Each winter Pennsylvania beekeepers lose nearly 50% of their honey bee colonies and several wild bee species are threatened or endangered, reflecting trends around the world.
“We know that bee populations are declining because of several key stressors, including exposure to insecticides, reduced abundance and diversity of the flowering plants that bees depend on for their food, and loss of nesting habitat for wild bees,” said Christina Grozinger, distinguished professor of entomology and director of the Center for Pollinator Research in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.
Bees travel up to several kilometers from their hives to find food, but it has been impossible to know what the bees are experiencing and what stressors they might encounter during their trips.
Grozinger and her colleagues designed Beescape.org to answer these questions. Previous work by members of the research team created methods to estimate the forage quality, nesting habitat quality and insecticide load in a landscape.
Beescape.org allows users to select a specific location and obtain these landscape-quality scores for the surrounding region, up to five kilometers away. Users also can examine the crops that are being grown in the areas around them.
“Beescape allows people to see the world as a bee, which will help them make decisions about where to place their colonies or steps they and their neighbors can take, such as planting pollinator gardens or reducing insecticide use, to make the landscape more friendly for bees,” said project collaborator Maggie Douglas, an assistant professor at Dickinson College.
The research was supported by funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research, and the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center.
Douglas talks more about what Beescape.org can mean for local gardeners and those concerned about bees.
Q. How did you become involved in Beescape.org?
A. Beescape grew out of a collaboration of researchers at several universities interested in better understanding and communicating causes of bee decline. I got involved in this group because of my research interest in describing trends in pesticide use over space and time, and what these changes could mean for beneficial insects like bees.
Q. What is the most common stressor for bees in this area in particular?
A. Our research suggests that, relative to other counties in Pennsylvania, honey bees in Cumberland County likely experience lower-than-average availability of food (flowers) and higher-than-average pesticide load. This contrasts with some other areas in the state. For example, in areas near Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, a common stressor is a high density of honey bee hives, which makes it easier for pests and diseases to spread between hives.
Q. What do you and your colleagues hope people do with the information they find on the website?
A. We hope that beekeepers (and gardeners who use “bee hotels” to support wild bees) will inform themselves about the stressors their bees are likely experiencing, so they can better support their bees. For example, beekeepers who are considering multiple locations to place their hives can use the website to compare them. We also hope beekeepers and gardeners will use the website to join our study so we can learn how their bees are doing and hone our understanding of the drivers of honey bee losses. The new insights we glean from their observations will eventually be incorporated back into the website.
Q. Dickinson College has been named a “Bee Campus.” Could you talk about what you’re doing there to further research on bees?
A. The Bee Campus designation has to do with the work of students, faculty and staff at Dickinson who are doing everything possible to make the campus friendly for bees, and educate students and the broader community about the importance of bees and how to support them. For example, students can learn about beekeeping by helping to manage a small apiary, and the grounds crew has designed and established several impressive pollinator gardens that provide food for bees over the whole growing season.
Q. What can the average homeowner do to help the bee population?
A. Homeowners can help address two of the most significant threats facing bees in our area: exposure to pesticides and lack of flowers. Pesticides can be used sparingly and only when absolutely necessary, choosing the least-toxic option, avoiding systemic products, and applying when bees are not visiting flowers. Homeowners can also support bees in their landscaping by choosing garden plants that provide abundant food for bees and that bloom at different times of year.
Two great resources for homeowners to learn about bee-friendly practices are:
Xerces Society (https://xerces.org/pollinator-conservation/gardens/)
Pennsylvania’s Pollinator Protection Plan (https://ento.psu.edu/pollinators/pollin-spotlight-items/the-pennsylvania-pollinator-protection-plan-p4).