Buzzing about Climate Change: by Rebecca Lindsey, design by Robert Simmon, September 7, 2007
 

by Rebecca Lindsey • design by Robert Simmon • September 7, 2007

If we had the time and knew how to listen, Nature could tell us thousands of stories about how climate change is affecting life on Earth. Every tree, every insect, every bird has something important to say on the subject. From every forest, every wetland, every ocean come more stories than there are scientists to listen. Several years ago, NASA oceanographer and amateur beekeeper Wayne Esaias realized he was overhearing one of those stories. The talk of climate change was coming from his bees.

Bee

Much of the science we hear about—brought to us by schoolbooks or 10-second blurbs on the radio or TV news—are stories whose end is already known. Knowledge itself may be provisional, but the stories we hear about science often focus on what’s finished: an experiment is complete, the data are in, a result is known.

But when you’re a scientist, you know that between the moment when you think “I wonder why...?” and the moment when you finally understand can lie a long stretch of time where the significance of your idea, your ability to collect the data you need to test it, and the ultimate outcome of your effort is uncertain. Biological oceanographer Wayne Esaias has been passing through one of those uncertain stretches.

 
  Photograph of Wayne Esaias collecting data from his beehives.

The 25-year NASA veteran has made a career studying patterns of plant growth in the world’s oceans and how they relate to climate and ecosystem change, first from ships, then from aircraft, and finally from satellites. But for the past year, he’s been preoccupied with his bee hives, which started as a family project around 1990 when his son was in the Boy Scouts. According to his honeybees, big changes are underway in Maryland forests. The most important event in the life of flowering plants and their pollinators—flowering itself—is happening much earlier in the year than it used to.

 

Wayne Esaias, a NASA scientist, records the weight of his beehives. Once a hobby, his beekeeping has developed into a scientific pursuit. Esaias believes that a beehive's seasonal cycle of weight gain and loss is a sensitive indicator of the impact of climate change on flowering plants. (Photograph courtesy Elaine Esaias.)

Graph of the start data of honey production from 1992 to 2006.

The discovery has driven Esaias to completely remodel his ocean-centric career. He is now trying to rally financial support and scientific enthusiasm for the development of a national network of beekeepers whose hive observations can give scientists direct evidence of how climate change is affecting flowering plants and their pollinators. The information could refine predictions of the productivity of agricultural and natural ecosystems, help predict the spread of invasive species, and provide a tangible, missing link between satellite-based indicators of seasonal patterns of vegetation and the real world.

 

Esaias’ honeybees are starting honey production earlier in the spring than they did when he began keeping bees in the early 1990s. In Maryland, flowering trees are the biggest nectar source for honeybees. Changes in the timing of honey production are a sign that climate change is affecting flowering trees. (NASA graph by Wayne Esaias.)

  Photograph of bee harvesting nectar and collecting pollen.

Whether he can pull it off is far from guaranteed. That he is willing to accept the challenges and risks of venturing outside his specialty—failing to get funding, having colleagues challenge his expertise, or discovering that the honeybee hive network doesn’t turn into the goldmine of ecological information he predicts—shows just how important he thinks the bees’ story is.

 

Bees collect and deposit pollen in flowers as they harvest nectar for honey. Workers forage over an area that is similar in scale to both satellite observations of vegetation as well as ecosystem and climate models. By linking hive observations to satellite data and models, Esaias hopes to provide a better understanding of how climate change is affecting plants and their pollinators in natural and agricultural landscapes. (Photograph ©2006 John Kimbler.)

 
 

The Story of Honeybees

 

Europeans imported the honeybee along with most of our food crops when they came to America more than 400 years ago. As generalist pollinators that can feed from almost any flowering plant, honeybees are adaptable. Many escaped from their caretakers and set up residence in woods across the country. Whether the imports have been good or bad for native plants and pollinators in natural ecosystems isn’t settled, but when it comes to America’s agricultural productivity, it’s almost impossible to overestimate how dependent we have become on honeybees.

Agriculture depends on managed honeybees not only because some crops, such as the 700,000 acres of almonds in California, can only be pollinated by honeybees, but also because our industrial-scale system of crop production hinges on huge numbers of pollinators being available in a very limited window of time, sometimes as short as a few days.

 
  Photograph of almond trees in bloom.
 

“When you grow a large crop for agriculture, you might have hundreds acres of, say, cucumbers all being managed to bloom at the same time, to be harvested at the same time, for efficiency,” Esaias explains. That kind of uniformity isn’t natural for native pollinators, which need a diverse and season-long food supply.

