Seeking a better bee Pollinator: Entomologist at federal research center tests various species to replace the threatened honeybee.

April 28, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Net in hand, Dr. Suzanne Batra is in the woods, looking for the perfect pollinator.

The honeybee, the nation's top gun when it comes to crop-dusting, is in trouble. Attacked by other bugs, its numbers are decreasing.

In Maryland, this is serious business. Honeybees pollinate $38 million worth of crops each year. Without pollination, the fruits would be smaller and misshapen.

Dr. Batra, an entomologist at the U.S. Agricultural Research Service's Bee Research Lab in Beltsville, hopes to find a replacement from the 20,000 species that buzz worldwide. She has studied bees in Australia, brought back bees from India and monitors sheds filled with specimens in the woods behind her lab.

During a walk through the nearby fields, she shows no fear of being stung, placing an index finger on the ground and letting a bee with an injured wing crawl along it.

"These are real gentle," she says of the insect nicknamed the "polyester bee" for the biodegradable, waterproof plastic it secretes to protect its eggs.

Dr. Batra, 58, of Greenbelt has been studying bees since the early 1960s, when she earned a doctorate in entomology working under Charles D. Michener, a noted bee expert. She joined the research staff at Beltsville in 1974.

In her laboratory, she has thousands of dead bees, gathered from 22 years of globe-trotting research. The collection includes some menacing-looking carpenter bees that are the size of a 50-cent piece and several varieties that shine like jewels.

"These are fascinating," she says, pointing out the detail of the orchid parasite bee, a South American variety with green wings that sparkle like emeralds.

The honeybee's reign as the nation's chief pollinator dates to the 1600s when specimens were imported by English settlers to Jamestown, Va.

Bees pollinate most commercially produced fruits and vegetables, distributing pollen on their hairy legs that improves the quality of apples, peaches, watermelons, blueberries and just about anything that grows on a vine.

Mites arrive

But in 1984, the honeybee tracheal mite arrived from Mexico in 1984 and, in 1987, the varroa mite was discovered in Wisconsin and Florida.

The mites will probably never wipe out honeybees entirely, says I. Barton Smith Jr., chief bee inspector with the Maryland Department of Agriculture. But they have killed off one-third of the state's colonies in the past 10 years and have driven many hobbyists out of beekeeping.

Mr. Smith says honeybees can be protected by putting specially treated strips and food additives into their hives.

More expense

"What it's meant is that it's more expense to keep bees, and they take more work," he says.

Jerry Fischer, a 60-year-old beekeeper from Rosedale, said the mites have been wiping out about 50 colonies each year for the past several years. At $50 per colony, the cost has been adding up, he said.

"Those mites just about killed me," he said.

To help beekeepers like Mr. Fischer, Dr. Batra is monitoring two species of bees that zip in and out of some storage sheds -- each about the size of a doghouse -- on the edge of a wooded field behind her lab.

In one shed is the shaggy fuzzyfoot bee, a fat and particularly swift flier (bees can fly at steady speeds of 20 mph) that she brought to the United States from Japan in 1989.

Next to it is a shed filled with hornfaced bees, which she brought from Japan in 1980.

More efficient

The hornfaced bee is the best candidate to supplement the honeybee because it is not susceptible to the mites, is 80 times more efficient as it buzzes from flower to flower and has been used as a pollinator by the Japanese since the 1930s, she said.

Dr. Batra won approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture several years ago to import and distribute hornfaced bees and ship them -- in overnight Federal Express packages while they lie dormant -- to selected beekeepers across the country.

In shipping them, she is trying to convince the keepers of its pollinating powers, she says.

Mr. Fischer, who has been to Beltsville for instructions from Dr. Batra, accepted some hornfaced bees last month and plans one day to rent them out to farmers, instead of honeybees, to help pollinate their crops.

Maryland farmers pay $25 per colony for honeybees, sometimes renting as many as 40 colonies for up to three weeks, he said.

Mr. Fischer, who was raised on a farm and has been keeping bees for 25 years, said Dr. Batra persuaded him to try the hornfaced bees gradually, in meetings she held for bee inspectors at Beltsville over the past few years.

He said he finds the hornfaced bee's efficiency fascinating and pTC thinks it might change the way he and other Maryland beekeepers do business. "I think she may have something here."

Pub Date: 4/28/96

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