For Lynn Royce, a veteran bee researcher and entomologist who has been studying honeybees for much of her career, she is now training her sights on the beehive’s structure itself and the living ecosystem within their native environments.
As Royce explains in the video, 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 known. There’s obviously a range of variability, different types of trees (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 are more likely near the 30 foot mark. In nature, colonies are quite diffuse 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.
Near to the ground, bees are susceptible from a host of predators—yellow jackets, possums, raccoons 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 Disease (CCD) is correct, reducing some of the stressors upon 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)
There are some who argue there is no real cause for concern ( check out this article in The Guardian about the organization ALEC)—and that annual die-offs of bees is not a problem. 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% of their population in a given year— this is an average figure, some beekeepers will experience higher losses while others, less severe. Any substantial losses, 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, 1 queen per a 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, the bees are indeed, imperiled. And by extension, the future viability of commercial beekeepers and farmers that depend upon honeybees to pollinate their crops, they are at risk, as well. In Europe, their 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: