Tag Archives: pollination

Rainforests: Scientists concerned climate change is altering the tropical life cycle

Climate change could be causing shifts to the natural cycle of life in the tropical rainforest, scientists have suggested.

A rise in global temperatures may be driving trees and plants to produce fruit and flowers earlier or later than before, researchers have found. This could have large consequences for a diverse range of animals that rely on tropical rainforests for food and shelter.

The animals most at risk include those that rely on flower nectar for survival, including bees and hummingbirds, as well as animals that feed on the fruit of tropical trees, including great apes, monkeys and parrots.

However, a lack of historical data and ongoing research in the tropics means that the scale of these changes is yet to be fully understood, scientists told Carbon Brief at a Royal Society conference held in Buckinghamshire earlier this month.

Changing seasons

In every part of the world, plants rely on cues from their environment, including changes in sunshine, temperature and rainfall, to determine when to start producing leaves, flowers or fruit. The study of this phenomenon is known as plant “phenology”.

Primary rainforest Langkawi Malaysia. Credit: David Noton Photography / Alamy Stock Photo.

In temperate regions, including the UK and North America, plants tend to time their natural cycles to the changing of the seasons. For instance, plants respond to warming temperatures and increasing daylight hours in the spring by sprouting new leaves.

However, rainforests do not have well-defined seasons, such as spring, summer, autumn, and winter, says Prof Patricia Morellato from São Paulo State University in Brazil. Morellato chaired a session on the possible future of tropical phenology research at the conference. At the sidelines of the event, she told Carbon Brief:

“In the tropics, we don’t have sharp seasons, so it’s more difficult to track changes. Instead, we have to know the cycle and, over time, see if the cycle is changing.”

Most rainforests have a wet and a dry season, which is caused by annual changes in rainfall. But many tropical plants do not time events, such as flowering, in accordance with these seasons, says Dr Joseph Wright, from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. At the conference, Wright presented a talk on the environmental controls of leaf fall and flowering in tropical rainforests. He told Carbon Brief:

“I work on a 16 sq km site in Panama with 2,000 plant species. Every month of the year, there are several hundred species flowering. At the peak month, there’s probably a thousand species flowering. But even in the minimum month, there’s 200 species flowering.”

Because tropical plants do not time their life cycles according to the seasons, it is more difficult to work out what environmental cues could be causing the plants to begin flowering, Wright said:

“It could be unusually low temperature. It could be the beginning of the rainy season. Or it could be sunlight. These hypotheses are very vague.”

Data drought

Another limitation in the tropics is a lack of long-term climate and plant data, the researchers said.

In Europe and North America, scientists and nature enthusiasts alike have been recording the date of the first bud, leaf and flower for thousands of species for more than a century.

This long record has enabled researchers to track how plants are responding to global warming. Recent research (pdf) from the Met Office finds that spring is currently advancing at a rate of 2.5 days per decade across Europe.

However, in the tropics, there are very few known historical records and little funding available for research to be conducted, Wright said:

“There’s an incredible north-south divide. The northern hemisphere is rich and there’s tonnes of excellent universities and national research councils and so, as a consequence, in the northern temperate zone we have an incredible knowledge base. There’s tonnes of scientists and there’s very few species.

“You go to the tropics, we have the opposite situation. Countries are poor, each country might have one national university and the vast majority have no national research programme. But there’s thousands of species, there’s a hundred times more species and three orders of magnitude fewer scientists.”

Measuring mismatch

Despite a lack of historical knowledge, a growing number of researchers are trying to find new ways of understanding how climate change could affect the natural cycle of tropical rainforests.

One key area of this new research is to understand how shifts in forest cycles could affect the unique community of animals that live in the tropics.

It is still unclear how climate change may affect rainfall patterns in much of the tropics, but research (pdf) suggests that rainforests could experience longer dry periods by the end of the century.