Scientists have shown that at farms surrounded by adequate natural vegetation, native pollinators alone seem to be able to provide pollination services even for “heavy demand” species such as watermelon. At most conventional farms, however, natural vegetation is too scarce and broad-spectrum insecticide use is too common to support populations of native pollinators that are large enough to service crops. “The only way for growers to ensure pollination is to have somebody bring in a colony of bees, 1 to 2 colonies per acre, and put them out in the field,” says Esaias.

 

In the United States, agriculture depends on managed colonies of honeybees. Some crops, such as the almond trees pictured above, can only be pollinated by honeybees. Even managed colonies, however, depend on natural food sources like wildflowers and flowering trees to make enough honey to sustain the hive year-round. (Photograph ©2006 Trebol-a.)

  Photograph of bee hives on a farm near Monmouth, Oregon.
 

A few stints pollinating watermelons over the course of a summer, however, isn’t enough to support a hive. From spring until fall, worker bees forage from dawn until twilight over a radius of up to about 5 kilometers from the hive, bringing back pollen and nectar from plants that are blooming. They turn the nectar into honey, which feeds the colony in the winter or when nectar and pollen are scarce. As the bees stockpile honey, the hive weight goes up. In Maryland, the primary nectar source for honeybees is flowering trees, namely tulip poplar, black locust, basswood, and holly.

“During the peak of the nectar flow, a good, strong colony can gain 10 to 20 pounds in one day,” he says. “In Maryland, that goes on for a few weeks in late spring, and then, suddenly, it’s over.” For the remainder of the year, the weight of the hive dwindles as bees sustain themselves on the honey and pollen they have stockpiled during their three-to-four-week feeding frenzy. It was through this annual yo-yoing of weight gain and loss that Esaias’ bees began to tell him their story of climate change.

 

In the modern, industrial-scale system of agriculture, growers manage hundreds of acres of a single crop so that all the plants flower, ripen, and are ready to harvest at the same time. When farms are surrounded by abundant natural vegetation, native pollinators may be able to handle the workload, but more often, growers must hire a beekeeper to bring in hives by the truckload at flowering time. (Photograph ©2006 Dave Gilmore.)

Graph of honey yield for a Mink Hollow hive.

“In about 1990, my son was in Scouts,” he explained, “and the assistant scout master came to a meeting one night and said he’s leaving for a job out of state. He said, ‘I’ve got a problem. I’ve got three hives of bees, and I need somebody to take them. Who wants them?’ And my son said, ‘We’ll take ’em. Right, Dad?’”

When they went to pick up the hives, the scout master pointed out a large rectangular scale, like the one a veterinarian would use for weighing your pet. “‘You better take that, too, he said,’” Esaias recalls. “Of course, at the time, I knew nothing about bees, so I didn’t really know what you want it for, but I took it.” It wasn’t until he was up to his ears in books on beekeeping that he realized what an important tool the scale was for keeping tabs on the health of the colony.

 

In Maryland, honey production in a typical beehive ramps up for a few weeks in late spring when flowering trees such as tulip poplar and black locust start to bloom. The hive weight increases as bees produce honey, then tails off during the summer. (NASA graph by Robert Simmon, based on data from Wayne Esaias.)

  Photograph of beehive on a scale.

“Based on the weight of the hive you can tell if you need to give them supplemental food, when the nectar is coming in the area, when to add supers [stackable chambers added to the top of the hive where the bees store extra honey], and when to harvest the honey,” he explains. Tending the bees and selling the honey became a family activity. Everyone took turns weighing the hive.

As a field biologist who over the course of his career had found himself spending less and less time in the field, and more and more time in front of a computer analyzing satellite data, the hive monitoring was a real outlet for him.

“Nearly every night in the spring and summer someone would go out weigh the hives,” he said. “And I guess just because I am a scientist, I started writing these things down. Even after my kids graduated and went off to school, I still kept the records. One day, I just decided to plot it all up [on a graph], just out of curiosity. And what I saw was that although you do see a lot of variability from year to year due to climate events, there was a very noticeable long-term trend, with flowering and nectar flows getting earlier and earlier in the year.”

“Once I saw this trend, I wondered, well, how does what I see in my back yard compare with what other people have seen in this area? I found basically two datasets for comparison: one from 1922-23 in what is now downtown Chevy Chase, when it used to be a USDA agricultural research center; another study with hive weights was done by a researcher at the University of Maryland.”

