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Tyler Jones, Coordinator, Landscapes for Honey Bees Program, Center for Pollinator Research, Penn State University 

When talking to beekeepers one thing is certain – they know what they need to do to keep their colonies healthy, and they do it the best they can. Such valiant efforts, though, are sometimes met with devastating colony losses that are out of beekeepers’ control. Can we predict how local land use, pesticide use, or weather are affecting honey bees? And can we design management strategies that keep honey bees healthy under challenging conditions?
Our goal with the ‘Landscapes for Bees’ project is to understand which factors contribute the most to honey bee mortality. We’ll be using publicly available data on land use, climatic conditions, crop and pesticide use to create generalizable and biologically relevant indices of landscape quality, that can be used across diverse landscapes, from urban to agricultural to natural.  We will determine which of these indices correlate best with colony health and survival, using data provided by a broad network of collaborating beekeepers.  Overall, our goal is to develop an online decision support tool that beekeepers and landowners can use to assess how well their landscapes will support bees, and provide recommendations for how they can improve their landscapes to create healthier bee populations.

With funding from the Pennsylvania State Beekeepers Association, Burgh Bees, Westmoreland Country Beekeepers and Penn State, we have already initiated these studies in Pennsylvania and surrounding states.  We have 33 beekeepers, representing 36 apiaries, we have started tracking the health of 165 colonies this fall.  At Penn State, we will be doing the same monthly checks as the beekeepers on our apiaries and posting updates to social media (http://www.facebook.com/psuland4bees, Twitter and Instagram: @psuland4bees). We have developed a streamlined hive inspection data sheet that is available as a printable PDF on our website, and participating beekeepers will be able to input data online or send the data directly to us.

Pennsylvania has a range of landscapes, from urban to agricultural to rural.  Using a “forage resource quality” index developed by our collaborator Eric Lonsdorf (University of Minnesota), it is clear that these landscapes provide vastly different amounts of floral resources and nutrition for bees (see Figure 1B). Data shared with us from the Pennsylvania State Beekeepers Association also shows us that colony overwintering survival is also quite variable across counties (Figure 1A). 

Figure 1. A. Winter survivorship of honey bee colonies in Pennsylvania counties, averaged over three years (2013-2015), based on survey data from the Pennsylvania State Beekeepers Association.  Averages were obtained from counties with 5 or more responding beekeepers, where each beekeeper had at least 3 colonies.  This survivorship data only includes colonies that were treated for Varroa mites. B. Spring forage quality across the Pennsylvania landscape, based on an index developed by co-PI Eric Lonsdorf. Indices were also developed for summer and fall. Red indicates high forage quality; blue indicates low forage quality.

Using these data, we have found a strong, and statistically significantly, positive relationship between winter survival rates and forage-resource quality in the surrounding landscape (p =0.02).  We also found beekeepers in each county employing Varroa mite control had nearly 20% higher survival rates compared to those in the same county that didn’t treat for mites (p<0.001).  Interestingly, the positive impact of Varroa mite control effect is strongest in regions where survival rates are overall quite low (<60%), suggesting there are interactions between management and landscape quality (data not shown).  While this pattern suggests interactions between management and landscape quality, the analyses are based on county summaries and require finer-scale details that we will be able to obtain from our network of collaboration beekeepers.

This project has the capability to take in all of the hunches beekeepers have had about how location affects honey bee health and transforms them into statistically robust answers. Even better, the project calls upon the beekeepers to sustain its relevance – it is truly only as good as those who put the time and effort into it.

We are always looking for more participants, and we would love to partner with beekeepers in California! The landscapes and climates in California are very different from what we experience in Pennsylvania, so comparing the two regions would provide a very robust test for our models.  The scales we use are $100 - $150, but you can use any scale setup as long as there is a large enough weight limit and high enough accuracy at large weights.  Interested beekeepers and beekeeping groups should contact Tyler Jones at PSULand4Bees@gmail.com or Dr. Elina Lastro Niño (UC Davis, elnino@ucdavis.edu) for more information.

This project represents a large collaborative team effort between researchers and beekeepers!  Project members include Douglas Miller (Penn State Center for Environmental Informatics), Eric Lonsdorf (The University of Minnesota), Shelby Fleischer, Maryann Frazier, Margarita López-Uribe, Harland Patch, Christina Grozinger (Penn State Center for Pollinator Research), and our wonderful beekeeper partners.

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