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Solar Farms Could Boost Bumblebee Populations, Study Says

Solar Farms Could Boost Bumblebee Populations, Study Says

A new study finds that installing solar farms could become a two birds, one stone situation, as these areas can also double as thriving pollinator habitats if land owners allow meadows to grow around the solar panels.

The study, from researchers at Lancaster University in the UK that will be presented today at an Ecology Across Borders conference, shows that installing solar farms could be greatly beneficial to nature.

“Our findings provide the first quantitative evidence that solar parks could be used as a conservation tool to support and boost pollinator populations. If they are managed in a way that provides resources, solar parks could become [a] valuable bumble bee habitat,” said Hollie Blaydes, associate lecturer and doctorate student at the university. “In the UK, pollinator habitat has been established on some solar parks, but there is currently little understanding of the effectiveness of these interventions. Our findings provide solar park owners and managers with evidence to suggest that providing floral and nesting resources for bumble bees could be effective.”

While there’s no doubt that solar farms are helpful in generating clean energy, some critics say that these projects require extensive amounts of land that should instead be left untouched. Blaydes notes that solar parks disturb only about 5% of the ground, and these areas can also create new habitats for vulnerable pollinators, whose numbers are dwindling.

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Stretching over ​​8,000 acres, the Wadi Al-Assiut protectorate is home to a diversity of rare plants, animals and birds, making it a favorite destination for wildlife lovers and scientists.


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The researchers note that there are benefits for land owners who want to install solar parks, too. These lands could become meadows, rather than turf, cutting down land management costs for maintaining grass and other interventions. Meadows could also support four times more bumblebees compared to land covered in turf grass.

Another interesting point of the study is that these solar farms could further support bee density up to 1 kilometer outside of the solar farms, and the pollinators could then tend to nearby agricultural crops as well.

The UK already has about 14,000 hectares of solar farms, which have gained both praise and grievances. But Lancaster University researchers continue to dispel concerns.

Another 2021 university study, in collaboration with Ludong University in China and University of California Davis in the U.S., found that solar farms produce “cool islands,” reducing temperatures by about 2.3°C (36.14°F) 100 meters around the solar farm. Cooling effects on a lesser scale extend up to 700 meters around the solar farm.Alona Armstrong, senior lecturer of energy and environmental sciences at Lancaster University and co-author of the cool islands study, said, “This heightens the importance of understanding the implications of renewable energy technologies on the hosting landscape — we need to ensure that the energy transition does not cause undue damage to ecological systems and ideally has net positive consequences on the places where we build them.”


Paige Bennett at EcoWatch

“Vulture bees” evolved a taste for flesh—and their microbiomes reflect that

“Vulture bees” evolved a taste for flesh—and their microbiomes reflect that

“The only bees… that have evolved to use food sources not produced by plants.”

Ask a random person to picture a bee, and they’ll likely conjure up the familiar black-and-yellow striped creature buzzing from flower to flower collecting pollen to bring back to the hive. But a more unusual group of bees can be found “slicing chunks of meat from carcasses in tropical rainforests,” according to the authors of a new paper published in the journal mBio. As a result, these bees have gut microbiomes that are markedly different from their fellow buzzers, with populations more common to carrion-loving hyenas and vultures. So they are commonly known as “vulture bees” (or “carrion bees”).

According to the authors—entomologists who hail from the University of California, Riverside (UCR), the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Columbia University, and the American Museum of Natural History—most bees are essentially “wasps that switched to a vegetarian lifestyle.” But there are two recorded examples of bumblebees feeding on carrion dating back to 1758 and 1837, and some species are known to occasionally feed on carrion in addition to foraging for nectar and pollen. (They are considered “facultatively necrophages,” as opposed to vulture bees, which are deemed “obligate necrophages” because they only eat meat.)

An entomologist named Filippo Silvestri identified the first “vulture bee” in 1902 while analyzing a group of pinned specimens, although nobody called it that since they didn’t know at the time that this species fed on carrion. Silvestri dubbed it Trigona hypogea, and he also described their nests as being used for honey and pollen, although later researchers noted a surprising absence of pollen. Rather, biochemical analysis revealed the presence of secretions similar to those fed to queen bees in the nests of honeybees.