To compare his data to older records, he had to adjust for the difference in elevation; his home near Clarksville is in Maryland’s Piedmont, while the other locations were down on the coastal plain. “But once I adjusted for these regional differences based on elevation,” he said, “you see this dramatic advance in peak flowering time of almost a month.”

Esaias scoured scientific books and papers for observations that could corroborate the story his bees were telling about how flowering times were changing in Maryland. He discovered that for several decades, Smithsonian botanist Stan Shetler had been keeping tracks of flowering dates for trees in and around Washington, D.C., based on calls from city residents that their backyard trees—including tulip poplar and black locust, two of the most important nectar producers in the state—were in bloom. Those records showed an advance in flowering (earlier blooming) beginning as far back as 1970.

“My hive records don’t go back that far. They start in 1992,” says Esaias. “But what’s interesting is that when I project the trend I see in my data back in time, it seems like the changes in my area could have started in the mid-1980s, which is about 15 years later than the changes began in D.C. I wondered, why is that?”

 

Hive weight is an important indicator of hive health. It tells a beekeeper when nectar is available in the area, when the bees need supplemental food, and when the keeper can harvest the honey. The seasonal pattern of weight gain and loss in a hive is different from ecosystem to ecosystem, but changes in the pattern in a particular location over time can be a sign that long-term climate change is influencing the plants in the region. (Photograph courtesy Wayne Esaias.)

Graph of first bloom for two Maryland tree species.

Esaias thinks that urbanization is mostly responsible for the changes in flowering. Urbanization would also explain why flowering seems to have been affected earlier in D.C. than in his “backyard.” Urbanization creates a heat island, an area where surface temperatures are much higher than surrounding rural areas. Pavement, less soil moisture, air pollution, and heat generated by energy use conspire to raise the city temperatures as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit (6 degrees Celsius) over surrounding areas. As cities get bigger, the urban heat island expands, too. As temperatures rise, spring comes earlier. Earlier leaf emergence and flowering have been observed in numerous cities across the world.

“I am farther out from the city, and it took 15 years for the urban heat island effect to get here,” he concludes. Between urbanization and global warming from greenhouse gases, temperatures will continue to rise in coming years; the acceleration in flowering times that Esaias’ honeybees have documented so far may not be the end of the changes.

 

Since the 1970s, Smithsonian botanists have kept track of Washington, D.C., residents’ reports of when their backyard trees first bloomed each spring. The dates vary from year to year depending on the weather, but on average, blooming is starting earlier. Dark purple diamonds represent overlapping flowering dates. (Graph by Robert Simmon, based on data from Abu-Asab et al.)

 
 

Will Plants and Pollinators Get Out of Sync?

 

According to Esaias, the changes aren’t just dramatic, they’re also kind of scary. The fertility of most flowering plants, including nearly all fruits and vegetables, depends on animal-mediated pollination. As the pollinators move from flower to flower for nectar--a high-energy, sugary enticement—the plants dust them with pollen, which the animals transfer from flower to flower.

 
  Close-up photograph of bee covered in pumpkin flower pollen.
 

“Flowering plants and pollinators co-evolved. Pollination is the key event for a plant and for the pollinators in the year. That’s where pollinators get their food, and that’s what determines whether the plant will set fruit. Some species of pollinators have co-evolved with one species of plant, and the two species time their cycles to coincide, for example, insects maturing from larva to adult precisely when nectar flows begin,” says Esaias.

The concern is that in thousands upon thousands of cases, we don’t really know what environmental and genetic cues plants and pollinators use to manage this synchrony. According to ecologist David Inouye of the University of Maryland, some plant-pollinator pairs in a particular area likely do respond to the same environmental cues, and it’s reasonable to expect they will react similarly to climate change. But other pairs use different cues, the pollinator emerging in response to air temperature, for example, while the plant flowers in response to snow melt. Migratory pollinators, like hummingbirds, seem to be particularly at risk, since climate change will almost certainly affect different latitudes differently. There is no guarantee that the thousands of plant-pollinator interactions that sustain the productivity of our crops and natural ecosystems won’t be disrupted by climate change.

 

Individual grains of pumpkin pollen hitch a ride on a honeybee. As bees move from flower to flower, they carry pollen with them, fertilizing nearby plants. This relationship between plants and pollinators may be affected by climate change. (Photograph ©2007 John Kimbler.)

  Photograph of a hummingbird sipping nectar from a flower.
 

As an example of how environmental cues for the timing of significant life cycle events might become uncoupled, Esaias points out that you don’t have to look any further than his bees. “What limits the growth of my honeybees in the spring are those coldest of the cold nights, because what is happening in their colony is that they are in a cluster, and they have to keep the queen and the larvae at 93 degrees. They do that by eating lots of honey, and tensing their muscles, and generating heat.”

