Honey bee survival experiment in Yakima stirs up research

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by GARY CHITTIM / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @gchittimK5

KING5.com

Posted on February 2, 2012 at 1:18 PM

Updated Thursday, Feb 2 at 8:01 PM

YAKIMA, Wash. -- Yakima beekeepers may have stumbled onto a breakthrough in honey bee survival.

Bee keepers Eric and Sue Olsen were stunned after the die-off of their hives over last winter. It was the worst they'd ever seen, they said. The bees wintered in central California's almond-growing region and spent the warm days busily foraging in the fields.

It seemed like a stress-free environment for the bees, but when Eric Olsen opened the hives in the spring, he saw the devastation. Tens of thousands of bees, gone.

Desperate, the couple did some research and learned growers in Idaho and other parts of the country had success by wintering their bees indoors.

Olsen took advantage of the widely available fruit storage houses around Yakima. He soon had thousands of bees spending the winter in climate-controlled coolers.

But here's where things got interesting: Olsen decided to use the building's equipment which monitors carbon dioxide and oxygen levels. He noticed carbon dioxide levels went up during times when the doors were closed. So, he tried to maintain a balance by opening doors during the day to return carbon dioxide to natural levels.

That was the breakthrough that caught the attention of scientists at Washington State University. After wintering in those conditions, Olsen noticed the bees were as healthy as he's ever seen. He now has more than he needs as he begins the busy season down in California before returning to Washington to pollinate the cranberry, apple, and other crops.

"We are very interested in how [carbon dioxide] and oxygen levels affect the bees," said WSU Entomologist Steve Shepard.

Shepard also believes that by wintering indoors, the bees stay in a hibernation-like state for longer periods, lowering their metabolism and preserving strength that could be wasted by flying around.

Shepard and his bee research team will now use a similar facility to further study the affects of carbon dioxide and oxygen on bees.

Olsen firmly believes placing the bees indoors avoided pesticides, and Shepard agrees. But Shepard is also convinced the gas levels had something to do with it. Neither is ready to proclaim they have solved the mystery illness that wipes out so many bees every year, but they say it's definitely a possible breakthrough.

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