The bees are one of our most important ecological allies, thanks to their role ensuring our food plants reproduce. But it’s starting to seem like our favourite fuzzy buzzers are getting sick of our shit.
A team of Australian researchers found that bees buzzing around biodiverse, wooded areas had higher metabolic rates, meaning their little furry bodies were performing life-sustaining functions faster than bees in a deforested landscape. In other words, it seems that rather than looking harder for nectar, bees in developed landscapes are relying more on food in their hives. But if even the bees are giving up, what hope is left for us?
The scientists measured metabolic rates and food intake by feeding bees from six hives candy laced with radioactive rubidium and radioactive sodium, respectively. They put three hives in an undisturbed wooded area with lots of Australian wildflowers, and another three on a recently-cleared pine plantation. After feeding, the team measured the amounts of each radioactive element in the returning bees: more used rubidium means more carbon dioxide expenditure and therefore more energy use, while comparing the radioactive sodium in the food to the sodium in the nectar helped the scientists quantify food intake. Turns out, bees in the cleared plantation had significantly slower metabolisms and ate significantly less than the bees in the woods.
These results were the exact opposite of what the researchers expected; they thought bees in the area with less biodiversity might look harder for food and expend more energy. The study, published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, does point out that bees typically fly less when they’ve got well-stocked hives (as we all do). The researchers assumed that the amount of resources in the hives would be the same, but did not control for those amounts, since the study was more of a proof-of-concept to determine how well the radioactive element tagging method worked for insects.
The conclusion does not bode well for folks worried about the bees. We’ve reported that it’s been a tough few years for American bees with the threat of colony collapse disorder; at this point we’ve probably all seen a “bees are dying globally at an alarming rate” meme. Colony collapse disorder isn’t such a big deal anymore, says the EPA, but bees will always be a big deal. According to reporting from The Guardian, 84 percent of our food crops rely on bees and insects for pollination. Obviously the study has its limitations: six hives on one site is not a whole lot, and there are plenty of other factors, like number of bees foraging, that could influence the observed change in metabolic rate. Plus, they only used honeybees, and not other types of bees, for the study.
Still, if clearing the landscape is causing bees to say “fuck this” and stay in their hives, I’d want to find a way to get them to, you know, not do that. Anyway, don’t give up, little guys, sorry we ruined your homes and stuff but we need you all around.