A research paper published by Morellato and her colleagues in 2016 in the journal Biological Conservation attempts to evaluate how a longer dry season caused by climate change could affect the timings of key events in the rainforest.

It suggests that a longer dry season could cause plants to start flowering later on in year. This is shown in the chart below, where blue bars show the amount of monthly rainfall, while blue lines show the percentage of plants that are producing flowers. Red lines show the percentage of plants producing fruit.

On the chart, red-dashed arrows show how a longer dry season caused by climate change could lead to later plant reproduction via flowering. Later flowering could lead to less time available for plant pollination, which will result in fewer plants producing fruit the following year.

Schematic diagram showing the effects of climate change in tropical rainforests. On the top chart, blue bars show monthly rainfall, blue lines show the percentage of plants flowering and red lines show the percentage of plants producing fruit. The bottom chart shows the overlap (black) and non-overlap (striped) of the activity timing of flowers and pollinators (blue) and fruit and fruit-eating animals (red). Caption: Morellato et al. (2016)

Beneath the chart, a diagram shows how a later flowering period caused by climate change could lead to a smaller overlap between the activity time of flowers and their pollinators (shown in blue).

This “mismatch” could greatly threaten the survival of pollinators, including insects and birds, who rely on flowers for both food and shelter.

The animals most at risk are those which feed on the nectar of just a small number of plant species, such as many bees and hummingbirds, the study notes:

“The reliable and continuous availability of floral resources in the tropics has enabled strong and diverse adaptations in flower visitors, maintaining rich assemblages of highly specialised floral foragers, such as bees and hummingbirds.”

On top of this, a reduction in fruit availability in the following year as a result of climate change could cause a “mismatch” in the activity time of fruit trees and fruit-eating animals, which are known as “frugivores”. The paper reads:

“Frugivorous animals critically rely on fruits, and fundamental aspects of their ecology – including diet, population size, social behaviour reproduction, and movements – depend on fruit abundance and seasonality.”

A wild, young male orangutan climbs trees in the rainforest to find red berries to eat. Credit: Lillian Tveit / Alamy Stock Photo.

Such animals include great apes, smaller monkey species, as well as a range of tropical birds, including parrots, the paper adds.

‘Critical to every organism’

Although recent research outlines the species most at risk from shifts to the tropical cycle, it is likely that such changes will affect almost every animal found in the rainforest in some way, Morellato said:

“In the tropics, almost all species rely, at some point in their lives, on a plant in flower or in fruit. Changes in phenology will affect the animal community in forests, that’s for sure.”

Fully understanding how climate change is affecting plant phenology will be key to protecting rainforest wildlife, Wright said:

“Primary producers [plants] are critical to every organism, every animal, every consumer in the forest. The more we’re able to get some understanding on what the link between what climate and the plant response is, the more we’re going to be able to make predictions about their chances of survival.”


The post Rainforests: Scientists concerned climate change is altering the tropical life cycle appeared first on Carbon Brief.

Rotten: Lawyers, Guns & Honey

I’m invariably cautious – even cynical – about beekeeping movies. But I just saw one that breaks the mold and restores faith in the potential for delivering a great story about the honey industry without lies and exaggeration.  The one-hour documentary Lawyers, Guns & Honey delivers. It’s one of the very few bee films which you can watch, learn from, and enjoy without getting irritated that the producers hadn’t done their homework.

I need to thank a regular reader of this blog, Susan, for suggesting this film. It apparently came out on Netflix yesterday (January 5). She had a few comments which I’ll share. Here’s Susan:

“It seemed to get most of the facts straight as I know them—the trans-shipping from China with falsified papers through other ports, the adulteration and contaminants, the sheer demand that can’t possibly be met by real bees, etc. It only shows the industrial side of the honey biz, with a side on the migratory pollinator biz, so innocent citizens might believe there is no other kind of honey out there except mostly the “warehouse blended”variety—which gets quite a long look. And there are NO women beeks shown—only a couple women in secretarial roles.”

