Honeybee Hive Collapse May be Rooted in the Size of the Hive

First Posted: Feb 29, 2016 10:36 AM EST

The collapse of honeybee hives is a serious issue. Now, scientists are working to better understanding this decline, and have found that it may be rooted in the size of a hive.

"The tightly organized social lives of honeybees, once such an amazing adaptation for success in the world, turns out to lack resilience against the numerous environmental degradations contributed by humans across the landscape," said Brian Dennis, one of the researchers, in a news release.

Humans depend on honeybees for pollinating many crops, especially orchard crops and vegetables. In the U.S. alone, the economic value of honey bee's crop pollination services has been estimated as high as $15 billion a year. If honeybees continue to decrease, it could lead to upheavals in agriculture.

Adult worker bees cooperate to make the hive function almost as a single organism; the workers feed and tend to the egg-laying queen and eggs, larvae and pupae as well as regulate the temperature of the hive and fight enemies and predators. A hive with too few workers, therefore, won't thrive.

In this case, though, the researchers found that critical hive size, which is a threshold beyond which a hive won't thrive, is extraordinarily sensitive to any degrading of cooperative hive functions.

The researchers built a mathematical model of the growth of adult worker numbers in a beehive. The presence of more adult workers reduced the deaths of adult workers and improved the rearing effectiveness of eggs, larvae and pupae. In the presence of such an environmental factor, a beehive can find itself below the new larger critical hive size and loss of viability and hive failure can result.

So what can be done to help bees? Much could be gained from coordinated regional management of pesticides for beekeepers and crop producers. In the future, it will be crucial to take these strategies in stride in order to help bee colonies.

The findings are published in the journal PLOS One.

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