by Sam(antha) Burns, UME Master Gardener, Somerset Beekeepers President
Francis Drummond has been keeping bees since he was twelve years old. Now he is a Professor of Insect Ecology and Insect Pest Management at the University of Maine at Orono. As an entomologist, Frank has been uniquely poised to help bees and beekeepers, researching how honeybees, along with native bee species, are being affected by pesticides and the environment they live in. At our July meeting, the Somerset Beekeepers had the privilege of hosting Frank, who talked with us about his research.
The Department of Agriculture has funded $4 million to a study that involves seven states including Maine, Minnesota, California, Texas, Louisiana, Florida and Pennsylvania. Scientists like Drummond are starting bee colonies and looking at the rate of collapse in stationary apiaries across the US. Each site hosts 30 colonies started from packages; the breed of bee is changed each year, with Italians used in the 2009 experiment, and Carniolans this year. The colonies are then managed, without treatments, to see how they survive and how they die. A monthly sampling of the colonies is conducted to assess colony strength of the brood and workers, status of the Queen, and all symptoms of pests and pathogens are recorded. Also, a collection of workers is made for assessment by dissection, looking for Nosema infestation, tracheal mite infestation, and molecular determination of virus infections. They look for the Deformed Wing Virus, Black Queen Cell Virus, Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV), and Sacbrood Virus.
“We are looking for a good Queen, one that lays lots of eggs, and we are looking for symptoms of disease. We are also collecting bees to identify viruses and mites,” said Frank.
Scientists are not only looking at the pests and diseases ailing the colonies, but are also working to discover how pesticides are affecting bees. By taking a sampling of pollen for analysis, researchers have discovered up to 98 different pesticides in the grains collected. The synergy of pesticides reduces egg-laying and weakens the bees’ immune systems.
After four years of research, scientists still don’t know for sure what is causing colony collapse. What the data has shown is that Nosema infection, Varroa infestation, and IAPV are all significant causal factors in colony loss. Researchers have discovered that colonies with higher levels of Varroa tended to die during the winter; that IAPV killed colonies over the winter, and that small colonies with Nosema often died in the fall. It was found that patterns of colony loss differed significantly across sites; for example, Nosema was more detrimental in the north, while Varroa played a larger role in the south. Analysis has shown that mites allow secondary pathogens to take hold, and the same analysis has identified 18 different viruses ailing bees, with Deformed Wing Virus being the most predominant.
Frank also studies native bee populations. He tested bees on crops sprayed with imidacloprid and couldn’t seem to kill honeybees, but bumblebees were not so lucky, as they did die. In Maine 80% of our bumblebees have the Deformed Wing and Black Queen Cell viruses, and four species of native bees have been lost forever just next door in New Hampshire.
We don’t yet have CCD in our state, but we do have a higher rate of Nosema infections, and while Maine is farther ahead of many other farming states in reducing pesticide use on crops, it is still a problem affecting bees and pollinators across the board.
Drummond says, “No one knows how all these chemicals — even though found in low, acceptable levels individually — affect people, water and bees when combined.”
At our meeting we discussed how beekeepers working with scientists like Drummond would prove beneficial to the study. In the last issue of The Bee Line, there was an article about the Bee Informed Partnership, which is a citizen-based science project funded by the USDA. Beekeepers across the country can aid scientists in their efforts to learn more about bees and best beekeeping practices. I intend to participate and do my part to protect pollinators.
For more information about the Bee Informed Partnership project, go to beeinformed.org.