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How The California Drought Can Affect Honeybee Colonies

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Honeybees and plants rely on each other for different reasons. Honeybees use the pollen and nectar from plants for nourishment; plants use honeybees to transfer pollen from the male anther of a flower to a female stigma. This allows for plants to make seeds to produce offspring (other plants of the same kind). However, in order for the plant to grow and produce pollen to be spread with other flowers, another factor must be readily available: Water.

As we know it, water is vital to sustain life for all living things. Without rainfall, plants will eventually wilt and die – leaving no nourishment for bees to collect and bring back to the hive.

California’s water deficit has affected the vegetation in the area and deprived honeybees from their normal supply of flowers. The recent storms in southern California gave a healthy amount of precipitation, but it was not enough to get out of the drought.

The diets of domesticated hives in California are being supplemented by beekeepers to keep the hives alive, but the nourishments offered do not compare to the natural pollen from flowers. The malnourishment can deplete a large portion of the colony. In a normal year about 30 percent of the hives need to be replaced.

The cost to supplement the hive becomes too expensive and many beekeepers are forced to discontinue maintaining the hives.

Aside from the drought impacting the population of honeybees, a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder has also plagued beekeepers’ hives.

It is difficult to determine if the wild bee population is decreasing at the same rate (or even at all) as domesticated hives. The latter is contained and monitored for accurate reporting. However, bee relocation specialists continue to stay busy extracting unwanted hives from homes and transporting them to local apiaries.

Proper nourishment is not the only effect cause by severe droughts. During extreme heat in summer months, the temperature inside the hive must be maintained. Worker bees will initially increase air circulation by making more room inside. To do this they will move to the outside of the hive and rest on the outer surface – this process is known as bearding.

Bearding - Honeybees outside the hive to provide more room inside for air circulation.
Honeybees bearding to keep hive cool during extreme heat by offering more space inside for better air circulation.

When this act does not keep the hive at ideal temperatures (95 degrees Fahrenheit), worker bees will attempt to cool the hive by fanning drops of water inside the hive. If water is difficult to find, foragers searching for food resources will abandon their task to focus on finding water. Since bee larvae cannot withstand extreme heat, the hive will decide to shift their priority on finding water to cool the hive instead so that they may survive.

Another threat bees face from droughts is the need to focus more of their resources on defending the hive. Honeybees from desperate bee colonies and even wasps will rob weaker hives of their honey. Since all their resources can be stolen in a short amount of time, the colony will devote more bees that would usually be finding food and water to protecting their goods.

Limited food supply and devoting a colony’s workforce to other tasks other than collecting food and water are all things to consider during a drought. These factors have a major impact of the population of honeybee colonies.

Although weather and the amount of rainfall is not a factor we can control, preservation of honeybees can be achieved by choosing to relocate unwanted hives instead of extermination when a wild colony invades a structure.

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