Puerto Rico’s honeybees are scrounging for food after Hurricane Maria

October 9, 2017, 3:16pm

When back-to-back hurricanes devastated Puerto Rico a few weeks ago, the storms stripped most of the island’s vegetation away, leaving denuded trees and barren hills behind. With almost no leaves on the island — let alone flowers or fruit — bees, pollinators of many important crops, are searching soda cans and trash heaps for enough food to survive.

Hurricane Maria wiped out about 80 percent of the island’s agriculture, according to the secretary of the Department of Agriculture. That’s about $780 million from crop yields gone. Now, experts are concerned about the fate of the island’s population of bees, which will help rebuild Puerto Rico’s agricultural economy.

“If they [honeybees] don’t find any kind of reasonable source of sugar, the colony will collapse. They’ll just starve,” said Manuel Lluberas, a former Navy entomologist and executive director for public health for HD Hudson, a manufacturer of commercial spraying systems. Lluberas lives in Carolina, Puerto Rico, but he spoke with VICE News from a hotel in San Juan, still one of the only places on the island with power.

If the bee population suffers, farmers will have trouble regrowing key crops that require pollination, like pineapples and even coffee, an up-and-coming export. While it’s too early to predict the full effects, many fruit and vegetable crops could experience a lower yield this year and decreased seed production, which would impact next year’s crops as well, according to pollination experts and entomologists.

“The crops themselves took a beating from the hurricane, and now, even as you plant pineapples or whatever, even if they are in bloom, it’ll be awhile until a bee colony can do its thing,” Lluberas said. “I would not be surprised if it’s a tangible loss.”

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Pollen is essentially the sperm of the plant world. So when bees carry the dust-like particles from one plant to another, they’re fertilizing eggs. Nearly all bees feed on nectar and pollen, and thus would be negatively impacted by extreme weather, as would the plants they pollinate. But the hurricanes put particular stress on honeybees, which live in colonies and can easily be domesticated.

Even if the storms’ ripping winds didn’t destroy the colonies or commercial hives, moisture that creeps into the cells would kill the larvae, according to Galen Dively, a honeybee expert and emeritus professor of entomology of the University of Maryland. And if the queen dies, the bees can’t function until they make a new queen, which requires time, and of course, food.

After Hurricane Maria, about 80 to 90 percent of Puerto Rico’s trees lost their leaves, Lluberas estimated. It’ll take months before the vegetation grows back, and a few more before it bears flowers or fruit again.

In the meantime, the island’s bees are hunting for nutrition wherever they can find it, bringing them in contact with humans, which puts them at risk. With “almost no indoors” on the island, as Lluberas described, except in large cities like San Juan, bees fly into homes, where people often attempt to smash them.

But not everyone wants to harm them. Lluberas said he’s seen posts going around on Facebook encouraging Puerto Ricans to leave sugar water out for the bee population. Some people have already started.

The bees will take the carbohydrates in the sugar they find back to their hives to make a substance called “royal jelly,” which they feed to the larvae and their queen.

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There’s at least some good news, though. Most types of bees other than honeybees — frequently lumped together as “wild bees,” although many species exist — are solitary. They gather food for themselves, instead of a colony, and lay their eggs on branches or even underground. “Many of those will probably survive just fine,” Dively said, although finding food will still pose a challenge.

Certain staple crops in Puerto Rico, like bananas and corn, also don’t require insects for pollination at all. And for the plants that do, like most fruits and vegetables, the wind can help as would other insects, like wasps. A tiny gnat, in fact, pollinates coffee, according to Randy Mitchell, a pollination expert and professor of biology at the University of Akron. Pollination from bees, however, can improve the quality and quantity of coffee beans, as they do with most crops.

Still, no one can be sure just how much the bees, and thus, the island’s agriculture, will suffer in the wake of Hurricane Maria. No studies have explored the effects of hurricanes on bee populations — at least none that Michael Engel, a professor of ecology at the University of Kansas and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Melittology, knows of. Melittology is a branch of entomology that studies bees, specifically.

While various departments within the U.S. Department of Agriculture do survey the U.S. bee population, including in Puerto Rico, and provide emergency assistance for crops under threat, the agency doesn’t have specific plans for the island after Maria, a spokesperson told VICE News.