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Global Warming Spurs "Spring Cleaning" of Honeybees
Volume 14, Number 25: 22 June 2011

Writing in Ecological Entomology, Sparks et al. (2010) note that "honeybees are an essential component of modern agriculture," and that "large acreages of pollinator-dependent crops, such as apples, almonds, blueberries and cranberries, require managed pollinators, mainly the honeybee, to ensure maximized production." However, they report that several modern studies suggest that synchronization of pollinator activity and flowering may be changed by rapid global warming, leading to deficient pollination when it is most needed and resulting in reduced crop productivity.

Noting that little work has focused on this imagined problem, the six Polish scientists decided to investigate the dates of honeybees' first cleansing flights that occur in the early spring of each year after overwintering, which flights, in their words, "are undertaken by worker bees excreting faeces accumulated in their recta while restricted in the hive for the winter during cold weather."

Working in the vicinity of Poznan, Poland, they analyzed annual records of the first observed cleansing flights of honeybees from between 80-130 hives made by four to six competent beekeepers for each of the 25 years of the 1985-2009 period. This work revealed there was a significant relationship between the date of the first cleansing flight and the January to March mean temperature, as well as the previous June to September mean temperature. And in the resulting two-variable model of this phenomenon that they developed, they say "the regression coefficients suggested a 1°C increase in previous June to September mean temperature was associated with a 9.11 2.36 day advance, and a 1°C increase in January to March temperature was associated with a 3.41 1.00 day advance, in first cleansing flight date."

Thus it was that they discovered that "first cleansing flight dates in [their] study advanced by over 1 month during the 25 years that observations were kept," and they say this advancement was "similar to changes reported in first appearance dates of other insects (e.g. Roy and Sparks, 2000; Sparks et al., 2005; Harrington et al., 2007), including other hymenopterans like wasps (Tryjanowski et al., 2010)," demonstrating, as has been observed by still others, that "cleansing behavior is related to late winter/spring temperature (e.g. Kronenberg and Heller, 1982; Seeley, 1985)," and providing ever more evidence of honeybees "continued synchrony with the plant species that rely heavily on this major pollinator," as the plants' flowering dates fluctuate with the ups and downs of spring temperatures and their longer-term trends.

Sherwood, Keith and Craig Idso

Harrington, R., Clark, S.J., Welham, S.J., Verrier, P.J., Denholm, C.H., Hulle, M., Maurice, D., Rounsevell, M.D. and Cocu, N. 2007. Environmental change and the phenology of European aphids. Global Change Biology 13: 1550-1564.

Kronenberg, F. and Heller, C. 1982. Colonial thermoregulation in honey bees (Apis mellifera). Journal of Comparative Physiology 148: 65-76.

Roy, D.B. and Sparks, T.H. 2000. Phenology of British butterflies and climate change. Global Change Biology 6: 407-416.

Seeley, T.D. 1985. Honeybee Ecology. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, USA.

Sparks, T.H., Croxton, P.J., Collinson, N. and Taylor, P.W. 2005. Examples of phenological change, past and present, in UK farming. Annals of Applied Biology 146: 531-537.

Sparks, T.H., Langowska, A., Glazaczow, A., Wilkaniec, Z., Bienkowska, M. and Tryjanowski, P. 2010. Advances in the timing of spring cleaning by the honeybee Apis mellifera in Poland. Ecological Entomology 35: 788-791.

Tryjanowski, P., Pawlikowski, T., Pawlikowski, K., Banaszak-Cibicka, W. and Sparts, T.H. 2010. Does climate influence phenological trends in social wasps (Hymenoptera: Vespinae) in Poland? European Journal of Entomology 107: 203-208.