Scientists are still working to understand all of the factors behind massive die-offs of honeybees in what’s known as “colony collapse disorder.”
The problem is partly attributed to a pest called the varroa mite. But pesticides and carbon emissions may also be playing a role, according to new research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Beekeepers and researchers in the Ocean State are working together to try to understand another potential threat: the small hive beetle.
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Ed Lafferty zips up his white beekeeper jacket and veil before entering his backyard to inspect his eight beehives.
Lafferty wears disposable gloves and carries a pumping device to release smoke around the hives. The smoke makes the bees think their hives are on fire, “like if they were in the forest and there was a forest fire,” said Lafferty.
“The smoke makes them think, ‘Well, we’re going to have to leave.’ So what they do is -- when you smoke them -- they go down and they fill their bellies up with honey,” he continued. “Like if your house was on fire, you’d grab your important papers and leave. They’re grabbing their important stuff: the honey.”
With bellies full of honey, the bees become lethargic and are less likely to sting Lafferty as he inspects them. In the first hive, he notices the bees have made wax. That’s a good sign.
“I’m looking primarily for eggs and capped brood to see how much the queen is laying this time of year, because the honey flow usually starts in late May… they’re already bringing in some nectar… that’s why they were building that wax."
Lafferty is pleased. Last year, he lost a hive to the invasive small hive beetle, a pest from Africa that first started turning up in the southern Unites States. That’s where many commercial beekeepers get starter bees. So it’s no surprise they’re making their way north. Lafferty kills them when he sees them running across his hive. He says they can decimate a hive within days.
“You take a frame out, and there’s just larvae, maggots just dripping off it,” describes Lafferty. “The hive beetles defecate in the honey and the honey turns rancid and it’s dripping – I don’t even want to tell you what it smells like – and it just destroys the whole thing. It’s disgusting."
Bees can’t easily kill adult beetles because they have hard shells. And the beetles have figured out how to weather a New England winter.
“The bees form a cluster and they vibrate their wings to generate heat, so the hive beetles just move into the cluster,” said Lafferty. “The bees can’t kill them, but they are keeping them alive with the heat they are making for the colony and they (the beetles) just overwinter that way. How did they learn how to do that?! It’s just very discouraging.”
About a mile away from Lafferty’s hives, at Rhode Island College, professor Geoff Stilwell is trying to find answers to Lafferty’s question. Honeybees are important pollinators responsible for one out of every three bites of food we eat, so anything killing them concerns scientists. Stilwell takes tubes of frozen small hive beetles and their larvae out of a refrigerator.
“Those are more than likely the ones that came from Ed Lafferty’s hive last year," said Stilwell.
Stilwell has been working with beekeepers like Lafferty on a bee study to get a baseline on the health of bees in the state and better understand the spread of this invasive small hive beetle. He too is fascinated by the beetles’ ability to adapt to a new climate.
“It’s especially fascinating considering the fact that the small hive beetles have only been here for really less than 20 years,” said Stilwell, “so that behavioral adaptation occurred very rapidly.”
One of Stilwell’s graduate students spent all of last summer visiting 35 hives throughout the state, collecting data. Sixty percent of all the hives they monitored were infested with small hive beetles by the end of the summer.
“And that was a dramatic increase from our initial baseline data at the beginning of June, which was only 20 percent of hives infested, so those numbers increased dramatically,” said Stilwell.
The majority of hive beetles were in the most populated parts of the state, like Providence. And they can fly within a three-mile radius, potentially affecting neighboring hives. Stilwell plans to continue studying bees over the long-term to keep an eye on this and other threats. He’s sharing his data with beekeepers, so they can protect their bees.
Back in his yard, the last thing beekeeper Ed Lafferty wants to see is more small hive beetles. He said beekeepers are already battling the varroa mite, which is considered the most threatening pest (and there are viruses and pesticides, too). Many of them are not worried about the small hive beetle… yet.
“Well a lot of people are saying, ‘Ah they’re no problem, they’re no problem.’ Well, it [the infestation] went from 20 to 60 [percent],” points out Lafferty. “I don’t know. In another five years, are they going to be our worst pest?”
Lafferty is hopeful they won’t be. It’s too soon to tell, but he said one thing’s for sure, “The bees have a lot of enemies.”