When it gets warm enough outside for them to maintain a temperature of 93 degrees, they start laying eggs around the edges of the cluster, and the cluster begins to expand. As long as the workers can keep the brood temperatures at 93 degrees, the eggs will grow into adult bees in about 3 weeks. But if a single cold, cold night in March intervenes, says Esaias, then eggs at the edges that the workers can’t keep warm will die. The cluster shrinks, and the colony must begin again.

 

Honeybees aren’t the only pollinators affected by climate change. Hummingbirds and other migratory pollinators may be even more susceptible if their seasonal migrations become out of sync with the flowering and nectar availability in their breeding habitat. (Photograph ©2007 Maury Duchamp.)

  Photograph of the inerior of a honeybee hive with drone cells.
 

“Trees, on the other hand, may not feel those cold temperatures in the same way because their roots are well insulated,” Esaias suggests. The sun-warmed ground is slower to chill than the air, so trees may not be feeling the cold snaps in the same way that the bee colony does. Thus, flowering may occur before the bee colony has built up enough workers to take advantage of it, which means the hive will struggle to stockpile enough honey to sustain them through the next winter.

“I am not saying they are definitely different,” Esaias stresses, “I am just saying there are good reasons to think that their response to climate change would not be identical. The truth is we don’t know what the relationships are between weather and climate, pollinators, and plants for thousands of species.”

Since crops alone can’t sustain the pollen and nectar requirements of honeybee colonies, the potential for honeybees and other pollinators to become out of sync with their most important natural food sources is something that concerns Esaias. A national network of scale-equipped honeybee hives, Esaias believes, would reveal when flowering occurs now and help us better predict how plants and pollinators in both natural and agricultural ecosystems will—or won’t—adapt to climate change in the future.

Perhaps the best part of the whole idea, according to Esaias, is that 1-to-5-kilometer-radius area in which a hive’s worker bees forage is the same spatial scale that many ecological and climate models use to predict ecosystems’ responses to climate change. It also matches the spatial scale of satellite images of vegetation collected by NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites. This similarity of scale means that all these ways of studying ecosystems could be integrated into a more sophisticated picture of how plant and animal communities will respond to climate change than any one method alone could provide.

Esaias is particularly interested in comparing the hive data to satellite-based maps of vegetation “greenness,” a scale that remote-sensing scientists commonly use to map the health and density of Earth’s vegetation. Scientists have been making these types of maps for decades, and they have used them to document how warming temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere are causing vegetation to green up earlier in the spring than it did in the 1980s. Such maps are an excellent general indicator of seasonal changes in vegetation, says Esaias, but by themselves, they won’t tell you something as tangible as when plants are flowering.

“But if we compare flowering times based on the bee hives to the satellite data, it’s possible we will see some correlated signal or pattern that we didn’t notice before,” he says. “If we can establish a relationship between the hive data in a particular ecosystem and satellite data, then we could use our global satellite data from Terra and Aqua to map flowering times for similar ecosystems. We could make predictions about what is happening to nectar flows and the species that depend on them in places where we don’t have scale hives.”

That sort of ground-truth data from scale hives could also be used to evaluate ecosystem models. According to Hank Shugart, a scientist at the University of Virginia who specializes in forest ecosystem modeling, the timing of seasonal events like leaf emergence and flowering are usually related to the accumulated time an area spends above a plant’s minimum growth temperature, a biological benchmark known as “growing degree days.”

“It turns out that these heat-sum type approaches are pretty good at predicting the timing of these seasonal events,” says Shugart. In general, a plant will put out leaves or flower after the number of growing degrees days that species requires has passed. “What that means,” he says, “is that the greening-up that the satellites can see is probably also related, for most plants, to their flowering time,” which satellites cannot see. Honeybee hive data would be “a marvelous idea” for verifying the connections, says Shugart.

 

Broods of honeybee larvae depend on warm temperatures to survive. An early-spring cold snap can kill the developing workers at the outer edges of the cluster at the heart of the hive. This setback slows the hive’s preparations for the honey-production season. If plants are not affected in the same way, the bees may become out of sync with their primary food source. (Photograph ©2005 Max Westby.)

 
 

HoneybeeNet

 

“In my mind, the data from a network of hive scales would be an essential addition to ecosystem models,” Esaias concludes. “If we want to relate models and satellite data to something as tangible as food for people and wildlife, if we want to be able to predict where the thousands of species that occupy ecosystems today will survive in the future, we need to monitor when that plant-pollinator interaction is occurring.”

