CLIMATE CHANGE CRASHING HONEYBEE POPULATION ?

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“Bees are such great environmental samplers. When they go out and forage, they go almost two miles away from the hive. That’s a very large area, about 2,500 acres, and the same size as the grid elements of a lot of climate ecosystem models,” Esaias said.

“If we’re headed into rougher weather, as it appears we are, we’ll have more difficulties with our bees,” Mussen said. “It won’t matter if you’re a backyard beekeeper or someone with 10,000 colonies.”
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Washington Post
Monday, September 10, 2007; A05

Weather May Account for Reduced Honey Crop
By Jane Black

That the 2007 honey crop has been disappointing won’t surprise anyone who has picked up the newspaper in recent months. Since early spring, colony collapse disorder (CCD), a disease that causes honeybees to suddenly, mysteriously disappear from their hives, has made headlinesaround the world. Without honeybees to pollinate, experts warn that one-third of the food supply — from apples and peaches to cucumbers and squash — is at risk.

It’s a frightening prospect. And though signs of
CCD were first reported in the United States and
most cases have been reported here, European
beekeepers have recently observed a similar
phenomenon, and possible cases have been reported
in Taiwan.

Scientists and beekeepers have floated a variety
of theories for the collapses — from stress
caused when commercial beekeepers move their
hives long distances to disorientation caused by
cellphone radiation. Last week, the journal
Science published a report that found a new
virus, Israeli acute paralysis virus, appeared to
be associated with CCD.

But some experts say the more likely reason for
this year’s weak honey crop, which the
NationalHoney Board says is on track to be
smaller than last year’s below-par 155 million
pounds, is something much more obvious: the
weather. In the South, drought and wildfires have
prevented flowers from blooming. In the Midwest,
a late freeze brought nectar flows in many areas
almost to a halt. And in California, the
country’s No. 2 honey producer, coastal
beekeepers reported that there were almost no
flowering plants in July. The bees were fed sugar
water to keep them from starving.

“It’s more weather than CCD,” said Ted Dennard,
president of the Savannah Bee Company, which
sells specialty honeys. “The reports I’m getting
is that everywhere is under-producing. Tupelo was
somewhere between 25 percent and 50 percent of
normal production, and there’s not a drop of star
thistle in Idaho.”

Extreme weather is becoming increasingly common
across the globe, numerous studies suggest.
That’s why new research by Wayne Esaias, a
Maryland biological oceanographer at NASA’s
Goddard Space Flight Center who keeps bees as a
hobby, has piqued enormous interest among bee
experts and honey lovers. By taking simple
measurements on when his bees started and stopped
collecting nectar near his home in Highland,
Esaias has shown that flowers there are blooming
three weeks earlier than they did in 1992 and a
month before they did in 1970. (The research,
which has not yet been published, is posted at
http://honeybeenet.gsfc.nasa.gov/Sites/regional_map.htm.)

Even with a limited data set, it’s a potentially
significant climate shift. If backyard beekeepers
collected similar data at sites across the
country, the results could offer clues about how
to manage bee colonies to maximize honey
production and, potentially, help keep bees
healthy enough to resist diseases, such as the
mysterious CCD.

“What this has demonstrated is that with simple
measurements, you can bring all the information
together and get a sense of the bigger picture,”
said Dewey Caron, a professor of entomology and
wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware.
“I’m kind of ashamed I didn’t think of it first.”

Esaias, though, is the first to admit that it
took him a long time — 15 years — to see that
there might be a useful connection between his
professional knowledge of weather and climate and
his after-work beekeeping hobby.

It all started in 1991 when, without asking
permission, his 12-year-old son offered to make a
home for the hives of his Boy Scout troop leader,
who was leaving the area. Along with the hives,
the Esaias family inherited an old platform
scale. At the troop leader’s instruction, Esaias
placed the hives on the scale in the back yard.

Each night in honey season, they would record the
hives’ weight. The heavier the hive, the more
nectar had been collected. “I’d never kept bees
before, so it was a good management tool,” Esaias
remembered. “It helped you figure out when to get
ready for the honey and when to take the honey
off.”

His two children became avid beekeepers, keeping
records for their 4-H club and selling honey out
the back door. Over the years, Esaias, who today
has 17 hives, noticed that the bees behaved
differently during El Ni?o years, when the winter
is milder and the summers are wetter.

In early 2006, Esaias decided to look for
patterns. He dug up spotty records from 1922,
1923 and 1957 on when flowers first bloomed in
the Washington area, and good, consistent ones
from the Smithsonian beginning in 1970. His
analysis showed that the plants were blooming a
full month earlier now than they had been in
1970. There had been no apparent change between
1922 and 1970.

Esaias stresses that real climate analysis
requires long, continuous records, so it’s
possible this is normal weather variability. But
his hypothesis is that the change is the result
of the area’s rapid urbanization. As more
buildings and roads are built, the temperature
climbs and plants bloom earlier.

This spring, he enlisted the help of 15 other
beekeepers in Washington and in the Maryland
suburbs. Initial results show a 15-day gap
between nectar production in Chevy Chase and 20
miles away in Highland.

“There’s a lot of variability within the natural
system. The scary part is the long-term trend and
the implications of that change,” Esaias said.

To find out what that might be, Esaias has
applied for NASA funding that would allow him to
overlay his data with information from NASA
satellites that chart weather and vegetation
patterns.

“Bees are such great environmental samplers. When
they go out and forage, they go almost two miles
away from the hive. That’s a very large area,
about 2,500 acres, and the same size as the grid
elements of a lot of climate ecosystem models,”
Esaias said. “I’m wondering if there’s a way we
could look at when the plants produce nectar, and
use the satellite data and ecosystem models so
we’re in a better position to understand how
climate change will affect pollination.”

So are other entomologists, such as Eric Mussen,
an apiculturist at the University of California
at Davis. Mussen believes the reason bees got
“whacked” by CCD is malnutrition, which is
directly connected to the weather. If honeybees
cannot collect enough nectar to feed themselves,
they won’t have the strength to resist disease.

“If we’re headed into rougher weather, as it
appears we are, we’ll have more difficulties with
our bees,” Mussen said. “It won’t matter if
you’re a backyard beekeeper or someone with
10,000 colonies.”

Both types of beekeepers will have the
opportunity to contribute if Esaias’s research
moves forward.

“This is a perfect example of how citizen science
can work,” said the University of Delaware’s
Caron. “Lots of people can come in and contribute
small amounts of data. You get immediate feedback
on your bees and the satisfaction that you are
contributing to a larger picture.”

© 2007 The Washington Post Company
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