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Morgan Freeman CSGlobe

Actor and director Morgan Freeman has converted his 124-acre ranch in Mississippi into a bee sanctuary, Forbes reported last week.

Freeman has imported 26 bee hives from Arkansas to his Mississippi ranch, where he has planted bee-friendly plants, including lavender, clover and magnolia trees, according to Forbes.

The Oscar winner first discussed his beekeeping hobby in 2014 on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon."

"I've discovered I don't have to put on a bee suit or anything to feed them," Morgan said in the 2014 interview. "I've never been stung. I'm never gonna get stung."

"There’s been a frightening loss of bee colonies, particularly in this county," Freeman said in another interview with Larry King. "To such an extent that the scientists are now saying, 'This is dangerous.'"

Freeman's hobby comes as bees face declining numbers across the globe.

A 2016 survey supported by the Department of Agriculture revealed that between April 2015 and April 2016, beekeepers lost nearly half their colonies. Such reports have led to criticism of pesticides used in farming.

In August, the Interior Department announced it would reverse an Obama-era rule banning pesticides that threatened bees and butterflies, as well as other pollinators, and wildlife such as birds.

Summer losses rival winter losses for the second year running.

Beekeepers across the United States lost 44 percent of their honey bee colonies during the year spanning April 2015 to April 2016, according to the latest preliminary results of an annual nationwide survey. Rates of both winter loss and summer loss—and consequently, total annual losses—worsened compared with last year. This marks the second consecutive survey year that summer loss rates rivaled winter loss rates.

The survey, which asks both commercial and small-scale beekeepers to track the health and survival rates of their honey bee colonies, is conducted each year by the Bee Informed Partnership in collaboration with the Apiary Inspectors of America, with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Survey results for this year and all previous years are publicly available on the Bee Informed website.

“We’re now in the second year of high rates of summer loss, which is cause for serious concern,” said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an assistant professor of entomology at the University of Maryland and project director for the Bee Informed Partnership. “Some winter losses are normal and expected. But the fact that beekeepers are losing bees in the summer, when bees should be at their healthiest, is quite alarming.”

Beekeepers who responded to the survey lost a total of 44.1 percent of their colonies over the course of the year. This marks an increase of 3.5 percent over the previous study year (2014-15), when loss rates were found to be 40.6 percent. Winter loss rates increased from 22.3 percent in the previous winter to 28.1 percent this past winter, while summer loss rates increased from 25.3 percent to 28.1 percent.

The researchers note that many factors are contributing to colony losses. A clear culprit is the varroa mite, a lethal parasite that can easily spread between colonies. Pesticides and malnutrition caused by changing land use patterns are also likely taking a toll, especially among commercial beekeepers.

A recent study, published online in the journal Apidologie on April 20, 2016, provided the first multi-year assessment of honey bee parasites and disease in both commercial and backyard beekeeping operations. Among other findings (summarized in a recent University of Maryland press release), that study found that the varroa mite is far more abundant than previous estimates indicate and is closely linked to several damaging viruses.

Varroa is a particularly challenging problem among backyard beekeepers (defined as those who manage fewer than 50 colonies).

“Many backyard beekeepers don’t have any varroa control strategies in place. We think this results in colonies collapsing and spreading mites to neighboring colonies that are otherwise well-managed for mites,” said Nathalie Steinhauer, a graduate student in the UMD Department of Entomology who leads the data collection efforts for the annual survey. “We are seeing more evidence to suggest that good beekeepers who take the right steps to control mites are losing colonies in this way, through no fault of their own.”

This is the tenth year of the winter loss survey, and the sixth year to include summer and annual losses in addition to winter loss data. More than 5,700 beekeepers from 48 states responded to this year’s survey. All told, these beekeepers are responsible for about 15 percent of the nation’s estimated 2.66 million managed honey bee colonies.

The survey is part of a larger research effort to understand why honey bee colonies are in such poor health, and what can be done to manage the situation. Some crops, such as almonds, depend entirely on honey bees for pollination. Estimates of the total economic value of honey bee pollination services range between $10 billion and $15 billion annually.

“The high rate of loss over the entire year means that beekeepers are working overtime to constantly replace their losses,” said Jeffery Pettis, a senior entomologist at the USDA and a co-coordinator of the survey. “These losses cost the beekeeper time and money. More importantly, the industry needs these bees to meet the growing demand for pollination services. We urgently need solutions to slow the rate of both winter and summer colony losses.”

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This survey was conducted by the Bee Informed Partnership, which receives a majority of its funding from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) (Award No. 2011-67007-20017). The content of this article does not necessarily reflect the views of the USDA.

 A summary of the 2015-2016 survey results is available upon request prior to May 10, 2016; thereafter the results will be added to previous years’ results publicly available on the Bee Informed Partnership’s website.

Tracking a Parasite That Turns Bees Into Zombies

Call it “The Buzzing Dead.” Infestations of what scientists have dubbed “zombie bees” have spread across both the West and East coasts in recent years.

The honeybee hordes, while not actually undead, are the unwilling hosts to a parasite infection that researchers think drives the drones to act erratically, or “zombielike,” in the moments before they die.

To better understand the parasitized swarms, John Hafernik, an entomologist at San Francisco State University has recruited people countrywide to join his hunt.

“The big question for us was, ‘Is this a San Francisco thing?’ Or something that is taking place all over the country that has not been noticed by biologists before,” he said.

Since he began the project four years ago, he has concluded the answer is the latter. Volunteers have helped identify infected honeybees in California, Washington and Oregon as well as Vermont, Pennsylvania and New York. More than 800 bee observations have been uploaded to the ZomBee Watch online database.
Dr. Hafernik first discovered something eerie was happening to the bees on his campus in 2008 when he stumbled upon several of them staggering in circles along the sidewalk. For weeks he picked a few up and placed them in a glass vial with plans to feed them to his pet praying mantis.

After further exploration across San Francisco Bay, he and his colleagues found several bees that were also behaving strangely. They would fly from their hives at night, which was something bees would normally never do, and then circle around a light fixture. After their nocturnal dance the bees would drop to the ground and start walking strangely. They were succumbing to their overlord, larvae of the fly Apocephalus borealis.

The life cycle of the parasitic fly is straight from a horror story. The female fly uses something called an ovipositor, which is like a hypodermic needle, to inject her eggs into the abdomen of the honeybee.

About a week later the larvae lurking within the abdomen wriggle into the bee’s thorax and start liquefying and devouring its wing muscles. Then, like in the movie “Alien,” they burst through the bee’s body, erupting from the soft space between its head and shoulder area.

“As far as we know this is a death sentence,” Dr. Hafernik said. “We don’t know any bees that have survived being parasitized by these maggots.”

As many as 80 percent of the hives that Dr. Hafernik examined in San Francisco Bay had been infected. Understanding more about how the infection spreads is important, he said, because although the infestations are not the main driver behind honeybee declines across the country, they could help collapse an already vulnerable colony.

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