Are bees in Alaska endangered?

Posted: Wednesday, May 28, 2008

While cleaning a window, I saw a very large bee. Since some people suggest it might be an endangered species, I carefully lifted the sash and scooted the bee out into the free air.

There are reports that agriculture in America may be at peril because of the demise of millions of honey bees in a mysterious malady called colony collapse.

Bees and other insect pollinators are responsible for more than two-thirds of the world crops. In the United States that translates into more than 100 pollinator-dependent crops ranging from fruits to vegetables to ornamental plants.

In an article in the May 2008 issue of "Alabama Living" Katie Jackson writes that honey bees come from Europe. There are many native bees such as "carpenter bees, mason bees, bumble bees, sweat bees, miner bees and a whole host of other specialized ground and cavity nesting bees." They are often more important for many crops than honey bees.

To plumb the outlook in Alaska, I called the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and spoke to Bob Piorkowski, who kindly referred me on to Fairbanks.

There I hit a gold mine of information from Derek Sikes, the curator of entomology at the University of Alaska Museum of the North.

He told me there are 95 different species of wild bees in Alaska. Also acting as principal pollinators are 36 species of flower flies. There are 85 species of butterflies, 17 of larger social wasps. In addition, beetles are pollinators and male mosquitoes, who don't drink blood like their female consorts, but prefer to alight on flowers, and a myriad of other members of the insect order.

I asked Derek why the honey bee is in such trouble where, for instance, in California, it is used to pollinate the entire almond crop. He said that it is "monoculturalism," inbreeding, we would say, to define it in human terms. The honey bee is susceptible to disease from various viruses, leading to colony collapse. I asked if there was an answer. "None yet, but continuing research is being done."

We need to find a hardier replacement, maybe, even from Alaska's wild bees.

• Lifelong Alaskan Elton Engstrom is a retired fish buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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