Congress has never chosen a national bird.  Indeed Benjamin Franklin actively campaigned against the bald eagle, arguing it to be ‘a bird of bad moral character’! 

 

But in 1782, from the moment when the Continual Congress voted to put the bald eagle on the Great Seal of the United States, distinctive of a young Republic anxious to assert an American-born identity separate from Britain, it became a symbol of national unity and strength. 

 

Despite this honor and prestige, the eagle was described by a major newspaper in 1905 as “a scavenger, a coward and a thief” and was in danger of extinction.  Primarily a fish eater,  it was accused of carrying away sheep, calves, pigs  and even human babies - all loads that exceeded its lifting power - and it had become as much a target for eradication as were wolves and coyotes. 

 

By 1923 the absence of the eagles was such that, according to Nature Magazine, “a very large proportion of (our population) has never seen an American eagle in the sky.”  Congress responded with the Bald Eagle Protection Act (1940)  but eight years later DDT became available for general use further adulterating our food with biocides, together with factories and vehicles that despoiled the atmosphere and waste products that fouled our water.   By the mid 60’s the eagle’s nesting population in the lower 48 states had fallen to 487 pairs, less that those seen in any single state before the eradication began. 

 

This time the people acted and Congress followed suit.  On the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, besides the protest marches, 20 million Americans joined in clean-up and tree-planting campaigns.   Within two years Congress had passed the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act, banned DDT and given bipartisan support to the Clean Water Act. 

 

Much of the above is taken from two articles celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, arguing that “nothing would be more essential to the eagles’ comeback than the restoration of their watery habits.”  Bald eagles are thriving again, with a 200 fold increase in their population to the point that they have recovered to the estimated number in the early 18th century. 

 

How does this relate to honey bees?   First, just as the quality of water was critical to the recovery of the bald eagle, so the quality of the soil is critical to the survival of not just the honey bee but all pollinators.  Soil quality is basic to all plant life, something the initial agriculturalists recognized and protected, and we have abused it.  To quote Jonathan Powell from last month’s column, because it is worth repeating : “Indigenous cultures have sensed and have respected these connections without the benefit of modern scientific analysis and data.  It is ironic that we know so much more than these ancient cultures, and yet this knowledge does not appear to come with the wisdom to live in balance with nature.” 

 

Secondly, Dr. Christina Grozinger of Penn State is cited in an article by Sara LaJeunesse in the May issue of the Beescape newsletter : "For more than a decade, my colleagues and I have been studying the effects of pesticides, diseases, and land-use patterns on pollinators. These are all problems that we humans have the ability to manage - to an extent. But our most recent research has revealed that weather and climate change are much more important contributors to the decline of bees."

 

Colony Collapse Disorder prompted Christina, then an assistant professor at North Carolina State University, to examine the molecular mechanisms underpinning bees' responses to stressors such as  pathogens, parasites, pesticides and bee nutrition. In 2008 she moved to the Department of Entomology at Penn State where she developed relationships with local beekeepers and realized that some of the challenges they faced were a result of the broader landscape in which their colonies were housed. "What these beekeepers needed were tools to help understand how various landscape factors affected their bees," she said.

So, in 2019, she and her colleagues developed Beescape, a software program that enables beekeepers to understand the local and specific stressors to which their bees are exposed. A year later,  together with Dr. Maggie Douglas, a former Penn State graduate student and now a professor at Dickinson College, Christina showed that during the past 20 years insecticides applied to U.S. agricultural landscapes have become significantly more toxic to bees. "We found that increased use of neonicotinoid seed treatments in corn and soy are the primary drivers of this change. This study was the first to characterize the geographic patterns of insecticide toxicity to bees and reveal specific areas of the country where mitigation and conservation efforts could be focused."

In 2021, however, two studies prompted Christina to extend the criteria in her research program so as to include all the environmental factors that might be relevant to bees.

In the first study, she and a team that included Dr. Sarah Goslee from the USDA Agricultural Research Service based at the Penn State University Park campus, worked with the Pennsylvania State Beekeepers Association to collect data on the winter survival of bees. For each participating apiary the team compiled data on landscape variables that influence the availability of floral resources and insecticide exposure risk. Because Sarah has expertise in assessing weather and climate effects on plant species distributions, they decided to add weather to the mix, including temperature and moisture conditions. 

The team found that although the local landscape variables were important, the weather was critical to honey bee winter survival. In particular, winter survival is most strongly influenced by summer temperatures and precipitation in the prior year. It could be that the weather is influencing plants and their ability to flower and produce nectar and pollen, or the time and length of flowering, or the ability of the bees to collect the nectar and pollen, or the amount of pollen and nectar available, or combinations of all of the above.   "It definitely suggests that honey bees have a 'goldilocks' preferred range of summer conditions, outside of which their probability of surviving the winter falls,” Christina concludes.

These weather effects are already being felt. Christina has estimated that honey bees suffered overwintering mortality rates of more than 53 percent from 2016 to 2019, a critical loss rate  considering that the economic impact of insect pollinators has been re-valued at  $34 billion in 2012, a figure much higher than was previously thought.

Secondly, the team studied how wild bees are affected by land use and climate factors. Headed  by  former Penn State graduate student Dr. Melanie Kammerer, and involving Grozinger, Goslee, and Penn State professor of entomology Dr. John Tooker, the team analyzed a 14-year U.S. Geological Survey data set of wild bee occurrences from more than 1,000 locations in Maryland, Delaware, and Washington, D.C. Using land cover maps and spatial models, they described the landscape surrounding each of the sampling locations, compiled a suite of climate variables and used machine learning models to identify the most important variables and quantify their effects on wild bees.

"Our results indicate that temperature and precipitation patterns are more important than suitable habitat or floral and nesting resources in controlling wild bee abundance and species diversity," said Christina. "These findings suggest that addressing land-use issues alone will not be sufficient to protect these important pollinators …  We can study the effects of all these environmental factors on bees, and we can make recommendations for things that can be done to support bees, but we have to understand what people are actually willing to do about it. How can we help them understand this information in a way that allows them to make more informed decisions about their personal and professional activities?”

The bald eagle, as a symbol of national unity and strength, was the eventual inspiration for significant environmental action.  Globally, the honey bee has been used to symbolize a variety of traits, including industry, community, productivity, power, fertility, resurrection and sexuality, by a wide range of people from Napoleon Bonaparte, the Mormons, the Celts, the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Khoisan people, the ancient Egyptians, to the people of Manchester City in the UK as recently as 2017.  Hopefully the plight of the honey bee and pollinators in general will inspire global environmental changes just as did the plight of the eagle.  As an article in the April-May issue of The Smithsonian concludes, “Bald eagles have not changed since the adoption of the Great Seal - they have shown that we can change.” 

 

 

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