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Honey bee colonies are collapsing as climate change progresses

Honey bees are synonymous with sweetness and buzzing energy. They’re also the backbone of our food system, pollinating everything from almonds to zucchini. But recent research reveals a sting in the tail: climate change is making life tougher for honey bees.

Longer, warmer falls could push colonies to the brink, raising the risk of springtime collapse. Is there a solution? Believe it or not, cold storage might be the answer.

Honey bees and changing climate

Honey bees are temperature-driven creatures. When the mercury tops 50 degrees Fahrenheit, they’re off and flying. Their winter survival strategy is brilliantly simple: huddle as a colony in the hive, living off their honey stores. This cozy cluster keeps the hive warm and protects the all-important queen bee.

Come spring, older worker bees resume their foraging flights. Sadly, this is when they naturally start to die off. For the hive to thrive, there must be enough younger bees hatching out to take their place.

Too many older bees dying before enough replacements emerge, and the whole colony can collapse.

Climate change and bees characteristics

Here’s where climate change throws a wrench in the works. Think about those longer, warmer fall seasons we’re seeing. What does that mean for our bees? Here’s what scientists at Washington State University discovered:

The workaholic trap

Honey bees possess an admirable work ethic. Their instinct to gather pollen and nectar ensures they’ll fly whenever the weather allows, typically above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. This dedication serves them well in traditional seasons, ensuring ample food stores and pollination of plants. However, climate change is altering those traditional weather patterns.

With warmer, longer fall seasons, bees keep flying when they’d normally start preparing for winter. This extra activity, unfortunately, takes a toll. Instead of conserving energy, they’re shortening their lifespans. In essence, more flying time directly translates to fewer days for each worker bee.

This relentless work cycle, fueled by unseasonable warmth, jeopardizes the entire colony. Worker bees, the females who tirelessly collect resources, are the backbone of the hive.

When they die off prematurely, the colony suffers. This climate-driven “workaholic trap” could have serious consequences for bee populations as a whole.

Springtime crash

The impact of this extra fall activity becomes devastatingly clear in the spring. Bee colonies that spend the winter outdoors, especially in areas with significant climate change, may emerge severely weakened. Researchers in the Pacific Northwest, a vital region for beekeeping, have looked closely at how changing conditions might affect bees.

They’ve built models predicting how colonies might fare out to 2050, and the results are alarming. Simulations show many colonies could see their adult bee populations drop below the critical 5,000 to 9,000 bees needed to function properly.

This includes warming the hive, caring for the young, and the vital task of foraging for food. A colony without enough workers simply cannot sustain itself, dramatically increasing the likelihood of collapse.

This has earned the worrying name “Springtime Crash,” and its effects could be far-reaching for both nature and our food supply. Bees are essential pollinators, and their decline poses risks to crops and biodiversity. This research highlights the urgency of finding solutions.

“This is a case where a small amount of warming, even in the near future, will make a big impact on honey bees.” explained Kirti Rajagopalan, climate researcher at WSU. The risk is immediate. As climate change progresses, the threat to honey bee colonies will only intensify.

Could cold storage save bees from climate change?

What if putting bees on ice, literally, could save them? It seems counterintuitive, but storing bee colonies in controlled cold storage during the fall might offer a lifeline to these vital pollinators.

  • Placing hives in cold storage forces the bees to cluster earlier, extending the lifespan of those tireless worker bees.
  • By the end of the century, simulations showed colonies with fall-to-spring cold storage could boast 15,000+ bees, compared to a dismal 5,000 or less if left outside all winter.

Gloria DeGrandi-Hoffman, an expert at the USDA, stated: “Our simulations are showing that even if there is no nutritional stress, no pathogens, no pesticides – just the conditions in fall and winter are enough to compromise the age structure of a colony.”

The win-win

Commercial beekeepers are increasingly using cold storage. It helps with logistics (think moving those millions of hives to California for almond pollination) and supports overall bee health.

As Brandon Hopkins, an entomologist at WSU, explained: “A lot of beekeepers are already practicing this management technique of storing bees indoors because it has a lot of immediate potential to help in a number of ways. These findings demonstrate that there are additional benefits to this practice for the survival of colonies in a changing climate.”

Bee aware, bee supportive

This research highlights how climate change disrupts ecosystems in unexpected ways. Let’s remember our little pollinators next time we enjoy the fruits of their labors. Here’s how you can help:

Plant a bee-friendly garden

Creating a bee-friendly garden is a wonderful way to give back to honey bees and our other buzzing pollinating friends. The idea is as simple as it is powerful: focus on native plants. These are the flowers that local bees and insects have evolved alongside for countless generations.

They’re a perfect match, providing the exact type of nectar and pollen needed for these creatures to thrive. Planting a variety that bloom at different times of year is like setting out a delicious buffet for them – a constant source of nourishment.

Think strategically when choosing plants for your bee haven. You want a mix that ensures something’s always in bloom. Early spring flowers are vital for those hungry bees waking up from winter, summer blooms keep colonies healthy and strong, and later flowers help them prepare for the colder months ahead.

This colorful, continuous spread of food not only supports bees, but it will attract a dazzling array of pollinators, creating a vibrant, buzzing ecosystem right in your own backyard.

Skip the pesticides

Pesticides meant for garden pests often end up harming bees and other pollinators. Many common garden pesticides are highly toxic to bees, harming their ability to find food, fly back to their hives, and even reproduce.

Worse yet, these chemicals can linger on the very plants they’re meant to protect, poisoning the pollen and nectar that bees work so tirelessly to collect. This contamination poisons not just individual bees, but the entire colony.

The damage caused by pesticides is far-reaching and insidious. Without pollinators, the production of many fruits, vegetables, and nuts is impossible. Reduced yields and less variety are the immediate consequences, but it also contributes to biodiversity loss, weakening the entire food chain.

By choosing natural pest control methods, gardeners have the power to safeguard these essential pollinators, ensuring a healthier and more vibrant ecosystem for everyone.

The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.


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