Climate Change and Bees

Posted 10/21/2021 BY Bruce Rutter

Beekeeper checking honeybees in a lush wooded area

Much of the U.S. has experienced unusual weather this summer—tropical storms, intense heat, drought—leading to a rash of forest fires in the West Coast and flooding in the Gulf and Atlantic states that have destroyed billions in property cost hundreds of lives. Scientists tell us that these kinds of weather extremes will become ever more common with global warming. 

Climate change is impacting more than the human environment—it’s putting stress on an already endangered organism that is critical to both our food supply and our ecosystem: bees.

Protest Sign of "Climate Justice Now"
Bee health depends on climate justice.

Extreme weather is hurting bees

 

While some animals can adapt over time to changing weather patterns, rapid shifts in temperature and rainfall and more frequent and more violent storms—both part of the forecast for global warming—can have devastating impacts on bee colonies.  

Warmer winters, with early thaws and premature spring blooming, can lead to a mismatch in flower/pollinator timing. This can be particularly problematic in mountain and desert areas, where the spring blooming season can be relatively short. With broods unhatched, there are few bees to gather pollen and nectar, and colonies miss the opportunity to build up supplies of honey.

Extreme heat in the summer stresses flowering plants, causing them to give off defensive odors to ward off herbivores; these change their scent profile, making it hard for bees to find them and the nourishment they provide for colonies.

Habitat loss through fire and drought can have a dramatic impact on bees’ food supply, significantly weakening colonies, even destroying colonies.

Violent storms—prevalent in late summer and early fall—can destroy habitat and strip buds from late flowering trees and plants, reducing food sources when bees would normally be stockpiling honey for the winter.

Along with rapid seasonal fluctuations, bees are negatively affected by year-round warming and rising levels of CO2. 

  • Pests that prey on bees thrive in hot summers and are less likely to die in warmer winters.
  • Increasing levels of CO2 can change the chemistry of pollen in flowers such as goldenrod.  Scientists studying pollen over the past 150 years have found that as CO2 levels rise, protein levels in pollen have dropped, reducing its nutritional value for bees

The effect of climate change on Queen Bees

 

Climate change can do more than reduce a colony’s food supplies—it can cause damage to their queen’s ability to lay fertile eggs.  In a study conducted at the University of British Columbia, researchers found that exposure to high levels of heat caused Queens to produce proteins that killed sperm, significantly reducing the number of fertile eggs laid. 

While extreme weather can raise heat to dangerous levels within hives, excessive heat can also result from conditions caused when young queens are shipped over long distances by air or truck. This may explain why some introduced queens fail to produce large and consistent brood patterns, and reinforces the need for queens to be raised locally.  To learn more about our new localized Queen rearing program, read our blog Queen Rearing for Healthier Bee Colonies.

Bees and their Queen
Queen bee and her attendees

Honey DNA as a tool for habitat restoration

 

With extreme weather comes fire, flooding and high winds, and with these, significant habitat loss.  While the first priority post disaster is usually rebuilding homes, schools and infrastructure, environmental restoration may be even more important to the long-term well-being of all. 

When we restore habitat, we have two choices—replant what existed prior to the disaster, or improve the environment by planting a mix of trees, shrubs and gardens that are pollinator friendly. Analyzing pollen from hives before disasters using HoneyDNA, we can reveal  what bees have been pollinating and encourage municipal authorities and commercial & residential property owners to plant more of these species. 

As well as rebuilding pollinator friendly ecosystems, HoneyDNA analysis can help to mitigate damage from future disasters. Comparing species bees favor with those that are fire-resistant is helping California communities choose plants that will help reduce the spread of wildfires. Similar analyses of species in Puerto Rico and Gulf States helps communities replant with species that are pollinator friendly and less likely to be damaged by high winds. 

To learn more about how HoneyDNA is helping with post disaster land restoration, watch Noah Wilson-Rich’s TEDx Provincetown talk.

Wild flowers growing after a wildfire

What businesses can do to offset the impact of climate change

 

Climate change is contributing to a decline in bee populations, especially in urban areas, where extremes of heat and habit loss and are weakening existing colonies. Restoring habitats and increasing bee populations go hand-in-hand—we need both if we are to create health, sustainable environments.

If you own or manage commercial properties there are three low-cost ways you can help redress the impact of climate change: 1) keep bees; 2) landscape your grounds with pollinator friendly species; 3) plant pollinator gardens on the roofs of your buildings. The Best Bees Company can help you with all three—we can set up and tend beehives for you, and through DNA analysis of local honey, we can advise you on species for grounds landscaping and roof-top gardens that that are both pollinator-friendly and disaster-resistant.

How homeowners can help bees

 

The solutions for homeowners are very much the same.  Regardless of how much space you have-a few pots on an apartment balcony, or an acre of gardens or more, planting pollinator friendly species will help bees. If you have a free-standing home and live in an area that is prone to wildfires or hurricanes, you can also choose species that are fire or wind resistant.  And if you have space, you can keep bees—adding just one hive to a neighborhood can help!

For more information on planting pollinator friendly gardens, read or blog, The Best Bees Checklist For A Bee-Friendly Garden.

 

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