Washington State Department of Agriculture entomologist Chris Looney displays a dead Asian giant hornet, a sample brought in from Japan for research in Blaine, Wash.
Elaine Thompson/AP Photo
But murder hornets are nothing compared with pesticides, climate change, Harvard experts say they’re here. Native to East Asia, the so-called murder hornets were spotted in North America for the first time late last year and just again in May. The presence of the predators, which can grow as much as 2 inches in length, drew media attention because their frightening prowess at killing honeybees means they could adversely affect the supply of foods we consume that require pollination. Known officially as the Asian giant hornet, the species is capable of wiping out an entire hive in a matter of hours, decapitating bees with powerful mandibles and hauling away the thoraxes to feed their young. The hornets are less of a direct threat to humans, although they do kill about 50 people a year in Japan, where they are most prevalent. The Gazette spoke with Benjamin de Bivort, the Thomas D. Cabot Associate Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and James Crall, a postdoctoral fellow working in de Bivort’s lab. Both researchers study pollinators, like bees, and they shared their views on how much we should worry about the sightings in Washington state and British Columbia.
Benjamin de Bivort and James Crall
GAZETTE: Remind us, why should we care about what happens to honeybees?
CRALL: Bees are incredibly important for human well-being, including both managed honeybees and wild bees. Put simply: About one in three bites of food comes from crops that depend on animals for pollination, and bees are the most important group of pollinators. The parts of our diet that depend on pollinators — including many fruits, nuts, and vegetables — are really nutritious. Losing pollinators means less healthy food and worse health outcomes for humans. Of course, beyond their role in food production, bees are incredibly important for preserving biodiversity, more generally.
DE BIVORT: From a basic science perspective, honeybees are particularly interesting because they live in societies of tens of thousands of individuals. This high level of sociality offers advantages and challenges for them as a species. For example, they have evolved an extreme form of division of labor and behave in ways that are highly altruistic. At the same time, each individual honeybee is highly dependent on her sisters, so when the colony as a whole is unwell, it is very bad news for all the individual bees.
GAZETTE: What were your initial reactions on hearing about the emergence of the Asian giant hornet here?
CRALL: My first reaction was that I’m really glad entomologists in Washington state have been so proactive in setting a monitoring system to look for these hornets. My second thought, though, was that I wish people reacted this strongly to all the other threats that we know full well are wreaking havoc on bee populations, like climate change, and many aspects of industrialized agriculture, including pesticides.
DE BIVORT: Yes, much depends on whether the wasps actually become established, meaning they reproduce to a stable, self-sustaining population size. I believe it’s rarely the case that an invasive species becomes established but is later eliminated through deliberate control measures. But if they do become established, then the honeybees will experience strong evolutionary pressures over the next years as they adapt to this new ecological interaction.
Professor Benjamin de Bivort believes that if the murder hornets do establish themselves, the honeybees will experience strong evolutionary pressures as they adapt to this interaction.
Jon Chase/Harvard file photo
GAZETTE: What do you mean?
DE BIVORT: If bees end up facing the hornets as a recurring threat, then any bees that happen to have comparative advantages against hornet attacks — like tougher exoskeletons or more sensitive olfactory systems to smell the hornet as it approaches — will have an evolutionary advantage and may outcompete more vulnerable bees. It’s even conceivable that bees here could evolve similar social defenses as bees that have been in ecological contact with the hornets for a long time.
GAZETTE: So, what could this all mean for bees in the U.S.?
CRALL: The hornet has been found just twice in North America — once in British Columbia and once in Washington state — in late 2019 and, so far, one has been found in 2020 so it’s likely at least some individuals survived through the winter. It’s not clear yet whether they have become established. And even if they become locally established where they were introduced, it’s not really clear how widespread they could become in the U.S. based on the kinds of climates they inhabit in their native range. So, at this point it’s really important to be monitoring — as is happening in Washington state — but I wouldn’t say they pose an imminent threat to bees.
GAZETTE: Why more of a remote threat for wild bees?
