Power Pollinators: Bees, Bats, and Butterflies

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By Alex Bourquein

worker foragingThey are usually heard before seen, and fear is not out of the realm of possibility as a first reaction. But the buzz on bees is they are vital pollinators for various crops and flowers and people are picking up beekeeping as a hobby at an unprecedented rate.

On Texas A&M University’s RELLIS campus, formerly known as Riverside Campus, is a little known, yet important, building. Since opening in March 2013, the Honey Bee Lab has conducted research on diseases that can affect hives, beekeeping, and other biological factors that can affect the insects as a whole.

The European honey bee, the type of bee housed in the facility’s hive boxes, is a non-native species and was brought to America centuries ago. Besides producing honey, bees are important pollinators and pollinate at least two-thirds of edible plants, according to Mark Dykes, chief apiary inspector at the Honey Bee Lab.

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding in the media about bees. There is a species of bumble bee out in Hawaii that was put on the endangered list, not the European honey bee,” says Dykes.

“The notion of ‘If the bees disappear we are all going to die’ is fallacy,” Dykes continues. “We are not facing a ‘bee-pocalypse’ as some people call it. The reality is that our diets would just become extremely boring.”That does not mean that bees are entirely safe, according to Dykes. Bees are facing habitat endangerment from construction and paving over bee-forage areas. Because of this, hives will settle in populated areas, creating safety concerns for the humans they are roosting near. The best ways to combat this are educating people about bees, planting bee-friendly forage, or calling a professional beekeeper to safely remove the hive.

DSC_0618To help the bees, homeowners can plant bee-friendly forage in their own backyards. An important thing to remember is to plant flowering plants that are native to the area. Homeowners can contact either a horticulturist or a local Master Gardener, says Dykes. The flowers recommended for the Brazos Valley include Indian Paintbrushes, primrose, stinkweed, aster, golden rod, and a Native American pollinator blend of seed that can be picked up at a local greenery.

Another tip is to provide a water source for the bees. “This is a great opportunity to upcycle any wine corks you have laying around,” says Dykes. “Put the corks on top of the water so the bees have a safe place to land and don’t drown.”

If you ever feel threatened by bees, an important tip to remember is to never swat, cover your face, and move away from the area slowly with deliberate movements, says Dykes. Bees will take fast, unpredictable movements as a sign of aggression.

If a homeowner believes a hive poses a danger to their community or pets, it is recommended that the hive be removed by a local beekeeper rather than have it exterminated, though bee removal has its own misconceptions.

DSC_0610“A lot of people call and assume bee hive removal will be free,” says Alvin Dean, president of the Brazos Valley Beekeeper Association. “Yes, it’s helping the bees, but like any job, it costs money to remove the hive and bees from your wall successfully. If an exterminator does it, it will cause more problems because now you have dead bees and rotting hive in your walls, which will attract more pests.”

As president of the BVBA, Dean is passionate about educating the community on beekeeping, mentoring new beekeepers, and spreading knowledge through their popular youth beekeeping program. The youth program is geared towards students 12 to 18 years old and requires that the students participate in the Future Farmers of America as well as the BVBA.

“What makes our program successful is that after the first year of in-class instruction, students get a full beekeeping set-up paid for by the organization,” says Dean. The materials include a suit, a hive smoker, hive tools, a pack of bees, and their first hive box. If students complete a second year, they will receive another hive box and be taught how to split the hive.

Through the youth education program, Dean hopes to create future beekeepers who are environmentally conscious when it comes to protecting bees.

Mexican Long-nosed batWhat comes to mind when people think about bats? Blood-sucking vampires? Rabies-ridden pests? Located just two-hours away from Austin, perhaps the Congress Avenue Bridge bat watch comes to mind?

The Brazos Valley is no stranger to bats — Texas A&M’s pre-renovated Kyle Field was home to thousands of Mexican Free-Tailed Bats.

