Colony collapse has been a hot topic since the large decline of honeybee populations was noted several years ago. Since then many theories postulating various causes have made the rounds, each one has its merits and detractors and in the end it is possible that all are contributing factors. The most recent theory suggests that stress may be the chink in the colony’s armor…now, of course, stress can be the result of degraded and/or lost habitat, irresponsible pesticide use and disease, but the research is promising and interesting.
Researchers from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), Macquarie University in Sydney, Washington University in St Louis, and University of Sydney have been studying the effects of stress on bee colonies. Apparently when a hive is under stress young bees are more likely to begin foraging earlier in life. Bees will usually first leave the nest and begin finding pollen at 2 to 3 weeks of age, but at times when food is scarce, disease has spread or other factors are killing off older bees the youths will begin foraging at a younger age.
The collaborative research team attached radio tracking devices to thousands of bees in order to monitor their movements throughout their lives. Results indicate that bees who start foraging younger complete fewer flights and were far more likely to die their first time out. The team used this data to model the impact to honey bee colonies. They found that any stress contributing to chronic foraging death of older bees led to the development of an increasingly young foraging force. Unfortunately the younger foragers are not as successful and often die quickly which has contributed dramatically to accelerated population decline.
Dr. Clint Perry of QMUL’s school of Biological and chemical sciences explains this phenomenon: “Young bees leaving the hive early is likely to be an adaptive behaviour to a reduction in the number of older foraging bees. But if the increased death rate continues for too long or the hive isn’t big enough to withstand it in the short-term, this natural response could upset the societal balance of the colony and have catastrophic consequences.”
Data collected via radio tracking of bees indicates that the age which bees begin to forage may be a good indicator of overall hive health. This research can be very useful in determining causes for colony collapse and hopefully aid in finding ways of slowing the decline and preventing further, future damage.