In 2006 a phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) emerged. Beekeepers and scientists noticed that large numbers of adult honey bees were leaving their hives and failing to return, which had large implications for farmers and growers who use honey bees as pollinators.
To this day, scientists are unable to identify any single cause for this phenomenon. Instead, a long list of possible causes includes pesticide residues, habitat loss, pathogens, parasitic mites, diseases, pollution, and viruses.
Now a new study published in the Journal of Apicultural Research suggests one more possible cause: sunspots.
Fluctuations in magnetic fields, including those caused by solar storms, may interfere with the magnetoreceptors in honey bees so that fewer bees return to their hives from foraging trips. This disruption may be so severe that the flying bees disappear from their hive, which may contribute to colony failure.
“For humans, the impact of sunspots on magnetic fields and their effects on bees is a difficult concept to grasp,” said Norman Carreck, science director of the International Bee Research Association. “Perhaps we could liken it to humans, who rely on sight, becoming lost in fog when we have no visual clues to help us identify our location. In unfamiliar territory, any landmarks would be harder to recognize, so we find it harder to work out where we are.”
Bees can sense and use the earth’s magnetic fields to help them to identify their position and find their route home. This ability, called magnetoreception, is similar to that found in birds, fish, and dolphins. While bee magnetoreception has long been known, this new paper is the first to identify solar activity as one of the many causes of honey bee disappearance.
Through a series of experiments, researchers found that bees that were subjected to magnetic fields were less able to find their way home. Their homing ability also seems to be affected by uncontrolled, natural fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetosphere.
Furthermore, the study links documented periods of increased levels of solar storms to increased levels of honey bee colony losses.
“This interesting study throws light on a curious aspect of bee biology,” Carreck said. “It is only part of the story of colony losses, but an aspect which merits further study.”
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