ECUADOR, Dec. 9, 2013 — As scientists desperately research why honeybees are disappearing and dying at alarming rates, they now they have another unexplained behavior to figure out: Migration.
Bees migrating back and forth to specific places with the seasons, like birds and some other animals, is unheard of in North America. Yet in Ecuador it’s business as usual.
“Bees migrate to flowers anywhere,” said Hugo Asuncion, 50, a beekeeper located near Puerto Lopez, a coastal city in Ecuador. “And then they come home.”
It’s a seasonal cycle Asuncion’s worked with for more than 30 years, now running 15 hives. And it’s a geographical puzzle scientists should know more about, as these bees naturally adapt to survive.
“From December to April is the flower time,” Asuncion said. “Then from May to June they eat their stored honey. And in July or August they leave.” Gratefully, they always return to his yard in December.
“I would imagine what they are doing is about resources drying up. There’s just not much nectar and pollen out there (off season),” said Jeffery Pettis, research leader at the USDA. “The tropical bees sense that and they actually abandon the nest. They know somehow from experience if they stay, it’s kind of doomsday.”
And so evolution or common sense tells them to side step doomsday. “They fly to some other area to get resources,” said Dr. Pettis. “They have adapted to follow the nectar flows that occur in that area. It’s really cool.”
But this odd behavior of leaving home to find greener pastures is never done by domestic bees in North America. And why not? Migration is followed with other species in nature.
All across the cold U.S., the sky is now full of birds flying south to warmer weather. Even the older human “snow birds” pack the highways flocking to Florida, Arizona and other hot spots to get out of the cold.
But for our northern bees they have never adopted a migrating behavior, which is conducive to better survival.
The fact that these bees take off is clear. But who in the hive is making the call to migrate? Is the queen bee decreeing when to leave? Or is it a collective sense that says time to go?
One theory says it’s a democratic vote based on pragmatism.
“It’s more the workers assessing the resources within the hive, and just knowing that the honey and pollen are dwindling and there’s not much left,” said Dr. Pettis. “And they keep going out and scouting and nothing’s out there. So it’s a collective decision, but it’s certainly not the queen.”
It may be democracy in action but it seems to have a rational side, as well.
“They (may) walk around the hive and kind of get a sense of how much honey, by the odor, is in there,” said Dr. Pettis. “And every time they go outdoors, there’s nothing out there.” So, then they may know it’s time to take off.
So why do honeybees in the southern hemisphere migrate from place to place, season to season to acquire food, and their cousins above the equator beg, borrow, and hoard food in a stay-put colony during tough times like winter? The answer could help solve a lot of problems up here.
South American bees adapting their behavior to solve food shortages could provide scientists an insight on how to guide North American bees to adapt to their deadly problems like Colony Collapse Disorder, varroa mite attacks and such.
The bee problem in the U.S. must be solved to prevent an agricultural catastrophe. The annual value of crops in our agriculture that depend on bee pollination is $19 billion, according to USDA estimates. Worldwide that crop value is $217 billion.
A major loss of bees would be an economic nightmare. And experts say that’s where we’re headed
Mother Nature has ways of adapting to adversity. Perhaps there is an immigration policy in South America that science will immigrate up here for answers.
- A massive termite nest in a tree whose inhabitants damage the wood bee hives.
- Ecuadorian beekeeper Hugo Asuncion stands in his bee yard, where his bees migrate annually
- Beekeeper Hugo Asuncion stands next to a Chala plant worked by the bees. The oil of the plant is also used to heal skin cuts and irritations.
- Hugo Asuncion, a beekeeper for 30 years, points to the damage the local termites do to the local wood-hive bodies
- Hugo Asuncion, holds 1 pound jars of honey valued at $5 apiece. His son Rolando Asuncion, holds a standard frame, which the bees will build wax on to store the honey.
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