Happier Honey Bees

May 7, 2013

Rowan Sprague
Credit Dan Addison via UVA

With the coming of spring, bee hives across the state are buzzing, but beekeepers say the insects face another challenging season - gathering pollen from plants sprayed with pesticides, fighting off parasites and disease. 

Rowan Sprague is an engineering student whose career took a surprising turn at the University of Virginia.  That’s where she started hearing all kinds of interesting stuff about bees.

“They actually don’t see the color red.  Honey bees actually rely on polar coordinates and not really the orientation of the sun, so that’s how they can actually know where they are within the hive when it’s dark, and if it’s a cloudy day, they still know where they’re going.”

They also have novel ways to communicate - special songs and dances. But lately, the bees have good reason to be upset.  Among other things, they’re fighting off a tiny African beetle with armor-like skin that protects against stings.  Sprague says they invade the hives and behave very badly.

“Female adults will lay eggs in the wax comb, and the eggs will then hatch, and the larvae will eat the bee food  and the bee eggs and defecate in the honey and burrow through the wax come and just sort of  mess things up in the hive.”

So she’s trying to invent a trap for these beetles - hoping to do her part to ensure the survival of bees:

“What they do is so needed for our society, and we just often don’t even realize it.  As much as one-third of the food we eat actually come from some sort of pollinated source, and because we’re on the decline, we have to figure out what we’re doing to their populations and how we can try to change that.”

This spring, she won a Fulbright scholarship to continue her work with an international bee expert in New Zealand.  T’ai Roulston will continue his research here.  The curator of the state’s arboretum  says bees and other insects use their sense of smell to find flowers.  He confirmed that in the lab - giving cucumber beetles a choice of one tunnel that led to a favorite flower and another filled with pure air:

“The insect goes down toward its host flower a little over 80% of the time.”

But when the air was mixed with a moderate amount of ozone - a common greenhouse gas - study subjects were apparently confused.

Roulston says this problem could have serious consequences for farmers growing crops that depend on bees and other pollinators.  What’s more, some of the ozone in the air we breathe is beyond our control - coming from India or China, and while American cities have cut way back on emissions of ozone from cars and factories, rural levels of ozone are rising.