Tag Archives: Hive

Saving the bees: Small prairies around agricultural fields can help bees get through the winter

Honey bee pollinating clover. Image credits: Amy Toth

When scientists placed honey bee hives next to soybean fields in Iowa, they were prepared to track how the bees would fare over the season. Surprisingly, the bees seemed to do really well at first. They gained weight, built up honey stores, and thrived. But things quickly turned south in August. By October, the bees had consumed almost their entire stock, and were malnourished.

The reason was simple: they were out of food sources.

“We saw a feast-or-famine kind of dynamic happening, where in the middle of the summer they were doing great. In fact, the hives in highly agricultural areas outcompeted hives in areas with less soybean production,” said Amy Toth, a professor of ecology, evolution and organismal biology at Iowa State University who led the research with ISU entomology professor Matthew O’Neal and University of Illinois entomology professor Adam Dolezal.

“But then they all just crashed and burned at the end of the year,” Toth said.

The researchers tried different approaches to see if they could save the bees. They were somewhat successful when they moved the bee colony to a reconstructed prairie site with many late-flowering plants. This helped the hives rebound and make sufficient stocks for the winter.

This study is particularly important as it offers a nuanced view of how bees tend to do around agricultural areas. Some previous studies have found that honeybees do better in agricultural areas than in other landscapes, but this is still far from settled. What Toth and colleagues show is that bee evolution is not linear — even if they thrive in the summer, yearly can still be devastating.

“There’s been a lot of interest in how bees respond to agriculture,” said co-author Adam Dolezal. “There’s been work on pesticides and predictions that the highly monocultured agricultural landscapes have lost a lot of floral resources.”

“One hypothesis about that is that bees near agricultural zones have more access to flowering crops and weeds like clover than those near forests, which can have fewer floral resources,” he said.

Prairie planting on former agricultural field. Image credits: Cassi Saari.

The new research seems to support this idea — but yet again, things aren’t clear. The researchers tracked to see which plants the bees rely on, so they took samples of pollen spilled by foraging bees. Surprisingly, over 60% of the pollen came from clover — not the agricultural soy plants. Field edges are often mowed and contain clover, which seems to be very important for the bees — but is often neglected by the farmers.

But here’s the thing) clover (as soybean, and many other agricultural plants) tend to bloom in late July or early August. This means that in late August, the bees’ food supply starts dwindling. If we want to help bees make it past the hump, providing them access to a small prairie (particularly consisting of late-blooming flowers) can make a huge difference. However, researchers don’t recommend that beekeepers move their hives around.

That’s difficult, time-consuming, and in many environments, there are few prairies which can support the bees. Instead, the team recommends adding small patches of around 5-8 acres (2-3 hectares) around large agricultural fields.

These strips will not only help the bees, but they would also reduce soil erosion and prevent unwanted nutrient run-off from farm fields into waterways. They would also help other insects and critters, helping to mitigate some of the invariable ecosystem damage brought by agriculture. These prairies would essentially serve as an oasis for life in what is often an agricultural desert.

The study “Native habitat mitigates feast/famine conditions faced by honey bees in an agricultural landscape” has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Bee markets still in good shape despite pressures from parasites and colony collapse disorder

A new study led by researchers from Montana State University examines the economic impact of colony collapse disorders (CCD) among commercial honeybees.

This research traces back to several years ago when Randy Rucker, a professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics in the MSU College of Agriculture, started looking into the phenomenon of colony collapse to estimate its economic impact, along with members from North Carolina State University and Oregon State University. All in all, they report, CCD isn’t a very big threat to current commercial pollinator markets.

Not good, not terrible

“With colony collapse disorder, a beekeeper goes out and virtually all the worker bees are gone,” said Rucker.

“Twenty thousand, 30,000, 40,000 worker bees, just gone. There are very few dead worker bees on the ground near the colony, and the queen, the brood and all the food are still there. But the bees are just gone.”

