Honey bees are dying all around the world, stricken by a deadly parasite called varroa. There is only a matter of time before we see massive colony collapses. Click here for more info.

I am an ecologist from the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment at Western Sydney University in Australia with research interests in pollination ecology (how organisms such as animals pollinate), global change biology, behavioural ecology (how organisms behave with their surroundings), invasion ecology and agroecology (sustainable food production). I am particularly interested in both pure and applied ecology and employ a variety of techniques such as large-scale manipulative field experiments as well as manipulative glasshouse and growth cabinet experiments to study interactions between plant-pollinators and anthropogenic change (change caused and influenced by humans). I'm also heavily involved in a climate change initiative set up by the university called Earth IQ. AMA!

Verification:

Earth IQ Twitter Post (Western Sydney University's climate change awareness initiative)

More about me:

Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment | Western Sydney University Profile

EDIT: 16:00 AEDT - Responding to questions now. Apologies for the wait!

EDIT: 18:15 AEDT - Thanks everyone so much for the questions! I've got to log off but I'll try and get back to as many questions as I can tomorrow morning. Signing off for now!

Comments: 106 • Responses: 22  • Date: 

mookler67 karma

Hey Amy,

Is there anything that we can do in our everyday lives that might help, or is a disease outbreak inevitable at this time?

If it's inevitable, what do you think the major factors are that caused it?

westernsydneyu72 karma

The disease outbreak is due to a parasitic mite and the viruses it carries which have spread around the world and caused many honey bee losses.

However, in Australia where we are, we are mite-free, the bees are healthy and the disease hasn't yet established. Australia is the only continent where the disease hasn't spread. But the greatest risk here is if the parasitic mite, varroa, becomes established in Australia and spreads disease. This is due to the great biosecurity that the country possesses but it may not last forever.

To promote healthy bees, you can plant a wide variety of flowering species that flower throughout the entirety of the year. This will ensure that they'll have food all year round.

Factors that caused this were moving bees all around the world, pesticide use and habitat loss making it harder for bees to live.

Wobbling21 karma

Australia legit does not fuck around about that stuff, Johnny Depp video is hilarious.

westernsydneyu23 karma

Hilarious as it is, we actually do take biosecurity VERY seriously!

london-hoverground36 karma

So judging by your intro, it's not a matter of if but when honey bee pollination will collapse. How far off is this from happening and what's the current strategy for a solution?

westernsydneyu25 karma

Here in Australia, it is impossible to say if or when the varroa mite and associated diseases will come to Australia but we have had several incursions of the mite and as a result, it is best to safeguard our pollination industry. Here at Western Sydney University, we are looking at alternative managed native Australian pollinators, stingless bees. It is also difficult to determine how varroa and its diseases will affect bees here in Australia. Some places like Hawaii, have seen an increase in annual losses but it is manageable with varroa control such as using chemicals to keep numbers down.

Kwildber20 karma

What do you think of the episode of Black Mirror with the robot bees?

westernsydneyu24 karma

It's very creepy! From a pollination angle, I can't imagine the cost and technology needed to create robot bees, would ever be feasible or worthwhile.

mrwaytoonice17 karma

If european settlers brought honey bees over to the USA and Canada will the west suffer less from their extinction? Or has our ecosystem evolved to need them? Sorry if it’s a dumb question I’ve just always been curious.

westernsydneyu18 karma

Not a dumb question mrwaytoonice! In Australia, we are a large exporter of honey bees to the rest of the world. Because our bees don't have varroa, our bees are in high demand.

The crops that rely upon pollination around the world typically rely upon honey bees, however within natural systems, native pollinators have co-evolved with native plants. Therefore, the degree to which plants have evolved with honey bees depends on the species.

Jetwa13 karma

What's the disease and what are the implications on other animals and humans?

westernsydneyu13 karma

There are a number of diseases, the problem is the varroa mite and the viruses it spreads. It's largely accepted that the most important of these is the deformed wing virus. This does not directly affect humans. It can infect other insects and we know it can cause disease symptoms in bumblebees but the effects on other insects are largely unknown. We and other groups are working on this.