I felt the same way upon watching the documentary. (Although, I have to add that one of the women was a high-power international sales rep who ended up in prison and the other is president of a large bee farm.  Like Susan, though, I didn’t actually see any women in bee yards.) Susan’s summary also touches on the one weakness in the documentary – the focus is on commercially handled honey, though there is a piece on Clint Walker’s farm where the audience gets a glimpse of honey made and sold locally by a beekeeper. However, the goal of the production was to explore global, industrial-scale honey activity.

Netflix describes the film as a look at “the new global honey business and largest food fraud investigation and prosecution in history — a scam known as Honeygate.”  There is much more – including bee thefts in California and the almond pollination business.  A lot is squeezed into one hour and a few things are left out, but the omissions don’t lessen the impact of this documentary.

Lawyers, Guns & Honey is an absolutely great film.  It’s well-researched and well-photographed, resulting in a compelling story. Watch it. If you have Netflix, the film is the first release in the new series “Rotten.”  It is on in the USA and here in Canada – hopefully in other countries as well.  I don’t give away accolades very often. This documentary deserves everyone’s attention. Recommend it to your friends.

2017: The Year in Bee Review

As 2017 draws to a close, let’s look back at the year’s best beekeeping stories. With lower honey prices in 2017, some beekeepers left the business and colony counts fell a little.  Back in 2016, I reported that honey bees were in recovery – colony collapse hadn’t been reported in five years (now six) and (in Canada, at least) there were more bees than anytime in Canadian history.

Many of the world’s 20,000 species of bees are in trouble from chemical exposure, climate change, and habitat loss. Some have been listed as endangered, at risk of becoming extinct. However, honey bees are managed livestock – their numbers rise and fall depending on honey prices and pollination demands of fruit and almond growers. Worldwide, the number of kept honey bees is still near last year’s record high because beekeepers do all they can to care for their little friends, feeding and protecting them – and earning a livelihood from their bees.

The most popular post of 2017 was my story on Chinese honey.  One More Thing About Chinese Honey… focused on the dreadful way that wet honey is often taken right from the broodnest, then dried in industrial evaporators until its moisture is low enough to sell the syrup as “honey”.  It’s not what you and I would call honey.

The second-most read piece from 2017 was a revision of the story of Warwick Kerr, the Brazilian geneticist who “Invented Killer Bees”. I’m glad that you liked that piece because Kerr’s story, published on his 95th birthday, is important on a lot of levels. The Brazilian military dictatorship tried to destroy Professor Kerr, but his worked helped the poor people of his country tremendously.  If you missed that blog post, I hope that you’ll find time to read it now.

In 2017, people from 174 countries dropped by to learn some bad beekeeping (Hello, Zambia! And Azerbaijan, Mongolia, Bosnia, and 170 other countries!) from this blog. The majority of readers are in the USA, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, so I will continue to write mostly in English and mostly about beekeeping in the west.

I published 101 bee blog posts in 2017 – that was about 75,000 words. A lot of bee news, ideas, and opinions.  All of those bee stories were fascinating,  but here are some of my favourites:

January 2017

One More Thing About Chinese Honey…

We hear a lot about Chinese honey. It’s worse than most people realize.

February 2017

Beekeeper Royally Stung

From a news story about a fellow (“Prince Charles’ beekeeper”) trying to keep his bees alive by doing something he apparently wasn’t supposed to be doing.

Maple Syrup is Dark

Maple syrup has a dark side.

March 2017

Eating the Vomit of Slaves?

There are people out there who say honey-eaters are consuming the vomit of slaves. Bees are slaves? The idiots couldn’t be more wrong if they tried.

Black Pollen in March

Pollen comes in many colours – mostly golden yellow, but white, green, tawn, you name it.  Bees are packing in black pollen right here in Clagary. Thing is, no flowers are blooming.

March 30: World Apitherapy Day

March 30th, my birthday, has been chosen as World Apitherapy Day. What an honour!