CCD is still poorly understood. The phenomenon first came to the attention of the industry and the public during the winter of 2006-2007, when mortality rates among bees were estimated to be around 30% of the total population. Since then, it’s been stoking concern in conjunction with other pollinator health issues (such as the Varroa mite) among beekeepers and the public.

Rucker and his team set out to identify the economic effects of CCD by analyzing trends over four categories: nationwide number of commercial honeybee colonies, honey production, the price of queens and packaged bees, and pollination fees charged by commercial beekeepers.

Rucker explains that bee populations naturally fall during the winter months. Prior to the onset of CCD, overall winter mortality rates revolved around 15% — so beekeepers have a lot of experience replacing dead hives and dealing with bee loses. Typically, they handle these issues in two ways: splitting, or simply buying more bees.

Splitting involves taking half the bees from a healthy colony and moving them to a hive that’s struggling. A newly-fertilized queen (purchased for $18-25 and received through the mail, the team explains) is also added in the mix. In about six weeks’ time, both hives should be up and running healthily. Bees can also be purchased pre-packaged through the mail; such a purchase typically includes a fertilized queen and several thousand worker bees. These ‘reinforcements’ are placed in a dead hive in order to restart it.

The team notes that both methods are relatively easy and inexpensive to pull off for beekeepers, who have relied on them even after the onset of CCD.

“Beekeepers know how to replace dead hives,” said Rucker. “As winter mortality increased after CCD appeared and beekeepers worried about having enough hives to meet their pollination contracts in the spring, they responded by splitting more hives in mid- to late summer and would then end up with the number they needed.”

Despite the extra splitting and increased demand for bees from beekeepers, the price of queens or the insects has not increased dramatically, the team found. They say this is indicative of the fact that “the supply of queens and packaged bees is sufficiently elastic that any increases in demand associated with CCD have not resulted in measurable increases in price.” Similar trends were found for colony numbers and honey production figures. Both metrics saw downward trends before the onset of CCD, and they still do, but the rate of decline hasn’t increased. They explain that colony numbers in 2018 were actually higher than they had been over the last 20 years.

The only meaningful negative impact that the team found was in the fees asked for commercial crop pollination. Even there, however, only one commercially important crop showed a significant increase in price: almonds. With about a million acres of almonds in need of pollination each year, it takes about 70% of U.S. managed honeybee colonies to get the job done.

Fees for almonds rose from roughly $70 to almost $160 — adjusted for inflation — over the winters of 2004-2005 and 2005-2006. However, that’s before the onset of CCD, the team notes

“Almonds get pollinated in February or March, and it’s really the only major crop that requires pollination during that time of year,” said Rucker.

“Almond pollination fees did go up substantially, but they went up before CCD hit. You can’t attribute those increases to colony collapse disorder.”

The team says that the findings suggest CCD and other recent pollinator health concerns have little direct consequences on the health of commercial pollinator markets, which is good for both industry and consumers.

“When we started this project, we expected to find huge effects, but we found very small ones,” said Rucker. “The only effects we found on consumers, for example, is that they probably pay about 10 cents more for a $7, one-pound can of almonds at the grocery store.”

The effects of CCD are so small, Rucker explains, likely because most beekeepers expect some of their bees and honeybee colonies to die over the course of the year, and have traditionally developed methods of dealing with these disruptions. The framework was already there, and beekeepers were able to adapt it quickly and efficiently to overcome the extra disruptions caused, for example, by CCD or mites. But, there are still a lot of unknowns about the disorder, and the paper focused on the particular overlap of colony collapse disorder and economics.

Where wild pollinators are headed is impossible to say based on the results of this paper alone, the team cautions.

“The bottom line is that beekeepers are savvy [businesspeople],” he said. “Our research provides reason for optimism about the future ability of commercial beekeepers to adapt to environmental or biological shocks to their operations and to pollination markets.”

