UT professor explores causes of pollinator decline

UT professor John Skinner gave a crash course on pollinator decline at the Quest Science Forum on Friday, Feb. 26.

//Photo by Ryan McGill

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“Why do we need bees?” John Skinner asked his audience at the Quest science forum on Friday, Feb. 26. “Because we like to eat.”

Skinner, professor of entomology and plant pathology at the University of Tennessee, gave a presentation titled “Examining Factors of Pollinator Decline, Progress and Future Directions,” to students, faculty and community members at the weekly forum.

Known by some simply as “the bee guy,” Skinner began his presentation by having the audience members introduce themselves and say one thing they would like to know about bees. This activity was a first for the science forums and opened an atmosphere for discussion.

Skinner first gave his listeners a crash course in plant anatomy and reproductive processes— a lesson that most haven’t studied since elementary school.

“There are many pollinator plants that have discreet male and female parts, so you’ve got to have pollinators,” Skinner said. “Nature resists self-pollination.”

He then addressed the questions that most of the audience were concerned with: What is Colony Collapse Disorder? What’s happening? What are we doing to stop it?

CCD is the name given to the trend of the recent significant decline of bee hives in the United States. This issue is important, Skinner said, because bee pollination is crucial in producing our food supply.

Additionally, pollinators play a huge role in agricultural economy. In the US, the annual pollinated crop value is upwards of $25 billion. In Tennessee, that value is about $500 million.

There are many possible causes for the declining populations of bees, Skinner said. Mites, diseases, pesticide contaminations and poor nutrition could all be factors in the mysterious problem, causing them to disappear at disturbingly rapid rates.

Still, many people deny that pollinator decline exists. Skinner said these beliefs are somewhat justified by data showing that bees have been through similar periods of decline before. Due to the appearances of new symptoms, Skinner believes he has proof that the problem is very real.

Along with many scientists around the country, Skinner is working to create “sustainable solution to problem affecting honey bee health.” Through the Coordinated Agricultural Project, he works to protect managed bees, determine causes of CCD, breed resistance to pathogens and transfer this knowledge to beekeepers and the public.

Featured image by Ryan McGill

Edited by Ashley Sharp