Our changing sun and colony collapse disorder in bees (external - login to view)
23 03 2008
Ok, caveats first. 1. I know little about bees other than what I know from a couple of biology courses and Internet research. I claim no expertise in Entymology or in beekeeping. 2. I’ve stumbled across what I’m writing about below, and I’m posting it only as a catalyst for discussion. I could be totally wrong, but I see significant coincidences that merit discussion.
Colony Collapse Disorder in honeybees has made the news worldwide in this past year, while there are some junk science explanations out there, such as “Are mobile phones wiping out our bees (external - login to view)
?” it would seem that explanation is unlikely.
There are a number of possible explanations that have been floated, including virus, mites, fungus, and even carsickness (external - login to view)
(from hive transport) but not a one mentions anything about the things bee are most attuned to: the sun.
Readers will recall that I’ve posted this time series graph of the Geomagnetic Average Planetary Index (Ap) with notes to pay particular attention to what happened in October 2005.
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click for a larger image
In October 2005, notice the sharp drop in the magnetic index and the continuance at low levels, almost as if something “switched off”.
I’m currently researching solar activity quite a bit in preparation for posting an upcoming article on solar to earth effects. While looking for an article related to geomagnetism, I came across an old article on bee navigation (external - login to view)
from the Alaska Science Forum. The scientist that wrote the article said:
Numerous experiments have shown that birds and bees use the geomagnetic field as a backup system when overcast skies prevent navigation by the sun or the stars. Also, pods of magnetic grains have been found inside the skulls of homing pigeons and in the abdomens of bees. Scientists suspect this is no coincidence.
In the same search results on geomagnetism, this article also was in the list:
Is Geomagnetic Sensitivity Real? Replication of the Walker-Bitterman Magnetic Conditioning Experiment in Honey Bees. (external - login to view)
In the research paper done at Cal-Tech Pasadena, the researchers were able to replicate an experiment that showed how bees are sensitive to geomagnetism. In the abstract they conclude:
We conclude honey bees are sensitive to the geomagnetic field, that the signal processing for it is more complex than previously thought, and that a ferromagnetic transducer is compatible with all known behavioral data.
That gave me an idea, remembering something I’d read about colony collapse disorder in domestic bee colonies, I started searching for the quote I remember reading in articles on the subject last year. The quote was something along the lines of “The hive boxes are empty, it is as if the bees simply flew out to forage but never returned home”.
An article on colony collapse disorder in the New York Times from Feb 27th, 2007 (external - login to view)
says something similar to what I remember:
Researchers say the bees are presumably dying in the fields, perhaps becoming exhausted or simply disoriented and eventually falling victim to the cold.
“I have never seen anything like it,” Mr. Bradshaw, 50, said from an almond orchard here beginning to bloom. “Box after box after box are just empty. There’s nobody home.”
Further research brought me to this February 11th 2007 article in Live Science titled Mystery Ailment Strikes Honeybees (external - login to view)
which draws on AP wire reports. In that article were two nuggets of interest:
Although the bodies of dead bees often are littered around a hive, sometimes carried out of the hive by worker bees, no bee remains are typically found around colonies struck by the mystery ailment. Scientists assume these bees have flown away from the hive before dying.
In the meantime, beekeepers are wondering if bee deaths over the last couple of years that had been blamed on mites or poor management might actually have resulted from the mystery ailment.
“Now people think that they may have had this three or four years,”
It seemed to me that the common theme here was that the bees went missing, not that they were succumbing to disease at the hive.
Once thing is certain about bees: They are reliant upon the sun on multiple levels, not only for the photosynthesis and seasonal solar variation for the production of plant food, but also for navigation, which is critical to their foraging strategy. It is doubtful that there is any insect more attuned to the sun than the honeybee.
In this article on honeybee navigation (external - login to view)
, it is clear just how reliant they are on the sun for navigation. They appear to have primary and backup navigation systems, but the only one that doesn’t appear connected to the sun in some way are crude recognition of large landmarks. Of most interest to me for the purposes of this article is the fact that bees are sensitive to magnetism and can also see in UV light. It is believed that bees use pattern recognition of flowers in UV to pick out flowers from the maze of flora they traverse, for example in the photos below showing visible and ultraviolet:
Image credit: Western Kentucky University Bioweb (external - login to view)
The fact is the sun is changing, and we are going into a deep solar minimum. UV output has been clearly affected as shown in these comparisons of 2002 and 2006
Images courtesy of SOHO (NASA/ESA).
Note the difference in brightness and in the appearance of the Sun in the two images. These images were taken in a high energy UV band with a wavelength of 19.5 nm.
Here is where I’m going with this:
- We are entering a deep and prolonged solar minimum. We have solar cycle 23 which is getting longer and longer, and cycle 24 which is late and may have had a false start. The sun is behaving differently than has been seen in recent solar cycle history.
- Two significant components used for bee navigation have changed in the last 2-3 years, the ultraviolet output of the sun, and the geomagnetic index, which dropped sharply in October 2005 and remains low.
- Our own earth generated magnetic field is weakening, and due for a pole flip in the next century or two.
- Bee keepers report the problem has been that bee’s don’t seem to return to the hives, implying a navigation problem.
- Bee keepers now think the problem extends further back than when it was first reported in the media in early 2007 perhaps “3-4 years”.
Given that UV and geomagnetics are both used in the navigation systems of bees, and given the clear change in these things and the reliance bees have upon the sun, it makes me wonder if perhaps the Colony Collapse Disorder may have a root in our recent solar history.
Bees have multiple navigation systems, but they may not bee accustomed to a drop in UV output and geomagnetic index occurring simultaneously.
Wild honeybee strains have seen significant solar changes over millenia and may be better able to adapt. But, our large worldwide stocks of domesticated honeybees may not be able to cope with the solar changes as well due to inbreeding and other genetic factors related to domestication. We’ve had a fairly stable and rising solar output during the rise of modern agriculture in the last century which has been aided by the domesticated honeybee.