It says nothing, however, about non-managed pollinators. Data on those pollinators’ populations are sparse, and the impacts of maladies like CCD on their populations are not well understood. There is definitely much more work to be done to grasp the effects of CCD and other threats to bee health.”

The paper “Colony Collapse and the Consequences of Bee Disease: Market Adaptation to Environmental Change” has been published in the Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists.

NASA Explores the Use of Robotic Bees on Mars

Graphic depiction of Marsbee - Swarm of Flapping Wing Flyers for Enhanced Mars Exploration. Credits: C. Kang.

Graphic depiction of Marsbee – Swarm of Flapping Wing Flyers for Enhanced Mars Exploration. Credits: C. Kang.

Robot bees have been invented before, but Mars might be a place for them to serve a unique purpose. Earlier this year, it was revealed that the Japanese chemist Eijio Miyako led a team at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) in developing robotic bees. So they’re not really bees; they’re drones. Miyako’s bee drones are actually capable of a form of pollination similar to real bees.

Bees have been the prime subject of many a sci-fi films including The Savage Bees (1976), The Swarm (1978), and Terror Out of the Sky (1978). In the 21st century, bees have been upgraded. Their robotic counterparts shall have an important role to play in future scientific exploration. And this role could very well be played out on the surface of Mars.

Now, NASA has begun to fund a project to create other AI-steered robotic bees for the future exploration of Mars. The main cause of experimenting with such mini robots is for the desirable need for speed. The problem is this: the traditional rovers sent to Mars in the past move very slowly. NASA anticipates an army of fliers to move significantly faster than their snail-like predecessors.

A number of researchers in Alabama are currently collaborating with a group based in Japan to design these mechanical drones. Sizewise the drones are very similar to real bees; however, the wings are unnaturally large. The lengthened wingspan was a well-needed feature to add since the Red Planet’s atmosphere is thinner compared to Earth’s. These small insect-like robots have been dubbed “Marsbees.”

If used, the Marsbees would travel in swarms and be able to return to some sort of a base, not unlike the way bees return to their hive. The base would likely be a rover providing a place for the Marsbees to be reenergized. But they would not have to come to this rover station to send out the information they’ve accumulated. Similar to satellites, they would be able to transmit their findings wirelessly. Marsbees would also likely be able to collect a variety of data. If their full development is feasible and economical, the future for Marsbees looks promising.

Ant colonies behave as a single superorganism when attacked

Ant colonies are incredibly complex systems — the tightly knit, intensely cooperative colonies are closer to a single superorganism than to human societies. Researchers form the University of Bristol wanted to know how this single mind of the hive reacted to distress, and subjected colonies of migrating rock ants to differing forms of simulated predator attack to record their response.

Led by Thomas O’Shea-Wheller, the researchers subjected ants to simulated predator attacks to investigate the extent to which colonies of rock ants behave as a single entity.
Image via phys

By studying the ants responses, the team observed different reactions depending on where the attack was performed. When targeting scouting ants, that stay primarily at the periphery of colonial activity, the “arms” of foraging ants were recalled back into the nest. But when they targeted the workers at the heart of the colony, the whole body of ants retreated from the mound, seeking asylum in a new location.

The team was able to draw some pretty interesting parallels with human behavior. The first attacks could be compared to burning your hand on a hot stove, while the ones centered on the workers were more dangerous, kind of a ‘house on fire’ scare. And in each scenario, the ants reacted surprisingly similar to any animal with a nervous system — an involuntary reflex reaction to retreat from the damaging element in the first case, and a flight response from a predator that can’t be defended against in the later simulations.

“Our results draw parallels with the nervous systems of single organisms, in that they allow appropriate, location dependent, responses to damage, and suggest that just as we may respond to cell damage via pain, ant colonies respond to loss of workers via group awareness,” said Thomas O’Shea-Wheller, a PhD student in Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences and one of the authors of the study.