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

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When it comes to monitoring how ecosystems respond to meteorological and climatic conditions, the time series Esaias has captured at Mink Hollow is barely a blink of the eye. So he canvassed fellow beekeepers whose records stretched back to the 1970s and incorporated data on local weather patterns from the National Weather Service. The Bee2new data only extended the trend Esaias had found in his own backyard. Over the course of four decades, Maryland’s peak blossom time has shifted by 28 days. The single meteorological factor most strongly correlated with the shift was average winter temperature, which has crept up by four degrees during the same period. Esaias now thinks of climate change as a contributing factor to colony collapse, compromising colony nutrition and making the bees more susceptible to stress and disease. “For something as crucial to the ecosystem as pollination, I think it’s pretty important to have a basis on which to make judgments.”

So he took what he had to his boss, David Adamec, and proposed that NASA give him the latitude to expand his data set by establishing a volunteer network of backyard beekeepers around the nation, all using the same protocol to monitor the same variables. Esaias would manage the volunteers and integrate their observations with data from MODIS. “Wayne has an incredibly strong background in the workings of these satellites,” says Adamec, now acting chief of hydrospheric and biospheric sciences at Goddard. “We’re very good at honing the satellite to see when things turn green—but that doesn’t tell you when things are in bloom, and the satellite was never built with that in mind.”

The scale hive records at Mink Hollow Apiary detail exactly when pollination starts and stops; beekeepers across the country have kept similar logs spanning decades. If Esaias can find those records and use them to reveal the corresponding data in the deluge of information MODIS beams back to Earth every day, he should be able to uncover a rich ecological data set stretching back to 1982—when MODIS and its predecessors began monitoring planetary patterns—and continuing for as long as it remains in space. “If anyone is going to pull this information out it’s going to be someone of the caliber of Wayne with the background that he has,” says Adamec. “This problem will provide feedback so we can get more information from the satellite than we ever could before.”

With the go-ahead from Adamec and seed funds from NASA, Esaias launched HoneyBeeNet as a collaboration of citizen scientists in 2007. Now in its third year, it has grown to include nearly 100 backyard beekeepers in 27 states and three Canadian provinces, including 37 in Maryland (among them the scale hive at the Beltsville bee lab). The volunteers follow a strict protocol designed by Esaias to record hive weight and account for manipulations related to honey harvest, the addition of equipment, and other management variables. “The creatures out there outnumber us a billion to one,” says U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) research ecologist Tom Stohlgren. “Observation is the first rule of science and we need point distribution. Professional scientists can’t be everywhere to collect that data.”Bee1

Esaias has already tracked down historical records from six sites including a former USDA bee lab in what is now downtown Chevy Chase, Maryland, and another in Louisiana that incorporates a daily record of plants in bloom. Because changing forage species—due to disruptions in land use patterns, displacement by invasive flora, and changing meteorological conditions—potentially have as significant an effect on the nectar flow trends captured by scale hives as winter temperature, Esaias invited Stohlgren to collaborate on the project. “Wayne thinks about interrelationships, rather than just relationships,” says the expert on early detection of invasive species. “Ecologists have to be smarter and faster than ever before and we have to work together more than ever before,” he says. “We need the big thinkers. That’s what Wayne brings to the table.”