CRALL: Well, it’s not that I think honeybees are any more affected per se, it’s just that I think we know less about to what extent they prey on wild, native bees — of which there are 4,000 species in North America. Unlike domesticated honeybee colonies that usually have a beekeeper keeping close watch who may notice if a giant hornet comes to wipe out the colony, nobody is reporting when a solitary bee nest gets eaten.
“Both wild bee populations and managed honeybees face a slew of critically important threats. … I think the giant hornet ranks well below all of these in terms of what keeps me up at night.”
— James Call
DE BIVORT: Another thing it could mean centers around stressors. Colony collapse disorder is the well-known phenomenon of colonies suddenly failing, which has both commercial and ecological impacts when it comes to domestic honeybees. It’s likely the result of many simultaneous stressors, each one of which is survivable, but in combination push a colony to the breaking point. These stressors include mite parasites, viruses, environmental contamination, and pesticides. Adding a predatory wasp would likely contribute to this stressor load.
GAZZETTE: Bees in Japan have a defense against these so-called murder hornets. What is it and why don’t ours?
CRALL: The Asian honeybee has a remarkable defense against these hornets: Worker bees will collectively ball up around the hornet and heat their bodies up to a temperature — around 122 degrees Fahrenheit — that is lethal to the hornet, as well as to the bees themselves. This is, however, a different species of honeybee — Apis cerana — that is native to the same range as the giant hornet, so it has had time to evolve defense mechanisms. The common European honeybee — Apis mellifera — that is introduced and widely managed in the U.S. has not co-evolved with this hornet, however, and so hasn’t evolved effective defenses.
DE BIVORT: To me this reiterates how the strong sociality of bees is so relevant to their evolution and ecology. It isn’t possible for solitary bees to mount this particular defense. At the same time, a nest with just one bee isn’t nearly so tempting a prize for a predator as a colony of tens of thousands of bees.
GAZETTE: What are other threats the bee population has been facing and where do those rank with murder hornet threat?
CRALL: Both wild bee populations and managed honeybees face a slew of critically important threats, including diseases and pests, land-use change, habitat loss, exposure to pesticides and other agrochemicals, and climate change — all of which can act together to exacerbate impacts on bees. I think the giant hornet ranks well below all of these in terms of what keeps me up at night.
DE BIVORT: I agree, particularly since it remains uncertain if the hornets are a permanent addition to our North American ecology. The hornets themselves may very well be subject to similar environmental threats as the bees, considering the population declines seen broadly across insect species.
Interviews were edited for clarity and length.
. . . . . . .
In May, Walmart and True Value Hardware announced that they are prepared to stop selling bee-killing neonics,(PESTICIDES). And earlier this summer, SumOfUs, (a community of people from around the world committed to curbing the growing power of corporations), delivered over 110,000 SumOfUs member signatures at Kroger’s annual shareholder meeting, asking it to join Walmart and Home Depot and stop selling neonics too.
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Do you like honey, but are afraid of bees?
Just like so many things in our lives, we have a bittersweet relationship with parts of nature, but everything in nature has a reason for being.
Do you remember the BEE MOVIE?
Bees are a huge part of our planets eco system and agricultural well being. Without bees, the flowers, trees and bushes would disappear.
Sadly, our honey bees are dying at an alarming rate. Most scientists believe that the cause of the extreme disappearance of the bees are the pesticides used by Monsanto, the largest farm conglomerate in the U.S.
At HONEYCUT we realize we can be part of the solution by educating, raising awareness and instilling a sense of urgency into our customers who care. Your generation is so in touch with giving back and getting involved. We love that you know you have the power to make a difference. In this part of our website, we will devote time and energy into educating and entertaining in an effort to keep you informed and involved in this crucial situation.
If idioms are to be believed, bees are some of the most industrious animals around. But it’s a little more complicated than poet Isaac Watts made it out be when he wrote “How doth the little busy bee / Improve each shining hour, / And gather honey all the day / From every opening flower!”
Some bees don’t really do any work at all, and are parasites of other bee species. These so-called “cuckoo bees” don’t collect pollen or build their own homes. Instead, they steal food from, and lay their eggs in, other bees’ nests. When the cuckoo bee larvae hatch, they eat their hosts’ pollen stores and sometimes their eggs if mom didn’t feast on them already.
