The wild colony from our old oak swarmed one February afternoon (the result of a successful mating cycle) and I came down to the garden to find a football shaped -vibrating- object hanging from the little trunk of one of my Persian Mulberry bushes. Bees! A call to our friendly neighborhood beekeeper, the fabulous Kirk at Backwards Beekeepers, and he was there within the hour. It could not have been a gentler, less intrusive process for the bees. They just walked into their new home.
If you care about what you’re going to eat in the future, you’d better start caring about bees. Scientists have known for a while that the world’s honey bee population is declining and it’s a giant problem because they’re a vital part of the ecosystem—about one third of the food that goes into our mouths relies on the pollination process.
The decline is thought to be related to the Varroa destructor (a parasitic mite), which seems to be a contributor to a wider phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder, where bee colonies spiral into abrupt decline and simply disappear.
Interestingly, Australia is free from these threats so far, and researchers want to find out why. In Tasmania’s capital, Hobart, researchers from the CSIRO recently fitted tiny sensors to the backs of 5,000 wild bees to monitor the population. To do this, they refrigerated the bees to make them sleepy, shaved a little part of their back, and quickly glued down the sensors before releasing them back into the wild.
The sensors only weigh five milligrams so they don’t impede the bees at all. ‘The bee can carry a lot of weight in pollen, in nectar, so this is like someone carrying a small backpack,’ explains Dr de Souza, CSIRO scientist. The sensors will provide vital data to help researchers construct a three dimensional model of the bees’ behaviour. As de Souza notes, ‘Using this technology, we aim to understand the bee’s relationship with its environment,’ and thus understand how they work best and what might cause a population collapse.
In the near future, the CSIRO hopes to scale the sensors down to 1 mm, so they can tag smaller insects like mosquitoes and fruit flies to study their populations too.
This was the first time I tried the honey from the hive, having smelt it on and off for the past two years. I wanted to wait until the bees had sufficient supply tucked away, and even now, took only a few frames. It is so good: rich and spicy and incredible thick, I cut out an inch square and ate it like a bear, with comb in my paw. They work so hard to make this, it is truly precious stuff, full of the essence of every plant they visit. Buzz buzz…
Scientists have discovered how this bloodsucking parasite has transformed Deformed Wing Virus (DWV) into one of the biggest threats facing UK honeybees.
Honeybees are a key pollinating insect, adding around $40Bn globally to crop value. Over recent years the spread of parasites and the viruses they transmit has resulted in high overwintering colony losses.
New and emerging threats to insect pollinators are putting increasing pressure on the agricultural sector to meet the demands of a growing population.
DWV is one of the most common viruses infecting European honeybees. Although present in almost all colonies, high levels of deformed wing disease – characterised by developmental deformities, reduced foraging ability and longevity – are only common when Varroa is also present.
Researchers at the University of Warwick have discovered how the disease is amplified in the presence of Varroa destructor, a tiny parasitic mite invading hives across the globe.
Honeybees in Kenya are infested with parasites, but they still thrive — unlike their American cousins. Are there lessons for U.S. beekeepers?
Commercial honeybees might be America’s unluckiest laborers. They’re infested with pests like the Varroa destructor mite and theNosema ceranaeparasite; infected with diseases like the Israeli paralytic virus and the tobacco ringspot virus; dosed with pesticides like clothianidin and imidacloprid; starved of nutrition thanks to crop monocultures; shipped around the country to be worked half to death in almond fields and apple orchards; and victimized by a still mysterious malady called colony-collapse disorder (CCD). It’s little surprise that U.S. beekeepers lost about a third of their colonies over the winter of 2012–13, and if early reports from states like Ohio are any indication, this year could be even worse.
But there’s a place where honeybees are apparently doing much better: East Africa. In a study that came out recently in the journal PLOS One, researchers from Kenya and the U.S. surveyed honeybee populations at 24 locations throughout the African country. And the scientists found that while honeybees in Kenya suffered from some of the same problems as their Western counterparts, the African bees remained much more robust. “I was amazed by the lack of manifestation of ill health in the bees,” Elliud Muli, lead author on the paper, told National Geographic.
What’s protected the Kenyan honeybees? African honeybees rarely encounter the sorts of pesticides that are in heavy use on American farms — and which pose a clear danger to American bees. The African bees also generally stay in one place, while the biggest honeybee keepers in the U.S. will move their colonies thousands of miles for major events like the California almond-tree pollination, which requires an astounding 60% of all hives in the U.S. Without those additional stressors, the Kenyan honeybees seem capable of thriving even in the presence of dangerous pests.
That doesn’t mean that pesticides alone are causing CCD — but they sure aren’t helping, as even the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has begun to realize. Last year the EPA ordered changes in the labeling of neonicotinoid pesticides, which have been linked to high rates of honeybee deaths and which have been banned in Europe. American honeybees also suffer from a lack of nutrition, as bee-friendly wild spaces are converted into corn or soybean fields that offer them little forage.
A Department of Agriculture program announced this winter will put $3 million toward encouraging farmers and ranchers in the Midwest to plant bee-friendly plants on the edges of their fields. That will help, but far more must be done. As I wrote in our TIME cover story on the subject last year, it’s as if the modern American environment itself is hostile to the health of honeybees. Even the hardest-working members of the animal kingdom can only take so much.