Editor’s note:  I have been studying colony collapse disorder for the past nine years, and unlike the author my understanding and findings illustrate that systemic pesticides are very much at the heart of colony collapse disorder. These poisons attack the immune system and make it impossible for bees to fight off what they normally would be able to. Furthermore, today there are more than 800 scientific papers linking these systemic pesticides to the demise of our bees, as well as our ecosystem!

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Tree Hive Bees — Keeping it High

Lynn Royce, a veteran bee researcher and entomologist who has been studying honeybees for much of her career, is now training her sights on the structure of the beehive itself and the living ecosystem within their native environments.

As Royce explains in the video below, bees naturally build their hives in tree hollows, on average almost 30 feet off the ground— at least on the East Coast, where this information is documented. There’s obviously a range of variability, depending on the different types of trees i.e. in the Pacific Northwest, Douglas Fir is prominent, and likely has a higher average colony height, up to 50 feet from the ground. Oak and Maple, on the other hand, are more likely near the 30-foot mark.

In nature, colonies are quite diffused, with a rough estimate on average of between 1-3 colonies per ¼ acre. By contrast, the average population density of a commercial beekeeping operation may approach upwards of 60 colonies within a ¼-acre area with the beehives resting on, or near the ground.

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Near to the ground, bees are susceptible from a host of predators: yellow jackets, possums, raccoon, and skunks that would otherwise not pose much of a threat.

There are other characteristics of their natural environments that bear further scientific study and are the focus of Lynn Royce’s work.

In a natural tree hollow, Varroa mites that are knocked off by the bees are less likely to climb back into the hive area. This raises the tantalizing question: can the Varroa mite populations potentially be better managed without the use of in-hive pesticides, which are two of the factors thought to weaken (stress) the bees?

Tree hollows are typically much thicker than a standard beehive, and as such, better able to handle the extremes of heat and cold. By virtue of their enclosed space, the debris box that forms at the base of the hollow is moist and comprised of organic nutrients, saw dust and living organisms. Within this micro-ecosystem, are there beneficial predators and microorganisms (viruses, bacteria, wax moths, etc) that may also help the bees fend off the mites? Preliminary evidence suggests this may indeed be the case.

If the understanding of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is correct, reducing some of the stressors on the bees may provide enough cushion to enable their populations to rebound. But as Lynn Royce is quick to state, there’s much research yet to conduct and the kind of research that’s needed is costly and takes time. Being among a very few number of researchers in the world with this particular focus, she needs public support (that means you!) to help fund her work.

Here’s a list of current factors thought to combine in such a way to imperil the bees:

  • Pests, the Varroa mite in particular and natural diseases
  • Pesticide exposures in the hives and also from the field crops
  • Loss of forage plants due to mono-crop farming practices and widespread use of herbicides
  • Commercial beekeeping practices that overtax the honeybees
  • Climate change (which may also be increasing the prevalence of pests and diseases)

For those who argue there is no real cause for concern, check out this article in The Guardian about the organization ALEC. Royce says, “they don’t understand the dynamics of beekeeping and the significance of these cumulative losses to the commercial beekeeper.”

While it’s true that a colony may lose an average 30 percent of their population in a given year, this is an average figure. Some beekeepers will experience higher losses while others less severe. Any substantial loss, means a reduction in revenue from potentially two important revenue streams. For one, when a colony loses a significant number of bees, there will be less honey production the following year as the beekeeper has to replenish his bee stock by subdividing a portion of their existing hive(s) in order to start a new colony. A beekeeper must purchase additional queens, one queen per new colony of 20-30,000 bees to rebuild the bee populations. In turn, that means the beekeeper will also have less (or no) available excess bees to sell to other commercial beekeepers.

Queen bees are not necessarily cheap either, depending upon the quantities involved, a (U.S.) queen may cost anywhere from $15-$50 per queen. A breeder queen costs even more. The breeder queens take a year to develop and offer greater assurance of having the desired genetic traits that a beekeeper needs.

All of this is to say that the bees are indeed, imperiled. And by extension, the future viability of commercial beekeepers and farmers that depend upon honeybees to pollinate their crops are at risk, as well. In Europe, scientists concluded the evidence was strong enough to recommend a temporary ban on a particular class of systemic insecticides, known as Neonicotinoids.