Other bee groups—the stingless bees, bumble bees and honey bees—are social insects that live together and work cooperatively. They put in honest work, unlike the cuckoo bees, but the amount of labor any one bee does varies with its role in the colony. The honey bee workers that forage food for the hive often do work “all the day,” like in the poem. Slate’s Forrest Wickman reports that these workers “spend nearly every hour of daylight outside” and entomologists have seen them making more than 100 foraging trips in a day. But these guys strictly work the dayshift, and come home to relax when the sun goes down. Meanwhile, other workers whose jobs keep them home tending honeycombs and cooling the nestwork around the clock, but also take frequent breaks. “Drones, by contrast, are quite lazy,” Wickman says. “They don’t leave the hive until early afternoon, at which time they carouse around in packs, and when they get home just a few hours later, they rely on the worker bees to feed them.”
Even among the foraging workers, the workload isn’t shared evenly and some bees are busier than others. New research suggests that it’s a small group of workers that do the bulk of the labor, while the others take it easy until conditions in the colony change and prompt them to get to work.
For the study, researchers from the University of Illinois set up five experimental honeybee (Apis mellifera) colonies—three in natural outdoor areas and two inside screened enclosures. Each hive was equipped with pairs of laser scanners at its entrance, and 100 to 300 workers from each colony were tagged with tiny microtransponders. As these workers passed through the hive entrances, the scanners recorded the unique IDs of their tags, the direction they were traveling (that is, entering or exiting the hive) and the time of day. The setup allowed the researchers to track the workers as they came and went and tell how much time they spent out and about or in the hive, kind of like the time clocks that some businesses use to track employee hours. The scientists also used handheld scanners to record tagged bees’ visits to pollen and nectar feeders that they’d set up near the enclosed hives.
After almost two months of gathering data while the bees went about their business, the researchers got a picture of the workers’ activity levels, and it showed that a small portion of bees were much busier than the rest. In all five hives, around 20 percent of the tagged workers accounted for half of the total recorded flight activity. These “elite” foragers, the researchers say, “began to make trips as soon as the colony became active each morning, and made regular, closely spaced trips throughout the day until the cessation of colony-wide flight activity in the evening.”
The elite workers weren’t always busy, though, and their activity levels spiked and dipped over the course of the experiment and their lifetimes. That made the researchers think that the elite bees’ hard-working ways weren’t intrinsic, which team leader Gene Robinson says has always been the assumption with social insects, but adaptive. A worker might be more or less active in response to certain circumstances, like a favorite food source running low or new sources appearing. If the super foragers weren’t special, then maybe the other bees weren’t simply slackers, but more of a reserve work force also capable of elite behavior and just waiting for their time to shine.
To see if the low-activity bees could and would step up their game when duty called, the researchers waited at the feeders near the enclosed hives during peak foraging time and captured all the bees that arrived there. While they couldn’t specifically target known high-activity bees, the busier workers did have a higher chance of getting bee-napped because they made more trips. Sure enough, when the scientists checked the IDs of the captured bees and looked at their previous day’s flight records, most of the bees they removed were in the top 20 percent of the workforce.
For the rest of the day after the cull, the feeders at both hives were quiet, with fewer than ten visits between them. The next day, though, foraging activity and the number of bees at the feeders returned to normal. The bees that had been taking it easy before were picking up the slack of their missing co-workers, some of them boosting their activity levels by almost 500 percent. The results, the researchers say, suggest that a hive isn’t divided into hard workers and slackers, but that every worker keeps tabs on the net activity of the colony and adjusts their own activity accordingly to make sure that the colony’s needs are being met.
COLONY COLLAPSE DISORDER
Colony collapse disorder (CCD) is the phenomenon that occurs when the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave behind a queen, plenty of food and a few nurse bees to care for the remaining immature bees and the queen. While such disappearances have occurred throughout the history of apiculture, and were known by various names (disappearing disease, spring dwindle, May disease, autumn collapse, and fall dwindle disease), the syndrome was renamed colony collapse disorder in late 2006 in conjunction with a drastic rise in the number of disappearances of western honey bee (Apis mellifera) colonies in North America.European beekeepers observed similar phenomena in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, Switzerland and Germany, albeit to a lesser degree, and the Northern Ireland Assemblyreceived reports of a decline greater than 50%.
