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Gone with the wind - extreme weather poses threat to honey bees as wind reduces efficiency of foraging

Setting a trail for the honey bees

High wind speeds can significantly reduce the efficiency of a honey bee’s search for food, according to a new research paper published this week.   

Experts at the University of Sussex found that the foraging rate of honey bees significantly decreased in higher wind speeds due to increased hesitancy to take off.   

With UK winds expected to increase in both incidence and speed due to climate change, the results show yet another threat to pollinators whose numbers are already in decline.   

Georgia Hennessy, lead author and doctoral researcher in the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects (LASI), said: “Using artificial flowers in a controlled setting, we were able to monitor the effect of varying wind speeds on honey bees.   

“The results clearly showed that bees become hesitant to take off from a flower when wind speeds are high and this significantly reduces their efficiency in pollinating.”  

The research, published in the journal Animal Behaviour, details how artificial flowers were set up in a shed alongside fans, which produced different wind speeds. The researchers then attracted bees to the area before letting them forage on the flowers, which contained a set volume of sugar water, for 90 seconds. They then able to watch video footage they had collected to time each stage of the process.   

Researchers also examined flower movement independent of wind, by moving the table on which the flowers were set up.   

The findings reveal that, while flower movement did not appear to have an effect, the movement of air in the space made honey bees significantly slower and much more hesitant to take off from a flower, with time taken ranging from an initial 0.05 seconds to 54 seconds.  

Professor of Apiculture and co-author Francis Ratnieks said: "Wind is an important natural factor that affects bee foraging, but has hardly been studied. Our research shows that increased wind speed caused bees to visit flowers at a lower rate. The main reason behind this was somewhat surprising.  

“By analysing videos of honey bees foraging on artificial flowers with wind of various speeds made by domestic fans, we found that they are more hesitant in taking off when they depart a flower where wind speed is greater." 

Georgia said: “We knew it wasn’t nectar volume that was influencing their foraging time so it became quite clear that the bees were just hesitant to take off in high winds.   

“With wind speeds predicted to increase in the years ahead, understanding how we can help pollinators in a changing climate is becoming ever more pressing.   

“Although we can’t do much to control or stop the wind, we can take steps to minimize its impact on pollinators, such as placing hives in sheltered locations.”   

The study, co-funded by Gatwick Airport and the University’s Doctoral School, comes amidst persistent warnings on the decline in global bee populations with the UN’s Food and Agriculture organisation warning last year that it was a ‘threat to global food security and nutrition.’   

Professor of Biology and co-author Dave Goulson commented: “Insect pollinators already face many pressures in the modern world, such as loss of habitat and exposure to pesticides, and a great many are in decline. Coping with increasingly blustery weather under climate change may be the final straw for some.”   

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By: Stephanie Allen
Last updated: Wednesday, 19 February 2020

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