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UMD Researchers Seek to Understand Bee Deaths By Building 'Sentinel Hives'

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One of the beehives that are kept on the roof of the University of Maryland's plant sciences building.
WAMU/Jonathan Wilson
One of the beehives that are kept on the roof of the University of Maryland's plant sciences building.

If you’ve read about honeybees recently, you’ve probably come across the term "Colony collapse disorder," or CCD. It hit the mainstream lexicon a few years ago, but bee researchers started talking about it back in 2006.

That’s when some beekeepers were reporting 30 to 90 percent losses of their hives under strange circumstances: hives abandoned by all the adult bees, leaving a live queen, immature bees and often, quite a bit of honey behind.

“So the first thing that’s important to realize is that when we came up with the term Colony Collapse Disorder, that was defining bees that were dying with a very specific set of symptoms,” says Dennis vanEngelsdorp, assistant professor of entomology at the University of Maryland.

VanEngelsdorp was part of the original Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group, a team of bee experts formed in 2007 to study the crisis. He says in the past few years, he hasn’t seen any hives with the telltale signs of CCD, and nationally, the number of honeybee hive losses has dropped back to about 20 percent, close to the historical average for recent decades.

“But in certain areas, like the Mid-Atlantic states, it was much higher, some states as much as a 60 percent loss,” he says. “And so there’s still a problem out there; they’re just dying from other causes, not always following this CCD like symptom. We’ve lost one in every three colonies every winter for the last 8 winters, and that’s way too high, and we need a way of rectifying that situation.”

Piecing clues together

Since there’s still quite of bit of mystery surrounding CCD and other possible causes of honeybee decline, gathering more data about what’s happening to these hives is essential.

On the roof of the university’s plant sciences building — where vanEngelsdorp’s team keeps its hives — project manager Karen Rennich explains one crucial measurement for beehives: weight.

“Right now we’re feeding the colonies to make sure that they put on enough weight,” Rennich says. “They need anywhere from 40 to 70 pounds in Maryland to make it through the winter, because they will consume this honey to make sure they make it through the winter.”

Weight is just one of the data points that a new initiative called “The Sentinel Hive” would pick up.

VanEngelsdorp says a “Sentinel Hive” would include a specially-designed scale to measure hives for honey production and consumption, and would also include a state of the art trap, placed at the entrance of the hive once every two weeks, to collect pollen from incoming bees. Scientists could then figure out which flowers were attracting bees; important data since food sources for bees are in shorter supply these days as well.

The setups would also require beekeepers to send bees back to vanEngelsdorp’s team for dissection, to check for varroa mites — parasites that can wipe out entire hives.

“The idea is that we can get this real-time information on the web, allowing a group of beekeepers that live around that hive to look at what’s going on in that hive so they can make management decisions about their operation,” he says.

Each sentinel hive would cost about $1,000, and the university’s entomology department has turned to online crowd-funding in hopes of getting lots of small donors to help them reach their goal of $8,000 by October 23rd. That would be enough to pay for a pilot program of Sentinel Hives placed with amateur beekeepers around Maryland for one year; the ultimate goal is dozens or even hundreds of Sentinel hives around the region and the country.

A boon to backyard beekeepers

Toni Burnham, the president of both the D.C. Beekeepers Alliance and the Maryland Beekeepers Association, was one of the first to donate online.

She says the Sentinel Hive initiative is tailor-made for backyard beekeepers, since so many rely on little more than amateur anecdotes to make bee management decisions.

“To get this signal from the environment, this great information — hive weight, pollen count, mite count — back, it tells us what we can do for our bees, and we don’t have to be phDs to understand it,” Burnham says.

She says she likes to fight against all the pessimism about honeybees, but she also says we need to realize that a lot of the food production in our country doesn’t happen without them, and it’s something we can no longer afford to take for granted.

“Days gone by, you had an apple orchard that was near the woods. If you were near the woods, you’d do the math and figure, well, you should need 10 beehives to pollinate my orchard, but there are woods right there, there are be bees in those woods, so I’m only going to hire six,” Burnham says. “No one does that discount anymore. No one looks at those woods and says, ‘Yeah, there are honeybees out there.’ Because there aren’t. There aren’t.”

VanEngelsdorp says it’s easy to overlook the fact that honeybees are an introduced species in North America. They came over with the first European settlers, and thus are mainly essential for pollinating non-native food sources like apples and almonds.

But he’s hoping that data from the Sentinel Hive project will provide clues to helping native bees as well – there are more than 400 species of native bees in Maryland alone.

Music: "Tupelo Honey" by CHM World from Into The Mystic: An Instrumental Tribute to Van Morrison

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