Colony collapse disorder causes significant economic losses because many agricultural crops (although no staple foods) worldwide are pollinated by western honey bees. According to the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Department of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the worth of global crops with honey bee’s pollination was estimated to be close to $200 billion in 2005. Shortages of bees in the US have increased the cost to farmers renting them for pollination services by up to 20%.
Several possible causes for CCD have been proposed…[continue reading]
Centre for Integrative Bee Research
The Centre for Integrative Bee Research (CIBER) is located on the Crawley campus at the University of Western Australia in Perth. CIBER conducts basic scientific research into honeybee reproduction, immunity and ecology and aligns its work with the needs of industrial and governmental partners. CIBER is specifically dedicated to facilitate interdisciplinary research and offers opportunities for scientists to perform collaborative research on honeybees using methods and approaches from systems biology and evolutionary ecology. The ultimate goal is to better understand how individual molecules and their interplay are responsible for complex biological process such as sexual reproduction or immunity. Research conducted at CIBER is done in close collaboration with the local beekeeping industry, notably the Better Bees of Western Australia bee breeding program. The research group consists of 20-30 researchers from all different academic levels as well as representatives from the governmental and honeybee industry sector. The research group also runs an outreach program and was involved in the making of the theatrical movie More than Honey.
Reports about dramatic declines in a number of global honeybee populations, especially in commercially managed stock, resulted in an inquiry of the Australian Parliament into the future of the Australian honey bee industry. A house standing committee on Primary Industries and Resources finally published a report on 16 June 2008 that summarised the situation of the honeybee industry in Australia. Among a large number of recommendations, the report identified an urgent need for more research to address existing and future problems of Australian honeybees, the bee industry and recommended a substantial increase in funding for honeybee research. The need for additional and coordinated research into honeybees stimulated in a number of initiatives from Australian researchers and research institutions. However, it became clear that the geographical isolation of Western Australia and the ban to import bees or some bee products into the state requires the buildup of a specific research hub. CIBER was formally set up as the Collaborative Initiative for Bee Research at the University of Western Australia in 2008 and was renamed in 2011 to Centre for Integrative Bee Research. The name change coincided with the introduction of a new logo, that is currently still in use.
The interdisciplinary approach is one of the core characteristics of CIBER’s activities, which run along two different gradients: First, CIBER connects several disciplines of research including the molecular and nano sciences, evolutionary biology, and sociobiology, as well as economics. Second, CIBER bridges fundamental and applied sciences by generating new knowledge in areas of practical interest for honeybee industry partners. CIBER uses a number of modern molecular technologies such as genomics and proteomics to identify molecules involved in physiological processes such as reproduction or immunity. Research conducted at CIBER pioneered a novel scientific field in research known as evolutionary proteomics. The central idea is to understand how evolutionary processes operate on the molecular level. Researchers at CIBER conducted the first large scale analyses of the proteins present in glandular secretions supporting honeybee sperm, such as seminal fluid and spermathecal fluid.
For experimental work, CIBER maintains and breeds its own bee stock of around 60 colonies, kept at an apiary on the campus of the University of Western Australia. During the winter month, most of the bee stock is moved north to overwintering grounds.
CIBER personnel is represented in a number of National boards and councils to provide expertise and advice on issues about honeybees, for example the RIRDC Honeybee Advisory Board, the Primary Producers Committee or the Asian Honeybee Transition to Management Scientific Advisory group.
Collaboration with the honeybee industry
A number of research projects are done in collaboration with local beekeepers. To do this, CIBER received funding in 2009 from the Australian Research Council to conduct research on male honeybee fertility together with Better Bees of Western Australia as an industry partner. Better Bees of Western Australia is a group of 8 commercial beekeepers. Each individual beekeeper owns and maintains some of the 24 bee lineages that are recognized as part of “The Western Australian Bee Breeding Program”. The aim of the honey bee breeding program is to maintain a genetic pool of honey bee breeding stock for the WA apiary industry to use in maintaining a healthy population of managed honeybees. In 2013 CIBER and Better Bees received a second grant from the Australian Research Council to study the fungal disease Nosema and its interactions with the honeybee immune system.
