At Mealtime, Honey Bees Prefer Country Blossoms to City Blooms

The Ohio State University     By Misti Crane     March 14, 2017

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Hungry honey bees appear to favor flowers in agricultural areas over those in neighboring urban areas.

The discovery has implications for urban beekeepers and challenges assumptions that farmland and honey bees are incompatible, said authors of a new study from The Ohio State University.

The team positioned honey bee colonies in an apiary in a central Ohio cemetery smack in the middle of where urban residential development transitions into farmland. They left the colonies to forage for nectar and pollen wherever they preferred.

The bees, studied from late summer to early fall, overwhelmingly went for the agricultural offerings instead of the assorted flowering plants in and around the urban neighborhoods nearby, said lead author Douglas Sponsler, who was a graduate student in entomology at Ohio State when the research was conducted in 2014. The study appears in the Journal of Urban Ecology.

Throughout the study, the honey bees’ haul always favored plants from the agricultural area, and hit a high of 96 percent of the pollen collected at one point.

“Honey bees didn’t seem to care that much what the floral diversity was. What they wanted was large patches of their favorite stuff,” said Sponsler, who now works at Penn State University.

Goldenrod was particularly popular, the researchers found. The bees’ agricultural foraging preference was especially pronounced at the end of the season, as the colonies prepared to overwinter.

While farm fields themselves aren’t attractive to the bees, the countryside features wide swaths of unmowed wild plants (also known as weeds) along roadsides and in field margins, Sponsler said.

Senior author Reed Johnson, an assistant professor of entomology at Ohio State, said the discoveries made in this study help explain the ongoing hardships of urban beekeepers, who are growing in number in Ohio and elsewhere.

“When the bees have a choice, they go to the farmland. We’ve had trouble keeping our urban colonies alive, so this makes a lot of sense to us,” Johnson said.

“There’s this popular perception that urban places are better for bees because of the diversity of plants. This is showing that, at least in Ohio, the agricultural areas are actually superior and that’s despite the pesticide use that’s out there,” he said.

“Apparently, farmland isn’t desolate at all – at least not for honey bees.”

Uncovering where the bees had been and what exactly captured their attention was a two-part process.

First, researchers videotaped then analyzed the tell-tale dance patterns of bees returning to the three study colonies. Translated by scientists, these dance moves explain what direction the foraging bee has been in relation to the hive and how far in that direction.

“These things can be pretty easily decoded by the human observer, thankfully. You can map the locations that are being referred to in the dance,” Sponsler said.

The second part of the analysis – pollen identification – confirmed the dance-derived findings. When the honeybees came back to the cemetery, they flew through a screen that allowed their bodies in but scraped the pollen off their hind legs and into a collection chamber.

Sponsler and his colleagues then sorted through the bees’ collection, separating the grains of pollen by color and shape and then cross-referencing to determine what exactly the bees were foraging.

They examined pollen from five sampling dates. Agricultural foraging outweighed urban foraging in every sample and hit a high of 96 percent on the Sept. 19 collection date and a low of 62 percent of the honey bees’ haul on Sept. 4.

For urban beekeepers and others interested in a thriving honey bee population, it could be prudent to think about supplementing the bees’ diets at summer’s end, the researchers said.

Honey bee populations could also become more stable in urban areas with more careful landscaping choices in and around cities, the researchers said.

“The focus is how can we make urban spaces better for bees so we can attract them back into the city?” Johnson said.

He suggested that planting certain trees could serve the honey bee population well. Linden trees, for instance, are “phenomenal” nectar producers, Johnson said.

Sponsler said there’s plenty of room to improve urban plant diversity and keep honey bees satiated there as well as in the country.

“There’s no reason why our urban landscapes cannot be full of flowers. It’s just that we’ve inherited a certain preference toward things that look like golf courses rather than things that look like prairies.”

Other Ohio State researchers who worked on the study were Emma Matcham, Chia-Hua Lin and Jessie Lanterman.

The study was supported by the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center.

Field Crops & Bees: Research Shows Surprising Relationships, Need for Better Crop Management

CATCH THE BUZZ - Bee Culture Magazine       June 29, 2016

WOOSTER, Ohio — Honeybees are negatively impacted by the insecticide-coated seeds of some field crops, yet they also seem to benefit from the presence of other field crops in the vicinity of their hives, according to research conducted by entomologists with the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University.

“Most corn seeds planted today are coated with insecticides. During the planting process, some of that coating is chipped off and the dust is released into the air and also lands on nearby flowers and trees,” said Reed Johnson, an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology.

Johnson and colleagues have studied the potential impact that such release of insecticidal dust during corn planting may have on honey bees. They found that bees do become exposed to the chemicals in several ways.