Then, in 1982, entomologist David Roubik of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama reported some surprising findings from his observations of Trigona hypogea colonies. Rather than gathering pollen from flowers, this species ingested the flesh of dead animals: lizards, monkeys, snakes, fish, and birds. Bees that stumbled on a tasty bit of rotting flesh deposited a trail of pheromones to call its nest mates, who typically converged en masse on the corpse within eight hours.

A worker bee of <em>Trigona hypogea</em> busily harvests the decaying flesh of a small lizard. Because it can.
A worker bee of Trigona hypogea busily harvests the decaying flesh of a small lizard. Because it can.D.W. Roubik, 1982

The vulture bees often entered a carcass via the eyes, similar to maggots, and Roubik made particular note of just how efficiently they could consume a carcass. A large lizard was reduced to a skeleton over two days, while the bees took just eight hours to remove all feathers and flesh from the head of a dead passerine. They reduced two frogs to skeletons in six hours. Because they fed on carrion rather than collecting pollen, this species had a distinctive hind leg, with a drastically reduced pollen basket compared to “vegetarian” bees.

The bees consumed the flesh on-site, storing a kind of “meat slurry” in their crops to bring back to the hive. Roubik hypothesized that, once at the hive, the bees converted that slurry into some kind of glandular substance, which they then stored in wax pots. “Considering animal flesh rots and would be unsuitable as stored food, its metabolic conversion is essential to allow storage,” he wrote. Another hypothesis, proposed in 1996, suggests that the actual flesh is what’s stored in the wax pots.

The toothed mandible (A) and hind tibia (B) of <em>Trigona hypogea</em>.
The toothed mandible (A) and hind tibia (B) of Trigona hypogea.D.W. Roubik, 1982

We now know of three distinct groups of vulture bees that exclusively get their protein from carcasses: the aforementioned Trigona hypogeaTrigona crassipes, and Trigona necrophages. These are stingless bees, but they have five large, pointed teeth, and they have been known to bite. Some excrete substances with their bites that can cause painful blisters and sores.

“These are the only bees in the world that have evolved to use food sources not produced by plants, which is a pretty remarkable change in dietary habits,” said Doug Yanega, a UCR entomologist who co-authored the new study. He and his colleagues wondered whether these vulture bees, given their radical shift in diet, had also evolved distinct microbiomes, and they conducted a series of experiments to find out.

The adult bees used in the experiments were collected at field stations in La Selva and Las Cruces, Costa Rica, in April 2019. Each site featured 16 “bait stations” with large chunks of fresh chicken suspended from branches with string. The string was coated with petroleum jelly to ward off ants, although a few particularly intrepid bullet ants managed to overcome that barrier. For comparison, the team also collected bees that fed on both meat and flowers as well as bees who fed exclusively on pollen.

Individual from the <em>Trigona</em> genus of stingless bees, some of which eat meat.
Individual from the Trigona genus of stingless bees, some of which eat meat.Ricardo Ayala

Each bee was stored in a sterile tube filled with 95 percent ethanol. Because the specimens were so tiny, the entire abdomens were used for the microbiome analysis, except in the case of larger Melipona bees, whose guts were carefully dissected. That analysis revealed that the most extreme microbiome changes were found in the vulture bees that fed exclusively on meat. Those microbiomes had a lot of Lactobacillus bacteria, commonly found in fermented foods like sourdough, as well as Carnobacterium, known to help digest flesh.

“The vulture bee microbiome is enriched in acid-loving bacteria, which are novel bacteria that their relatives don’t have,” said UCR entomologist and co-author Quinn McFrederick. “These bacteria are similar to ones found in actual vultures, as well as hyenas and other carrion-feeders, presumably to help protect them from pathogens that show up on carrion.” The next step will be to learn more about the bacterial genomes, as well was those of the various fungi and viruses found in the vulture bees.

Even though the vulture bees had much smaller baskets on their hind legs, the authors noted, they were nonetheless able to use them to collect pieces of masticated chicken, much like their vegetarian cousins collect pollen. “They had little chicken baskets,” said McFrederick.

McFrederick, Yanega, and their colleagues suggest two hypothetical scenarios to explain their findings, noting that the two are not mutually exclusive. “The diet shift may have led to symbiont extinction and replacement of microbes that can break down carrion, or the core stingless bee microbiome may persist, suggesting that these microbes evolved along with the bee over its diet shift and are adapted to a new protein source,” they wrote.