The research and activities of CIBER are communicated to the broader public through an outreach program, which includes the organisation of public lectures and seminars, the showing of bees to the public and in schools and exhibitions, as well as activities during the yearly honeybee week. In 2011, CIBER and the Perth based museum SciTech organised an exhibition “The Science of Honeybees”, which initially ran for 6 months at SciTech, then toured through schools and libraries in Western Australia. The success of the exhibition insipired plans for a permanent CIBER – Honeybee exhibition at SciTech, which was scheduled to open in 2013. CIBER also maintains its own facebook page, which allows interested users to follow ongoing activities at CIBER as well as get updated information on honeybees in general. CIBER is also involved in organisation of the yearly Honey Week, which is held annually in May. Honey week is an Australia-wide initiative to showcase bees and beekeeping to the public. The outreach activities of CIBER were awarded with the Premier’s Science Award of Western Australia in 2014, acknowledging its success in raising community awareness about the importance of honeybees in the environment.
More than Honey movie
CIBER was involved in the making of the theatrical documentary “More than Honey” by Swiss film maker Markus Imhoof, which was released into several European movie theatres in 2012. The group provided scientific advisory for the film, and some of the research conducted at CIBER is featured in the film. The movie had its world premiere on 11 August 2012, concluding the Locarno film festival in Switzerland and was later on shown at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September 2012. The documentary was the most successful Swiss film of 2012 and is the most successful Swiss documentary movie of all time. The movie was awarded more than 25 international prizes such as the German and Swiss Film Awards for best documentary, and became the Swiss candidate for a nomination in the category of Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards (Oscar) . CIBER actively promoted screenings of the movie in Australia as part of the German Film Festival and maintains the official English and German blog of the movie.
Future Bees Fund
For fund raising purposes and in order to finance activities such as bee research, beekeeping and outreach activities, CIBER set up the Future Bees Fund in 2013, which is a non-profit fund located at the University of Western Australia. A board consisting of representatives from research and the bee keeping industry decides on the usage of funds available and to help publicise the fund activities.
5 Ways to #SaveTheBees
There’s been a honey bee crisis with some beekeepers reporting losses up to 90% of all of their colonies. You can make a move today to make our world a better place for bees. Here are five things that you can do to become a bee advocate and #savethebees.
1.Save bees with more flowers
More and more people are planting beautiful flowers to increase the amount of food for bees. When you plant flowers, you’re not only helping the bees, but creating an opportunity to enjoy watching these precious pollinators up close. Here are some helpful tips to keep in mind as you grow your bee-friendly garden:
- Plant flowers that bloom at different times throughout the year. This makes sure that the bees have a steady stream of food;
- Stay away from hybrid plants, which don’t have much nectar or pollen;
- Bees prefer large patches of the same flower than a mix of flowers.
2. Support your local beekeeper
Each time you eat local honey, you’re helping to keep a local beekeepers in business! Support your local beekeeper who spends time and energy doing what they can to help the bees thrive. When you buy local honey, you also make sure you are getting authentic honey with the beneficial properties of honey.
3. Add a water source in your garden
Bees get thirsty, too! Create a shallow outdoor bird bath or a bowl with clean water and some pebbles or stones for bees to land on when they drink. This will help them and may also attract other wildlife like butterflies and birds.
4. Plant a tree, feed a bee
Did you know that trees are a major source of nectar and pollen for bees? When trees bloom, they produce hundreds of flowers, which bees gather for their hives. Trees are also home to many bees. Bees nest the tree’s wood cavities, chew their leaves or collect tree resin to create their bee home. Help the bees by joining tree-planting activities in your area. Connect with your local tree planting organizations to plant a tree on Arbor Day or anytime during the year!