Since their introduction in the 1990’s, their use has been associated with some of the mass die-offs that have been observed. Despite the direct evidence in certain instances, the sudden and mysterious bee disappearances that have come to be known as CCD are not believed to result from a single causative agent alone. Instead, the current scientific consensus seems coalesced upon the idea of a combination of factors, that when combined, ultimately lead to the effects we are seeing with CCD. While the link between these powerful insecticides and CCD are not clearly established by the scientific evidence, at least here in this country, some U.S. experts suspect a significant link.

 

Royce’s efforts to help the honeybees reminds me of the efforts of a different scientist, Temple Grandin. Grandin imagined how the lowly bovine interprets its immediate surroundings, especially in fraught situations such as being herded through a slaughter gate. By virtue of her research and her native sensitivity toward these animals, she has been instrumental in helping the cattle industry re-design slaughter facilities and institute new management practices to reduce the stressors imposed upon these sensitive creatures.

In a similar vein, Royce is looking to nature to better understand how the bees cope within their native habitats. She is looking for clues that may also be applicable for the bees in commercial settings, to fend off CCD and help restore their populations to vigorous health. While not sexy, basic bee research is vital if we are to learn how to help the honeybees better cope with a fast changing world.

For those interested to learn more about Lynn Royce’s tree hives and how you can help, here are two links for additional information:

This blog was originally published on Cooking Up a Story 

Cooking Up A Story is an online television show and blog about food and sustainable living. CUPS features a variety of programming including documentary stories, interviews, DIY and talks that explore our food system..

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2 Responses to “Tree Hive Bees — Scientific Research To Save The Honeybees”

  • MrChappie

    Hello,
    I always enjoy the information you share with your
    readers but sometimes differing opinions can be helpful. For instance when some of the members of our beekeeping club watched the interview about tree bees they had lots of comments/questions at our last meeting.

    As a lifelong beekeeper, I have done countless experiments and tried different things to gain knowledge from the bees themselves and they have taught me well.

    Many of the papers I read have flaws and half-truths that cause a lot of confusion with new and old beekeepers.

    For example, saying bees don’t do well on the ground is misleading. I have taken thousands of bee nests from low places and some from underground. Water meters are a favorite for a lot of bees and some companies are now sealing up the little holes they used to use to remove the lids by inserting a rod and are now using magnets so the meter readers don’t get stung so much from those ground dwelling honey bees.

    In my state, Florida, we have to hide our bees from the apiary inspectors if we want to keep bees in a natural state like gums, logs, trees etc.
    They insist on removable frame hives so they can inspect
    and many times when they inspect they don’t even know what they are seeing.

    It takes years of experience to learn just how efficient honey bees are and if we allow them to live the way they were designed to live; they will survive in greater numbers.

    After over 60 years of working with and studying honey bees I have learned a lot from them. The have taught me that they never go to a supply company to buy chemicals to kill anything in their nests. They have taught me they never read books or go on the internet to see how to stay alive.

    I know everyone on the internet is an expert even if they have only kept bees
    for less than a year. Watching some of the videos makes me cringe with the bad
    information that goes out to new beekeepers.

    If you look at the video I posted on one of the websites for one of our clubs that make up the North Central Florida Beekeepers Association, you will see just how well bees can survive for over 20 years in the roof of a building with lots of creatures, molds, fungi, etc. living in the ecosystem just underneath them. https://www.facebook.com/chappie.mcchesney?fref=nf

    Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park is the title of the place where I removed the bees. They were up high, over 40 foot but I have had colonies just as strong and surviving just as long in logs on the ground and some underground nests.

    I have videos of taking bees out of an old stump where they built 5 feet down into the ground.
    I forced them out by using a water hose to flood the nest slowly so they
    had to swim out or drown. We lost the brood but got the queen and most of the
    bees out and they are doing well three years later.

    Sure they get attacked by ground dwelling predators but so do the high living bees. It is all a matter of survival of the fittest and most bees that men try to manage are not very fit these days.

    Chemicals have weaken our bees and made the pests become stronger as they build up immunity to our poisons. Some honey has chemical flavors from many beekeepers as well.

    I teach, “Let Bees Be Bees” at all of the clubs I have founded in North Central Florida and anywhere I teach.

    Thanks for all you do Maryam to inform the public on the plight of the pollinators. Keep up your great work.

    I am trying to do that here but having to hide most of my bees from the State makes it very difficult sometimes. LOL

    Have a great day,

    Chappie

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