Big storms generally don’t faze honeybees. When temperatures drop or rise, when wind wails, or when rain falls in sheets, bees simply hunker down in their hives, huddle up, and self-regulate. And so during Hurricane Sandy, bees in New York City’s inland areas abided. The apiaries of East New York Farm survived (with extra weights set atop their hives), as did those of Crown Heights’ BK Farmyards. (Ed.: The bees atop NRDC's Manhattan offices also did OK.)
But bees near the shore fared less well. In Red Hook, Brooklyn, the Added Value farm lost two hives when floodwaters swept across the property; coastal Staten Island beekeepers reportedly lost 10 hives, as did beekeepers in the Rockaways. But the biggest known loss so far occurred in the Navy Yard, where a 13-foot storm surge swept away a million bees from the Brooklyn Grange's 25 hives, which were stationed just eight feet from the water’s edge. The loss is especially tragic considering that New Yorkers had a week’s warning about the potential surge, which many beekeepers prudently heeded by moving hives to higher ground.
In the short term, Hurricane Sandy will have little impact on metropolitan bees and pollination. Long-term, however, climate change -- which scientists agree added fuel to Sandy’s fire -- will present some Apidaen challenges. Droughts will wither plants from which bees gather nectar and pollen. Warmer winters will prevent bees from tightly clustering for warmth and force them to continue foraging. But they’ll find scarcer resources, and for a creature that measures its lifespan in wing beats, searching for food that can't be found is a death sentence. Instead, they’ll consume more of their honey stores.
When forage is inadequate, “beekeepers have to feed their bees and leave more honey in the hive,” says James Fischer, director of education for the nonprofit NYC Beekeeping. (Malnourished bees are, of course, more vulnerable to invasive pests and diseases.) Anticipating milder winters, Fischer is gleaning information from mid-Atlantic beekeepers, seeking advice he can apply in the Northeast. Climate change is also spurring plants across the country to flower earlier in the spring. “But bees that emerge early from winter clustering may not like the plants that are blooming then,” Fischer says. “They’ll hold back on colony production,” which will sting beekeepers' wallets.
The good news in this bleak scenario is that Apis mellifira* is a superb generalist: the same species survives from the equator to Alberta with only minor changes to its behavior. The bees of the future could very well adapt to phenological changes wrought by a climate in flux. For example, they could become more energetic foragers or work a patch of flowers in short, intense bursts. But strap them down in a flood zone while the waters swirl and rise, and all the evolutionary chops in the world -- short of gills -- won’t save them.
Image: Scott Barlow