Bone Dry: How Droughts Affect Bees
Photo by Deidra Ressler
If you have lived in PA for a while you might have noticed the unusually dry summer we just had. Growing up in Western Pennsylvania, I don't ever remember a summer where we have gone weeks without a good rainfall. For people that love the sun, having a dry summer may not seem like a bad thing. However, for those of us who have a garden, or raise bees, even this mild drought has been especially hard.
Many people don't realize the effect that droughts can have on our native, and not so native, pollinators. You may have noticed as you took a walk through your neighborhood this past summer that the flowers this year were a little crispy, and the grass was just slightly less green. Our greenery in PA requires a lot of water in order to stay healthy. Without that water, our plants will cut back on what it deems unnecessary; flowers and nectar.
A study conducted by the University of Exeter looked at how droughts affect floral resources for bees. They found that droughts reduced the flowers produced by plants by around half, and that of those flowers, many of them did not even contain nectar (Phillips et al., 2018). Of course, the type of drought that they were looking at was much more severe than here in PA, so there is no need to fear the end of bees just yet.
So what do we do if honeybees can't get enough nectar during the fall because the flowers aren't producing enough? Well, some beekeepers are actually feeding sugar water to their honeybees this fall. It's not unusual to feed bees in the early spring when they are just coming out of winter, or during the summer dearth when not many flowers are out, but feeding during the fall when goldenrod is in bloom is not something beekeepers often do. Usually, as fall picks up, there is an increase in nectar being brought in and beekeepers are scrambling to keep up with all the honey being laid down. This year is a completely different story.
Thankfully we haven't had to feed our bees at the Oliver Apiary this fall, but they also haven't put down as much honey as we expected. Our hope is for the bees to have plenty of honey stores to make it through the winter before we even think about harvesting any honey.
Though we most likely don't have to worry about catastrophic droughts that would have longterm effects on our honeybee populations in PA, it is still important to understand how our climate can affect bees. Making sure we plant enough flowers for our honeybees and native pollinators are nice, but we also need to remember that in order for flowers to produce the nectar that pollinators need, there needs to also be water.
Hopefully, next spring and summer will be filled with rainstorms. Until then, you can expect to see the research team at the Oliver Apiary carrying five-gallon buckets full of water around to water our garden.
Phillips, B. B., Shaw, R. F., Holland, M. J., Fry, E. L., Bardgett, R. D., Bullock, J. M., & Osborne, J. L. (2018). Drought reduces floral resources for pollinators. Global Change Biology, 24(7), 3226–3235. https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.14130