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Help for honeybee researchers coming from Grand Valley State University

Today's Environment Report from Michigan Radio. Listen to GVSU's Anne Marie Fauvel explain how hive weights can help researchers.

That’s right, bees rule. At least that what my second grader thinks after she studied them at school.

“You wrote bees rule. Why do bees rule?” I asked.

“I think it’s neat for how they can make it into honey and that they can speak to each other by doing a dance," she answered.

She, of course, isn’t the only one who think bees rule. A lot of us think they rule. Especially when you consider that around one out of every three bites of food we eat is the result of a bee.

But as you’ve likely heard, bees are in trouble. Beekeepers have been experiencing losses at alarming rates — and scientists across the country are scrambling to try to stop these losses. Whether from Colony Collapse Disorder, or other bee stressors, the problems bees face are more complicated than it once seemed.


"We now know there is not one single culprit. There are multiple causes," said Anne Marie Fauvel, an affiliate professor at Grand Valley State University. Fauvel came up with a new project aimed at helping bee researchers. 

Gathering real-time hive data

Fauvel is in the liberal studies department at GVSU and was looking for a multidisciplinary project aimed at honeybee declines.  

She discovered a NASA project that measured the weights of bee hives as part of an effort to track changes in our climate. Here's how those researchers explained how hive weights informed their project:

The key piece of data bees collect relates to the nectar flow, which in the mid-Atlantic region tends to come in a burst in the spring. Major nectar flows, typically caused by blooms of tulip-poplar and black locust trees, leave an unmistakable fingerprint on beehives -- a rapid increase in hive weight sometimes exceeding 20 pounds per day. When a nectar flow finishes, the opposite is true: hives start to lose weight, sometimes by as much as a pound a day.

Fauveldiscovered that the data collection for this project was sporadic and that the data was being manually entered into an excel spreadsheet.

She thought they could build on this project and make the data available in real-time.

That’s where GVSU’s Jonatan Engelsma came in. Engelsma is an associate professor in GVSU’s School of Computing and Information Systems. He developed software that works with specialized scales to monitor beehives and record the resulting data automatically.

Steven Thomas Kent has more about the app and its creation in his story for Rapid Growth Media.  

“There are things happening right now in honeybee colonies that the best minds in the world can’t understand, and unlike Google, we don’t have terabytes of data to work with. So this is a first step toward creating data sets that we hope, if we capture the data over a long time, then entomologists, epidemiologists — people who understand this stuff at a biological level — can use this data to start to try and answer some questions.”

Fauvel and Engelsma have plans to expand this project nationwide.

They want the information to be shared through the Bee Informed Partnership. The Partnership is a collaborative effort between research labs and universities in agriculture and science aimed at better understanding honey bee declines in the U.S.

The Bee Informed Partnership is headed up by Dennis vanEngelsdorp. He says they hope to locate these real-time hive weights with beekeepers who are also collecting data on disease load for the Partnership.  

Here vanEngelsdorp explains how GVSU’s effort can help bee researchers.

Ann Marie Fauvel says the weight of the colony can tell researchers whether a hive is thriving, or failing, or simply holding its own. 

"This is one piece of the puzzle — looking into the systemic approach that we really need to take when it comes to our very complex honeybee problems," she said.

Fauvel hopes their effort is one more piece of the puzzle to a multi-pronged effort. She says the Bee Informed Partnership takes a sort of epidemiologic look at honeybee health.

Fauvel admits that there are some challenges ahead.

"The project hasn't been attempted on the larger scale. We have a couple of scales in the field and we're gathering data from them and it's working well. The next step is to launch it and open this up to multiple users of these scales and contributors of this data."

Fauvel says the decline in honeybee populations should be a warning sign to us all.

"[Bees] are there to show us there's really something going on in nature at this point,” she said. “We need to listen to them in order to restore some of the balance that we have shaken up quite a bit in the last few decades."

Beekeepers interested in participating in the project 's surveys and summaries can connect with the Partnership via their website'sparticipation section.

How you can help

There are more than 4,000 different species of bees in the U.S. And Dennis vanEngelsdorp says we happen to just know a lot about honeybees because of their importance in pollinating our crops. He says other bee populations could be suffering similar declines.

You can build a 'bee hotel' to help native bees. It's as easy as drilling 6 mm holes into a wooden block. More plans can be found on the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation's Nests for Native Bees fact sheet.

You can also plant native plants that feed bees and other pollinators. The Pollinator partnership has created an appthat allows you to filter native plants by what pollinators you want to attract, light and soil requirements, bloom color, and plant type. 

Copyright 2021 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit Michigan Radio.

A honeybee collects pollen.
Logan Chadde / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
A honeybee collects pollen.
One of the hive weights in action.
Adam Bird / courtesy of Rapid Growth Media
courtesy of Rapid Growth Media
One of the hive weights in action.
A bee hotel on display at Bee Palooza. The annual event is for people to learn about pollinators by visiting a series of seven stations set up in various parts of the MSU Horticulture Gardens.
Logan Chadde / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
A bee hotel on display at Bee Palooza. The annual event is for people to learn about pollinators by visiting a series of seven stations set up in various parts of the MSU Horticulture Gardens.

Mark is a senior reporter/producer at Michigan Radio where he's been working to develop the station's online news content since 2010.