April 2017

Daffodils in December

Daffodils are blooming much too early. What does that mean for bees?

Judgement Day for Aggie Days

Calgary has a Stampede and at the fair grounds is an annual Aggie Days agricultural exhibit. This year we judge local honey. See what’s involved in honey judging.

World’s Sweetest Honey

Not all honey is created equal. I use some stats and 505 samples of honey from the USA (and few hundred more from abroad) to find the world’s sweetest honey.

March on Down

The March for Science and all its associated excitement. Enough here for a 2-part story, so I posted two consecutive pieces.

Have These Kids Found a Way to Kill Varroa?

Can a comb brush off varroa before it enters a hive?  That’s what these elementary school kids figured would happen with their 3-D printed gadget.

May 2017

PolliNation Podcast

There are just a few really good bee-related podcasts. PolliNation is one of them. Produced by one of Oregon State’s newest profs, my friend Andony Melathopoulos.

May 20: World Bee Day

Every day should be World Bee Day.

Good Queen; Bad Queen

With 20 comments, this was one of our most engaging post in 2017. This is basically an overview of some differences in queen bee quality.

June 2017

Mind the Gap!

We look at the infamous “June Gap” – the period after the spring nectar flow, but before the summer and autumn honey comes in.  It’s a risk time for the bees.

Miel Carlota: Once the World’s Biggest Bee Farm

Not much is remembered about Miel Carlota, founded by German immigrants to Mexico. They had over 50,000 hives back in the 50s. Then their company disappeared.

July 2017

The Beekeeper Everyone Knows

Sir Edmund Hillary was likely the only beknighted commercial beekeeper. And he and his friend Tenzing Norgay were the first to survive Mount Everest’s summit.

Are You Giving It Away?

This post is a look at honey prices. Most of us are giving it away.

August 2017

Does the Truth Matter?

My perennial gripe.  These days it seems telling the truth is no longer a matter of honour. I’m getting tired of exaggerated bee stories passing as news in the media. I vent a little.

The Lazy Bees

My friends at the Hutterite Colony try to emulate the honey bee’s work ethic. So do the Mormons who live near us.  Should I tell them that bees are a wee bit lazy?

September 2017

The World’s Weirdest Beekeeping Family

The world’s weirdest beekeeping family.  Now a motion picture.  Need I say more?

My Failure as a Beekeeper

In this six-part series (!), I expose my very bad beekeeping.  Just when you think it can’t get worse, it does.

95th Birthday for “The Man Who Made Killer Bees”

This was the most popular post for the entire year. The man who brought Africanized bee stock to America had his 95th birthday. Warwick Kerr’s story is important. I’m glad that thousands of you read this piece.

They Got Me – on Kiwimana Podcast

Kiwimana, a great bee podcast out of New Zealand, called me up and we chatted for an hour. Want to hear how I ramble unfettered by print? Here’s your chance!

October 2017

Creamed Honey

Here’s a simple and practical explanation of how creamed (spun?) honey is creamed and spun. Includes the secret formula.

November 2017

Unseen Pollinators

This blog post is a short summary of a paper by Jeff Ollerton which reviews the state of the world’s pollinators. What’s happening to them?

December 2017

Busy as a Bee

Writing this blog is one of many things that fill my day. This blog is important to me and in Busy as a Bee, I apologize for not writing enough.

The Man Who Discovered that Bees Can Think

2017 was the 150th birthday anniversary of Charles Henry Turner. He was an American bee scientist who figured out that bees can solve problems, have personalities, and think. But he’s largely unappreciated, almost forgotten.

That’s a quick summary of some my favourite blog posts from 2017. I only write when I get a free hour or two, but it added up to 101 short stories – enough to fill a small book. With the new year upon us, I hope you’ll drop by occasionally and see what’s new in bees in 2018. Meanwhile, have a healthy, happy, and sweet new year!