Bats engender their own misconceptions, just like bees, as they tend to generate more fear than wonder. Taking the time to understand the importance of bats to Texas agriculture, and common misconceptions, is helpful to both people and bats.

“Any organism in certain circumstances can be considered a pest, but I think you need to weigh those sorts of things against the benefits,” says Dr. Thomas Lacher, a professor in the department of wildlife and fisheries at Texas A&M.

Lacher explains that while a big scare for people is that bats carry rabies, there is probably less than 1 percent of native wild bats that actually do. Additionally, the CDC reports only one to three human rabies cases per year in the U.S.

“Bats provide enormous benefit by saving the state millions of dollars in insect control,” Lacher continues. “If you look at the cost-benefit ratio, the number of people infected by rabies compared to the agriculture benefits in Texas, it’s very hard to consider them as pests. People often fail to consider the awesome benefits that bats can provide to agriculture.”

Loss of habitat is a problem facing the bats in the Brazos Valley. An idea promoted by Lacher is to build bat houses at The Gardens of Texas A&M’s West campus.

“After the demolition of Kyle Field, huge amounts of guano [bat feces] were found on top of concession areas, which can pose a health risk to humans,” says Lacher. “Florida State had a similar problem, but by installing alternative housing for the bats on campus, they have made themselves somewhat of a tourist attraction. The same thing could happen for Texas A&M.”

agaveThe best way Brazos Valley homeowners can combat habitat loss is to build their own boxes in  yards for bats to roost in during the day.

Bat Conservation International, located in Austin, provides instructions on how to build a bat house, posters, and educational workshops, says Lacher.

Lacher travels regularly Mexico to study the Mexican long-nosed bat, an important pollinator of the agave plant from which tequila is made. He plans to return to gain a better understanding of migration and roosting patterns as well as to work with local communities on education including going to schools to educate children about bat conservation.

For anyone who comes across a bat on the ground – dead or alive – the best course of action is to leave it alone and call the closest animal control services to remove the bat from the area. As with any wild animal, always approach with caution, says Lacher. On the Texas A&M campus, there is a specific phone number to call with information about a bat in a building or one found dead or alive on the ground: (979) 845-4311.

DSC_0684In 2016, the mayors of College Station and Bryan took the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayors’ Monarch Pledge, a national campaign local government officials can join to help the monarch and other pollinators thrive.

The Brazos Valley is taking crucial steps to underscore the importance of the monarch butterfly, which travels through the Brazos Valley on its way to Mexico every year and is an important pollinator for wildflowers in the area.

On Texas A&M’s main campus, research into this popular pollinator is taking flight on bright orange and black wings.

Samantha Iiams, a genetics doctoral candidate, is currently studying how a monarch butterfly’s neural pathways change during migratory periods in response to length of light exposure during opposing seasons.

DSC_0705“An important part of my research is counting the eggs of the summer-like and winter-like groups of monarchs in the lab,” says Iiams. “The long-day monarchs are full of eggs whereas the short-day monarchs have little to no eggs. This is evidence that there are physical changes that happen to monarchs in response to daylight.”

Iiams theorizes the monarchs also use this photosensitivity to track the position of the sun during migration periods. During the fall, monarchs migrate through Texas on their way to their wintering grounds in Mexico.

With all the breeding monarchs in one location to wait out the northern winters, unexpected winter storms are devastating to the population because the few that can migrate back north are responsible for repopulating the eastern U.S.

DSC_0688The monarch population has been seeing a steady decrease over the past decade due to unexpected weather conditions as well as a declining milkweed habitat, a plant vital to the survival of the monarch as it is the only plant larvae will consume.

Homeowners in the Brazos Valley who want to provide aide for the monarch butterfly can plant milkweed in their gardens. Since monarchs will not fly without daylight, says Iiams, homeowners also can build a butterfly box to provide a roosting area during the night.

Monarchs are prolific pollinators, so it is also important to plant wildflowers for food for adult butterflies. The best wildflowers to plant are ones that are native to the Brazos Valley, but the most important foliage to plant is the milkweed.