5. Sponsor a beehive
If you would like to help increase the number of beehives, why not help fund the placement of new beehives in school and food bank gardens that are producing fresh, healthy food for their community? The Honeybee Conservancy is a bee charity working to install honey bee hives and solitary bee homes in communities all across the U.S. You can learn more at their website.
Tell the EPA: Ban bee-killing pesticides
The European Union has finally listened to scientists and banned all outdoor use of neonicotinoids – the pesticides linked to the widespread collapse of bee populations.1
This is a major victory for our environment and food systems, but the United States continues to ignore the evidence and uses these toxic chemicals in huge amounts. It is past time that the EPA bans bee-killing pesticides once and for all.
Tell the EPA: Ban all bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides.
New large-scale studies have confirmed the role of neonicotinoids – the most widely used pesticides in the world – in the dramatic decline of honeybee populations.2 The studies show that these toxic nerve agents not only harm individual bees, but also are linked to the slow collapse of colonies.
Bees and other pollinators play a vital role in the production of many nuts, fruits and vegetables in our diets. Pollinators enable an astounding 35 percent of global food production and contribute more than $24 billion annually to the U.S. economy.2
But the number of managed honeybee colonies in the United States has declined from 6 million in the 1940s to less than 3 million today – jeopardizing our food supply and domestic agriculture industry.3 And the outlook for bees is getting worse. More than 700 bee species in the United States are declining, and nearly one in four is at increasing risk of extinction.4
The European Union has finally taken action to protect bees and food systems, but that doesn’t help the bees here in the United States. We need the EPA to join the European Union and ban these pesticides – now.
How Bees Choose Home
By Tom Seeley
For honeybees, there’s no place like home. And every year, they must find a new one. Now, a study publishing today (December 8) in Science suggests that the honeybee swarms use inhibitory signals when house-hunting, paralleling the human brain’s decision-making process.
For honeybees, there’s no place like home. And every year, they must find a new one. Now, a study publishing today (December 8) in Science suggests that the honeybee swarms use inhibitory signals when house-hunting, paralleling the human brain’s decision-making process.
“It’s just another lovely example of the amazing sophistication in the honeybee population,” said University of Sussex apiculturist , who was not involved in the study. It also shows a “commonality in the decision making processes between a brain and a swarm,” he added.
Every spring, about two-thirds of the honeybee colony split off from the group to form a new swarm, but until they find a roomy, hollow tree to call home, the thousands of bees wait in a tree branch as a few hundred scouts explore new prospects, said mathematician Mary Myerscough of the University of Sydney in Australia, who was not involved in the study.
After canvassing one potential home site, each scout returns to the group and reports the quality of the site by doing a waggle dance on the swarm surface, literally dancing on a platform of bees. Individual bees don’t compare multiple sites, but visit only one and instinctively know the difference between a so-so spot and “a bee five-star mansion,” Myerscough said. The better the digs, the longer and more vivaciously they dance, thereby recruiting more bees to their site. The scout who recruits a certain threshold number of bees wins, and the swarm heads to that bee’s scouted location to set up shop.
But if two nests are equally cozy, the bees risk a deadly stalemate. The swarm has only one queen bee, after all, so it can’t split up, and thus must agree one a single nest site. To find out how they avoid deadlock, bee biologist Thomas Seeley of Cornell University and his colleagues set up two identical nest boxes on a remote Maine island, then released a swarm of honeybees. Scouts who visited one nest box were painted with a yellow stripe, while those who visited the others were painted pink.
Then, the researchers watched the scout bees jockey for one nest or the other. The scouts waggled for their sites, but they also took time out from dancing to stop other bees from doing their jigs—by head-butting them and emitting a high-pitched beep, Seeley said.
Using these inhibitory signals allows the bees to break deadlock and decide on a home faster, because once one site gains even the tiniest edge over the other, there are more bees on the winning nest side to stop the other side’s waggling, accelerating the inequality and allowing the bees to choose a site more quickly. “It amplifies differences in the support for the two sites that are actually equal in quality,” Seeley said. While prior research had shown that bee head butting could warn bees away from risky foraging situations, this is the first time it’s been shown to hasten the consensus-reaching process.