“Bees can pick up the insecticide from flowers and trees as they forage,” he said. “Also, the dust can stick to them as they travel across fields during the planting season. Finally, because corn planting gets underway at roughly the same time across the Midwest, there is a lot of this dust in the air in the spring and bees could become exposed to it that way, too.”

Once bees pick up the insecticide, they carry it back to their hives, where young members of the colony become exposed to it, Johnson said. This exposure can cause important losses to colonies early in the spring.

“Colonies do recover from these early losses later in the year. But such losses can negatively impact beekeepers and fruit and vegetable farmers, as they will have fewer bees for crucial pollination services during the summer,” Johnson said.

Johnson said there are several management decisions farmers can make to reduce the impact of insecticide-coated corn seeds on bees:

  • Kill weeds before planting so flowers don’t become exposed and foraging bees are not attracted to fields.
  • Use planters that don’t vent upwards but toward the ground. Johnson said farm equipment manufacturers have started to make these changes in recent years.
  • Seek out seeds without insecticidal coating for farms or fields that don’t require such an added insect-control measure. “Coated seeds are not needed in all situations and some fields will not benefit from them,” Johnson said. “They represent an added cost to corn farmers and definitely a high cost to beekeepers and farmers that rely on bees for pollination.”

While insecticide-coated corn seeds can have a negative impact on bees, the relationship between soybeans and these insects is quite different, Johnson said.

In another study, Johnson and postdoctoral researcher Chia-Hua Lin looked at the pollen content of honey collected by beekeepers from throughout Ohio over the summer of 2014. They found soybean pollen in 47 percent of the honey.

“We know that bees in Ohio are visiting soybeans, and that soybeans may be contributing to honey production,” Johnson said. “Also, there’s some evidence that pollination by bees can help increase soybean yield.”

Johnson said there are other questions that remain to be answered on this topic, including which soybean varieties are more attractive to bees and why.

“There is a good potential for people to work together on this line of research,” Johnson said. “It’s a valuable opportunity to have these two sides of agriculture — field crops and beekeeping — come together and explore mutual benefits.”

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Beeing There: The Search for Pesticides' Effect on Declining Bee Colonies Moves to the Fields

Scientific American  By Francie Diep  10/10/13

Scientists are gaining a more sophisticated understanding of the role of toxins in worldwide bee declines as lab studies of single insects are superseded by research on hives in the field

A honeybee's brain is hardly bigger than the tip of a dog's whisker, yet you can train a bee just as Pavlov got his pups to drool on hearing their dinner bell. Using a sugar solution as a reward, you can teach the insect to extend its little mouthparts in response to different scents.

Several Pavlovian lab studies of individual worker honeybees, however, found that those fed small amounts of pesticides—especially a class called neonicotinoids—do not learn which scents lead to a sweet reward as quickly as their pesticide-free peers do. Yet, until recently, it wasn't clear what these and other lab studies meant for the health of entire bee colonies, which might have strategies to mitigate the overall impact of problems with particular hive members. "Just because you see the effect in the bee in the lab, strapped into this lab apparatus, [doesn’t mean you know] how does this translate into a colony in a field?" says Reed Johnson, an entomologist at The Ohio State University who studies pesticides' effects on honeybees.

To probe the colony question, academic research on neonicotinoids and other pesticides is moving from studies in labs to the outdoors—examining both the effects on entire honeybee or bumblebee hives as well as those on solitary bees nesting near crops. Such studies could help determine how and to what extent pesticides are behind the accelerated rate at which honeybee hives are dying. They also seek to answer whether pesticides are harming other bee species that are important to agriculture.

Since 2006 U.S. honeybee-keepers have reported they lose 30 percent of their hiveson average after every winter. Before then, beekeepers would usually lose 5 or 10 percent of their hives after winter. The immediate reasons keepers report their hives are dying seem ordinary enough—winter starvation, pests such as the varroa mite and problems with queen bees such as premature deaths—but researchers are trying to understand why these seemingly normal problems are now happening at an extraordinarily higher rate. Pesticides could be one answer.

So far, honeybee-keepers have replaced lost hives through breeding, but experts worry that in the future bees won't be able to sustain such a high replacement rate. Populations could decline below what U.S. agriculture needs to pollinate America's nuts, fruits, vegetables and even livestock feed.

What do we know?
The field studies entomologists repeatedly cite include ones that found different neonicotinoids reduced the number of honeybee foragers that return to their hive as well as reduced the population growth and queen bee production of bumblebee colonies. Another study found that the neonicotinoid imidacloprid, when applied in combination with another popular, non-neonicotinoid pesticide called lambda-cyhalothrin, increased the likelihood that bumblebee hives will fail. "I do think it is pretty clear that neonics interfere with bees' ability to forage effectively," says David Goulson, a bumblebee researcher with the University of Sussex in the U.K. and an author of the bumblebee population growth study cited above. "For bumblebees, the evidence is overwhelming."