“The best part,” Esaias says excitedly, “is that the observers we need are already out there! The bees are already collecting these data for us.” About half of the approximately 6 million honeybee colonies in the United States are kept by individual or family-scale beekeepers. Esaias’ vision is to develop a how-to guide, an automatic data recorder, and the computer and networking resources at Goddard Space Flight Center that would be needed to collect and preserve the data. Ideally, a hive data recorder would be hooked up to the Internet so that volunteers’ hive weights could appear on a Website hosted at Goddard. His goal is to get the cost per kit below $200 and then to get NASA funding to outfit a network of volunteers—HoneybeeNet—and analyze their data.

“Ultimately, what we’d like to have is thousands of these across the country. Even if we can get the cost down to $200 a piece, that is still a lot of money to ask for until you have a test data set that proves it is valuable,” admits Esaias. He’s been working with local bee clubs in Maryland, rounding up some 20 volunteers who already have or are willing to purchase their own scales. He hopes that the data collected during the 2007 spring-summer season will be a prototype that will convince NASA to fund a pilot project.

In the meantime, he and several colleagues at NASA, the Department of Agriculture, and several U.S. universities submitted a proposal to NASA to integrate satellite, hive data, and the results from ecological models into an early-detection system operated by the U.S. Geological Survey that monitors the spread of invasive species. By using satellite data on landscape and vegetation type along with honeybee hive data, they hope to improve predictions of the spread of the African honeybee, an aggressive and unpredictable species of bee that is colonizing the southern United States.

 
  Photograph comparing africanized honeybee to a normal honeybee.

In addition, satellite and ecological model information on vegetation could help scientists pin down the cause or causes of colony collapse disorder. Beginning in the winter of 2006-07, hive keepers across the country began to report wintertime losses of 30 to 90 percent of their colonies. The adult worker bees seem to simply abandon the hive, including a seemingly healthy queen, immature bees, and remaining honey. As of summer 2007, scientists were still investigating numerous possible causes, including pesticides and diseases. Added stress on colonies from climate-related environmental change may be contributing, too.

“I have no idea how it’s all going to turn out, but we’ll see,” he says. “I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to ocean studies. Honestly, I’m having a lot more fun. And, really it’s not that different from what I was doing before. Of course, terrestrial ecosystems are very different from marine ecosystems, but conceptually, my focus hasn’t changed—I’m still interested in the factors that influence the abundance and distribution of organisms, only now it’s bees and plants instead of phytoplankton.”

He feels a sense of urgency about getting the HoneybeeNet going now. “All I can say right now is that much of what is in the [scientific] literature about the dates of the Maryland nectar flow is wrong; it’s obsolete data. We are headed into an era of global change across the country, and we don’t even know where we are starting from! How are we possibly going to predict change? If we don’t get on board quick, we’re gonna miss the boat.”

Bee
  • References
  • Abu-Asab, M. S., Peterson, P. M. Shetler, S. G. and Orli, S. S. (2001). Earlier plant flowering in spring as a response to global warming in the Washington, DC, area. Biodiversity and Conservation 10:597-612. doi:10.1023/A:1016667125469
  • Committee on the Status of Pollinators in America, National Research Council. (2007). Status of Pollinators in North America. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press. Accessed August 24, 2007.
  • Gould, J., and Gould, C. (1995). The Life of the Bee: The Colony Cycle. In The Honeybee, 25-29. New York: W.H. Freeman & Co.
  • Kremen, C., Williams, N., and Thorp, R. (2002). Crop pollination from native bees at risk from agricultural intensification. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 99(26), 16812-16816. doi:10.1073/pnas.262413599
  • Nemani, R., Keeling, C., Hashimoto, H., Jolly, W., Piper, S., Tucker, C., Myneni, R., and Running, S. (2003). Climate driven increases in global terrestrial net primary production from 1982 to 1999. Science, 300(5625), 1560-1563. doi:10.1126/science.1082750
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service. (2007). Questions and Answers: Colony Collapse Disorder. Accessed August 24, 2007.
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2007). Heat Island Effect. Accessed August 24, 2007.
 

Introduced to South America several decades ago, the African honeybee is more aggressive than the European honeybee. Esaias hopes that hive data on nectar flows will improve predictions of where the African honeybee and “Africanized” hybrids will spread in the United States. (Photograph courtesy Scott Bauer, Agricultural Research Service.)