Jennifer Ouellette at arsTechnica

Neglected Egyptian nature reserve home to last pharaonic honey bees

Neglected Egyptian nature reserve home to last pharaonic honey bees

Wadi Al-Assiut’s 200 hives of bee breeds that stretch back millennia draw attention from researchers for the health benefits of the honey they produce.

Stretching over ​​8,000 acres, the Wadi Al-Assiut protectorate is home to a diversity of rare plants, animals and birds, making it a favorite destination for wildlife lovers and scientists.

The protectorate, about 50 km away from the city of Assiut, is the breeding ground of endangered species of wild animals and wild plants, most notably the last breed of Pharaonic bees whose honey has multiple therapeutic and nutritional benefits.

Wadi Al-Assiut is also home to different types of wild deer, hawks, and migratory birds. After the Jan. 25 revolution, the protectorate was subject to several trespassing incidents and violations, but “this natural reserve still reflects the beauty of the Egyptian Eastern Desert,” said Mahmoud Nafadi, director-general of the reserve.

The protectorate’s rare breeds of Egyptian bees produce a special type of honey with great medicinal benefits that are being studied by students of pharmacy and science. Nafadi asserted that these breeds have existed since the days of the pharaohs.

“We give a lot of attention to these bees,” Nafadi said, with 200 beehives for them, made of wood or of clay. “Our goal is to encourage the multiplication of our bee species,” he said. “We planted 1,000 Ziziphus spina-christi trees, known as the Christ’s thorn jujube, so that the bees can feed on them as a natural pasture. We want to continue breeding our species of bees and to make them available to beekeepers.”

Ancient Egyptian wall art depicting a beekeeper tending to his hives. Planetbee.org

“The reserve includes the apiaries of a rare pharaonic bee breed,” Ali Ahmed Morsi, an environmental researcher at the protectorate, told Al-Monitor. “The protectorate succeeded in multiplying these bees through continuous breeding operations. Foreign scientific missions from all countries of the world come specifically to study this breed, whose honey is of great health benefit.”

He added, “The protectorate was mainly established to protect plant and animal species, safeguard living natural resources, preserve healthy environmental processes in the ecosystem, and conserve genetic biological diversity. This natural reserve is the only breeding ground for endangered species of wild animals and plants in the Egyptian desert.” Studies of plant genetics from the reserve, he said, are being used for agriculture and genetic engineering.

Wildlife breeding in the protectorate includes Egyptian deer, mountain goats, peregrine falcons, hyenas, and red wolves, in addition to migratory birds from Asia and Europe, Nafadi told Al-Monitor. The natural reserve was officially declared a protectorate in 1989 at the recommendations of a joint study by the University of Arizona and Assiut University.

Plant species in the protectorate include several medicinal plants and herbs that are used to treat kidney stones, colds, cough, and asthma, Nafadi said. “A milkweed plant known as Calotropis treats wounds, acne, and skin infections,” he continued. “It is also used in the treatment of paralysis of the limbs, scorpion stings, and many other conditions. The roots of this plant are used in the treatment of filariasis.”

The Egyptian Honey Bee A Detour by Way of the Beehive

But Nafadi warned that the protectorate is suffering from neglect. “Despite being one of the most important international tourist attractions, the protectorate is not getting the needed tourism attention,” he said, and local residents violate the protected lands. “Even after getting violation reports, they keep cultivating and planting these lands,” he said. “These incidents caused the migration of many rare species of animals towards the desert.” 

He praised the state’s efforts to remove violations on the protectorate in coordination with the Ministry of Local Development and the Ministry of the Interior. 

Nafadi also noted that the only animal that penetrated the reserve is a jackal referred to as Ibn Awa, which is not predatory to humans. “Hyenas in the protectorate are small in number and do not descend into the valley,” he said.

Because Assiut has a dry climate, many plants need to be irrigated, and the reserve’s underground well is currently out of order. “I submitted a request for a new well to the Ministry of Environment and we conducted a study for this purpose,” Nafadi said. “The protectorate is currently irrigated through a truck loaded with water tanks.”


Rasha Mahmoud at Al-Monitor