The Planet

How Buzzing Bees Are Helping Save Themselves

by Kate Ryan

June 9, 2017
Image via Pixabay

At this point, most of us climate change believers are well aware of the symbiotic relationship between bees and a healthy environment. Despite their tiny stature, they play an outsized role in pollinating roughly 85 percent of the world’s flowering plants and three quarters of the world’s crops. Without a steady population of busy bees, we can kiss our vital flora and fauna goodbye.

The first step in preventing a global agricultural disaster involves monitoring those hardworking bees. Only, effective strategies for doing such have proven to be difficult—not to mention pricey. Luckily, researchers from the University of Missouri have stepped up to the challenge and published a study in PLOS ONE on Wednesday, detailing their strategy for tracking hoards of bees: record them.

Using tiny microphones, researchers were able to monitor bees in the wild, comparing their buzzes to a control set of buzzes recorded in the lab. By narrowing in on fluctuating buzzes, researchers can have a better understanding of what causes bee populations to change. In future studies, researchers hope to determine whether flowers chemically react to the different sounds bees make.

Though the study’s researchers wouldn’t call the process of recording the buzzes easy. Despite tracking bees in a meadow far away from urban distractions, researchers still had fierce winds and inclement weather threatening to obscure the results. “So we surrounded the microphones with fluffy jackets that look like ‘cat’s tails’ to reduce the wind,” one of the study’s co-authors, Dr. Candace Galen, told GOOD. “Once we had the recordings, we could train our computer software to count ‘nonrandom’ or structured sounds like buzzes and throw out random noise like the wind.”

With this innovative technique, researchers will be able to better track bee populations and the work they do to pollinate the world’s plants. “Eavesdropping on the acoustic signatures of bee flights tells the story of bee activity and pollination services,” Dr. Galen said in a press release. “Farmers may be able to use the exact methods to monitor pollination of their orchards and vegetable crops and head off pollination deficits. Finally, global ‘citizen scientists’ could get involved, monitoring bees in their backyards.”

Even if you’re not an acoustic genius, there are still ways you can help save the bees. “Plant flowers in your garden or in a box on your porch so they have delicious snacks to take home to their families,” says Dr. Galen. She adds, in a surprising word of advice, “Don’t spray your dandelions and clovers with weed killer! These lawn ‘weeds’ are both great food items for native bees and honeybees. You’ll have less work to do and the bees will thank you.”

Less work? Don’t mind if I do.

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How Buzzing Bees Are Helping Save Themselves