Science
Backyard garden
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Backyard garden
Credit: Flickr Photo/woodleywonderworks (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)/https://flic.kr/p/9EsbuW

Birds and bees and wildfire smoke

All that wildfire smoke from eastern Washington, British Columbia, even Oregon and California isn’t just affecting people.

KUOW listeners wanted to know the impact on the bees and the birds, and even our garden veggies.

We did some research and found these answers.

WILD BIRDS

Kristin Mansfield, with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, says there are no recent studies on how wild birds might be affected by the smoke. Mansfield says, even though the avian respiratory system is different from other vertebrates, bird’s lungs likely respond in a similar way to humans.

Birds have air sacs and lungs that work together to help them fly more efficiently
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Birds have air sacs and lungs that work together to help them fly more efficiently
Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BirdRespiration.svg

The smoke could, however, be affecting what’s available for wild birds to eat. Bugs don’t like smoke and are probably less active, Mansfield says. That’s troubling because it’s migration season. Birds need to fatten up to make the long trek south.

Thanks to listener Paula for that question.

BEES

KUOW listener Scott Breiler wrote to us saying he hadn’t seen any bees since the wildfire smoke rolled in. Since bees don’t like smoke, he wondered if they’re OK.

Evan Sugden is a honeybee expert at the University of Washington. He says he hasn’t noticed any behavioral changes. But he notes that beekeepers traditionally use smoke to keep bees calm. Sugden says smoke tricks bees; they get confused and become less defensive. The biggest problem with the smoke is it could affect mating. Drone honeybees depend heavily on their sight (their extra-large eyes take up most of their head) and smell to locate queen bees. The biologist says the wildfire smoke might be blocking the drones’ pheromone receptors. 

Drone honeybees use their eyes to find queen bees for mating
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Drone honeybees use their eyes to find queen bees for mating
Credit: Flickr Photo/Phin Hall (CC BY-SA 2.0)/https://flic.kr/p/25X32hQ


GARDEN VEGGIES AND FRUITS

Kristiina tweeted us wanting to know if the smoke is affecting vegetables in our gardens. So we turned to well-known Seattle gardener Ciscoe Morris.

He says “the amount of smoke we're experiencing in the Puget Sound probably isn't having much of an effect on the veggies in our gardens. Some studies have found that heavy smoke and ash can cause vegetables to grow stockier but I don't think the smoke has been thick enough to cause reactions to happen here. One thing to keep in mind is that the smoke contains some nasty chemicals from structures that burned, so it's important to clean veggies well before you eat them.”

If you have any questions about your world, let us know.