The Buzz: What Bees Tell Us About Global Climate Change
June 2, 2010 |  by Sharon Tregaskis

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Esaias kept mum about the allergic reaction to hornet stings that had twice landed him in the hospital (honey bees don’t pose the same hazard for him, experience has revealed) and the pair promptly retrieved their new charges. “We jumped right in and figured it out from there,” says Colin, now a business student in Austin, Texas. Over the course of that first year, Wayne Esaias would read some 3,000 pages of beekeeping literature. Together, father and son attended beekeeping meetings, soaking up all they could from those with more experience. The effort would—in their best year—yield 1,500 pounds of honey harvested from 15 hives. As Colin and his younger sister, Caroline, proceeded through high school, they earned as much as $2,000 in annual profits from the operation, says their father.

The colonies at Mink Hollow Apiary lead a more pastoral existence than their commercially managed counterparts. The hives remain in place year-round and the fair-weather fliers rarely forage more than one and a half miles from home. Instead of the high-tech, corn syrup–based diet fed to bees when they are on the road, the Mink Hollow gang dines on stores of honey they produce from the spring nectar flow of trees near the apiary. To protect his charges from the ravages of tracheal mites and the aptly named, blood-sucking Varroa destructor—a disease-spreading mite introduced from the United Kingdom and the Pacific Rim only a few years before the Mink Hollow Apiary was established—Esaias relies on a combination of intensive management and, as a last resort, chemical miticides.Bee2

When Colin left for college, Caroline picked up the slack, and even after she started her undergraduate studies, returned on spring and summer breaks to help with the honey harvest. For a hand during the semester, Wayne Esaias tapped their younger cousin. He also reinvigorated the local Howard County Beekeepers Association and ascended, for a time, to its presidency. “It’s in my dad’s nature to recruit people and grow awareness,” says Colin. “I don’t think he means to do it, but it always ends up happening.” In 1995, he passed the written, oral, laboratory, and practical exams to become an Eastern Apiculture Society–credentialed master beekeeper, one of just 130 from Maine to Florida. He coached newcomers, organized the honey competition at the county fair, appeared before local planning boards drafting beekeeping regulations, and gave talks throughout the region. “Bees,” says Esaias, “can take over your life.”

Because nectar flow varies by plant species, as well as such climatic and meteorological conditions as rainfall, temperature, and daylight hours, each apiary produces a unique record of local flora and weather patterns in the hue and flavor of its honey. In the Northeast, autumnal stands of goldenrod yield a rich, amber product late in the season. In the Southeast, the midsummer blossoms of the sourwood tree produce a light, aromatic syrup with a deep, spicy flavor. As Esaias plumbed his data Bee1in the wake of CCD, he started wondering if his bees might offer clues to a puzzle he and the kids had observed in the backyard. Old-timers in the Baltimore area consider amber tulip poplar honey a staple, and the clear, mild product of black locust nectar an “unreliable” and rare treat. But since 1992, the Mink Hollow bees had produced almost exclusively black locust honey. The family has extracted tulip poplar honey just three times in 17 years.

AT THE NASA GODDARD Space Flight Center where he works, Esaias has spent the last 30 years developing and refining a satellite instrument known as MODIS, which collects data on temperature, humidity, and biological productivity both on land and at sea. Scientists and policy-makers use the data to predict commodity harvests, assess the algal blooms that lead to fish kills, and monitor the expansion of deserts, the unfolding of spring greenery, and the contraction of glacial ice sheets. Each pixel in the daily images captured by MODIS corresponds to one square kilometer. Apis mellifera forages in a range of about 11 square kilometers. As he analyzed his own records during the winter of 2006, Esaias realized that integrating the two information streams could allow scientists to reveal how shifting weather patterns and land use practices affect the relationships among plants and pollinators—and perhaps even explain what happened to the tulip poplar honey.