The bees’ waggling standoffs parallel how primate brains process information, Ratnieks said. To determine which side a sound came from, for instance, neurons from the left and right ear might both initially fire. But neurons will also suppress the firing of neurons from the other ear, and once a threshold level is reached, the brain concludes that the sound came from the left.
The findings could also have implications for artificial intelligence and some crowd-sourced decision-making systems. In the US primary elections, for instance, votes are aggregated from many individuals to make a decision for the group, and only one candidate can prevail in the end, Seeley said. In theory that could potentially benefit from some built-in negative signaling, he added.
“That’s not something we humans are entirely fond of because we don’t really like negative campaigning,” he said.
T. Seeley, et al, “Stop Signals Provide Cross Inhibition in Collective Decision Making by Honeybee Swarms,” Science, doi: 10.1126/science.1210361, 2011.
Artificial Intelligence Could Help Monitor Bee Health
A high school student designs a new beehive and gets help from machine learning to monitor for varroa mite infestation.
May 1, 2019
ABOVE: Honey bee with varroa mite
© ISTOCK.COM, BEE-INDIVIDUAL
When high school student Jade Greenberg heard about what was happening to America’s bee populations, she decided to take action. Last year, Greenberg, then a junior at Pascack Hills High School in New Jersey, learned from a local beekeeper about a tiny reddish-brown mite that is posing a serious threat to the honey bees (Apis mellifera) used across the US for pollinating various crops. But what began as a school project to build a hive that might help boost bee health soon turned into a collaboration with two tech companies to use artificial intelligence (AI) and tracking systems to tackle the problem.
The varroa mite (Varroa destructor) was brought over to North America from Southeast Asia decades ago and has been decimating not only colonies tended by beekeepers, but also feral colonies—those that were started in the wild by bees originally from hives kept by humans. The pest reproduces within honey bee colonies, latching onto the insects and feeding off their fat body, a tissue similar in function to the mammalian liver. Over time, the parasite weakens bees’ immune systems, making them more susceptible to viruses and pesticides.
“Even if we solve the other problems contributing to honey bee loss, like pesticides and poor nutrition, colonies will still be lost if varroa is not under control,” says honey bee researcher Gloria DeGrandi-Hoffman of the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) Carl Hayden Bee Research Center in Tucson, Arizona.
There are hints that the practice of beekeeping itself may be contributing to the problem. DeGrandi-Hoffman and her colleagues, for example, recently found that the current commercial beekeeping practice of preventing swarming—when a queen bee and a group of worker bees leave their original colony to form a new one—may have exerted selection pressure on the mites to find new ways to disperse among bee colonies (Environ Entomol, 46:737–46, 2017).
What began as a school project soon turned into a collaboration with two tech companies to use artificial intelligence to tackle the problem.
Greenberg was interested in the role of another aspect of beekeeping: hive design. Feral bees typically nest in tree cavities or other structures, forming layers of wax comb to fill the available area. By contrast, the most widely used manmade beehive in North America, the Langstroth hive, is essentially a stacked, wooden file cabinet with removable frames on which bees build their combs, making it easy for beekeepers to collect honey and monitor the colony’s health.
Greenberg wondered if the hive design could be affecting the bees’ susceptibility to mite infestations. “There is research on environmental factors, such as where the bees forage and how they are affected by pesticides,” she says. “But there is very little information on whether or not the shape of the commercial hive has an effect on [mite infestation rates].”
Taking advantage of a school science fair as an occasion for the project, Greenberg set about designing her own beehive, based on the so-called Sun Hive. Invented in the 1980s by Günther Mancke, a German sculptor who studied natural beehives, Sun Hives “are handmade hives and not commercially viable,” Greenberg says. “I decided to riff off of Mancke’s design and make something that could be both commercially viable and also healthier for bees.”
Greenberg incorporated sensors to monitor hive weight, temperature, and humidity, along with video monitoring technology, while still retaining the necessary features for commercial beekeeping, such as removable frames. After a few months of honing the design on the computer, Greenberg was considering building a prototype of the 42-liter structure using a 3-D printer when her father, a solutions engineer at artificial intelligence company Kinetica, made a suggestion.