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How Stress Pushes Honeybee Colonies Into Collapse

Researchers say stress factors force younger honeybees to take on more of the burden of foraging, weakening the colony and pushing it toward collapse.
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The stresses that lead to bee colony collapse disorder are a matter of hot debate — whether it is caused by pesticides such as neonicotinoids, pests such as Varroa mites, disease or drought. Most experts say it's a combination of factors, but how do those factors cause bee colonies to wither away? Entomologists say they've put their finger on at least one mechanism, and it has to do with young bees being pushed to find food too early.

In a study published online Monday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers describe how they hooked up radio trackers to thousands of bees and traced their behavior. They found that stress factors tended to target the older bees in a colony — leaving younger, less experienced bees with more of the burden of foraging. That weakened the colony as a whole.

"If the increased death rate continues for too long, or the hive isn't big enough to withstand it in the short term, this natural response could upset the societal balance of the colony and have catastrophic consequences," Clint Perry, a biologist at Queen Mary University of London, said in a news release. "Our results suggest that tracking when bees begin to forage may be a good indicator of the overall health of a hive. Our work sheds light on the reasons behind colony collapse and could help in the search for ways of preventing colony collapse."



— Alan Boyle

In addition to Perry, the authors of "Rapid Behavioral Maturation Accelerates Failure of Stressed Honey Bee Colonies" include Eirik Sovik, Myerscough and Andrew Barron.