- Associated Press - Saturday, April 26, 2014

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) - The brand-new posthole digger made barely a dent in the ground outside the strawberry patch.

Necessity being the mother of substitution, Lisa Horth abandoned the tool and instead used a hatchet to whack a hole in the turf deep enough to plant the wooden post of a bee house.

The assistant professor of biology at Old Dominion University abandoned the hatchet for a moment, too, when a small, blue-black insect flew past to hover in front of another house, freshly planted a few feet away.

“Oh, oh, ohh! That was a mason bee!” Horth exclaimed.

So far, so good.

Mason bees resemble flies. They live alone. Only females sting, and it’s mild.

Plus, they’re native to America.

They’re not much like honeybees, the quintessential bee-looking bee, which live in colonies and sting.

Honeybees are European, imported to Virginia in the early 1600s by English colonists who wanted a familiar insect to pollinate crops. Since then, they have spread across the country, making themselves indispensable to the agriculture industry. Trucking honeybee hives from state to state has become big business.

But in the early 2000s, honeybee colonies started to vanish. Overnight, an active hive could empty out - abandoned, apparently - with few or no dead bees around. Beekeepers found themselves losing up to 90 percent of their colonies for no apparent reason. The problem has been named Colony Collapse Disorder, and although various culprits have been suspected - neonicotinoid pesticides, mites, viruses - no cause has yet been determined.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says mass honeybee disappearances also occurred in the 1880s, 1903, 1920s and 1960s. No one knows the cause of those, either. Whatever the reason, pollinator loss affects food production.

“One in three bites of food is produced by a flying insect,” Horth said. “Most of those are bees. Bees are a multibillion-dollar industry in itself. And bees are dying.”

All of which led her to wonder whether native mason bees could step up to the plate.

Horth has set up research plots at six strawberry farms in Pungo. At half of them, she and her students have installed bee houses and stocked them with mason bee cocoons.

Marked strawberry flowers will be tracked through the growing season to see whether mason bees can supplement honeybees and make a difference in the size, quality and quantity of fruit.

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