Bees and the Pandemic

This has been a good year for honey in south eastern Pennsylvania, the second in a row, which is unusual.  Last year was easy to explain - the strong black locust blossom - but this year is more difficult.  The locust trees barely flowered after a late frost had destroyed the early shoots, the tulip poplars were no better than normal and the bowl-like flowers were blown off their stems in a heavy storm, (incidentally, in a recent  column in Bee Culture,  Connie Krochmal states that poplars are wind pollinated,)  and white clover was late, in fact blooming after I had extracted.  And the honey is remarkably light in color, which is also curious as to its origins.  But, end of story, I was able to extract in excess of 50 pound per colony, despite leaving at least a full super per colony for the bees. 

 

An avid gardener in downtown York remarked how plants are flowering in her garden that she had not seen for several years, and flowering profusely at that. And we have noticed a cornucopia of birds in the garden this year - the reduction in noise pollution means we can also hear them better. 

 

A possible explanation?  Covid-19.   Don’t laugh; don’t condemn me for trying too hard to find a silver lining to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. My argument is that lockdowns have put a number of insect-harming practices on hold, creating a friendlier world for honey bees. 

 

With people confined to their homes, wildlife has faced less human disturbance.  In Israel, wild boar are venturing further into the city of Haifa than before, dolphins are increasingly braving the Bosphorous that is normally a busy shipping route, and Venetians are seeing the bottom of the canals for the first time in years. 

 

One of the biggest environmental impacts of the global shutdown has been the significant reduction of traffic on the roads - down by 60 per cent in May in the US.  Less fumes from cars on the road affects the bees’ ability  to forage.  According to a 2016 study at the University of London, pollutants break down the scent molecules emitted by plants, thus air pollution substantially reduces the strength and longevity of floral scents.  The same study showed that ozone concentrations of 60 parts per billion, which the Environmental Protection Agency classes as 'low', are enough to cause chemical changes that confuse bees and prevent them from foraging efficiently, prompting them to have to fly  further to find nectar, pollen and propolis.

“In a world with less air pollution, bees can make shorter and more profitable ‘shopping trips’, and this may help them rear more young,” argues Mark Brown, professor of Evolutionary Ecology at Royal Holloway, University of London.

 

Fewer cars on the roads means other benefits for insects too. The number of bee deaths declines as car journeys decrease. A 2015 study by Canadian researchers estimated that 24 billion bees and wasps are killed by vehicles on raods across North America every year.  That is equivalent to one out of every 75 bees in the managed hives in the US.

 

And as local authorities are tightening their purse strings, many have stopped maintaining road verges, which consequently have turned into lush habitats. “This unexpected profusion of flowers may well be another benefit for bees, with the unexpected food they provide boosting bee populations,” Brown says.

 

In Rome, Italy, where there are an estimated 1 000 to 2 000 urban hives, a beekeeper noted that his bees “have been more numerous and healthy, and those are indications of the nutrition they’ve been getting.” Tests showed that the bees have been sampling 150 different flowers in the area, compared with the 100 varieties seen before the lockdown, and the quality of their honey has visibly improved. 

 

While things could temporarily be looking up for the wild bee, travel restrictions have hampered conservationists’ efforts to gather data on how they are doing. Typically, large insect surveys are carried out by scientists every spring. But the UK’s Bumblebee Conservation Trust has suspended its BeeWalks - monthly surveys by volunteers to count the number of bumblebees across the country.  Instead, ecologists and conservation groups have called on the wider public to help them gather scientific data during this time.  In April, the number of counts submitted online was more than double that received in April  last year. People are not only enjoying the opportunity to do something structured with their time, but the data covers a much wider area than scientists usually reach.

 

It’s not all positive. According to Jeff Pettis, president of Apimondia, commercial beekeepers in Canada and many European countries depend heavily on seasonal workers and on importing queens to replenish their colonies. British beekeepers, for example, get many of their queens from Italy, and  since airplane flights have been grounded they are being driven across the continent.  “If beekeepers can’t find the labour to produce honey,” Jeff Pettis suggests, “the colonies will get congested.”  That means earlier swarming, making management difficult.  And the relocation of colonies too California for almond pollination has taken longer this year as some drivers have been required to self-quarantine when crossing state borders.

 

The  hope is that increased awareness and engagement with bees could be a boon for conservation. But, like all environmental changes, any long-term benefits will depend on these changes being carried forward as lockdowns lift. For some, like leaving verges wild, the change may not be hard to maintain. For others, like keeping traffic volumes low, the changes need to be more systematic.  One discovery that Gill Perkins, CEO of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust in the UK, anticipates carrying forward, is people's freconnection with nature. “They are beginning to realize how their mental health and well-being are supported by nature … I hope that remains after lockdown.”

 

Covid-19 is one of three pandemics - the others are racism and environmental destruction. There are essentially two ways we can go. As Gianna Pomata, a retired professor at the Institute of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins, points out, and unlike Europe, the corona virus in the US, rather than stimulating new creative ways of thinking, has strengthened the more stereotypical and irrational ways of reasoning with respect to poisonous partisanship, governmental incompetence, disrespect for science and the fraying of community bonds. The second way is that, for the first time in history, the majority of scientists world-wide are focused on the same problem, and it’s starting to pay dividends. If we get a vaccine within 12 months it will be the quickest vaccine ever developed — by several years. There is an important caveat of course -  vaccines don’t save people, vaccinations do -  so once we have the former, the tasks of manufacturing and distributing it become imperative.  Even so, what if the relevant global resources were united and focused on the other two pandemics, and within 12 months we had universally agreed solutions which we then were able to distribute …? We might just flourish in the same ways honey bees have these past six months. 

 

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