Chick_Tube9 karma

Is your study based on Australian native bees or on the european honey bee?

Shouldnt we have more studies based around our native bees? Or is it because of the scare in the collapse of the honey bee pollination that we look towards the more efficent pollinatiing species in that of the european honey bees?

A slightly off topic question,

In regards to using smoke to "settle" the bees during the maintenance of bee hives does this have any known effects on a bee colony? Has there been any studies to suggest why it actually calms them per say? Would this even be a topic of interest.

Oh and if youre looking for volunteers let me know! I am in the area and keen to gain experience!

Thanks for your time.

Cheers

westernsydneyu7 karma

Is your study based on Australian native bees or on the european honey bee?

I'm looking at both Australian native bees and European bees because they are both important in our native and cropping systems.

Shouldnt we have more studies based around our native bees? Or is it because of the scare in the collapse of the honey bee pollination that we look towards the more efficent pollinatiing species in that of the european honey bees?

Yes, we should! There are lots of studies underway that are looking at native bees and their potential use in cropping systems as well as their dominance within native systems.

In regards to using smoke to "settle" the bees during the maintenance of bee hives does this have any known effects on a bee colony? Have there been any studies to suggest why it actually calms them per say? Would this even be a topic of interest.

The smoke works in a couple of different ways. Firstly it masked any alarm pheromones (chemical cue released by a bee) produced by the bees that would trigger a defence response i.e. attacking you. Secondly, it triggers a feeding response in the bees. They eat gauge themselves with honey in preparation for fleeing the nest space if there is a fire.

Using smoke doesn't negatively affect the hive, however, it's important for beekeepers to burn untreated wood or card in their smokers so no nasty chemicals end up in the hive or the delicious honey.

Oh and if youre looking for volunteers let me know! I am in the area and keen to gain experience!

Definitely! It'd be best if you can contact me via email which you can find here: http://apps.westernsydney.edu.au/teldir/personprocess.php?16495

BatmanofZuhandArrgh7 karma

I'm not an ecologist, so I just wanna ask about the methodology. How do you know that an experiment in a glasshouse is a good representative of how the bees will operate and react in environment? What are the risks and disadvantages? What can't be accounted for in a small-scale environment?

westernsydneyu6 karma

At the moment we are trialling using stingless bees in a glasshouse setting. There are a multitude of factors that need to be considered when using a glasshouse including:

- Whether the glass has UV filters and whether this allows the bees to view the floral guides.

- Training the bees to use the glasshouse and forage.

- You would also need to consider how hot a glasshouse might become as bees can't tolerate high temperatures.

- You also need to consider the direction of the sun as this will influence how and where the bees forage.

- Also, the variety of floral resources available to the pollinators within a glasshouse situation is often not the same as a real-world situation.

- Risks and disadvantages are that there is a toll on the hive. Loss of forages and potential lowering of reserve stores of food available. Therefore, frequent replacement of hives that have been trained to forage in the glasshouse in necessary.

rogert26 karma

> There is only a matter of time before we see massive colony collapses.

Assuming the global bee population is devastated, is it plausible that we could help other pollinators take up the slack?

westernsydneyu4 karma

It depends on the crop and its reliance on honey bees as a pollinator. There are many crops that don't rely on pollination at all. They can self-fertilise and therefore do not need pollinators. If honey bees decline most crops won't go entirely as they are visited by other pollinators, however, in most systems, honey bees are the most numerous and heavily relied upon pollinator.

We can help pollinators by planting a wide variety of floral resources that flower year-round to support and boost their numbers.

Laikathespaceface6 karma

YES thank you for being the expert I've been looking for for years!
I've heard many times that humans will go extinct after like 4 years of bees going extinct. This statement is probably exaggerated, but is there any truth to the idea? And if yes how/why?

westernsydneyu4 karma

First of all, don't panic - we won't die! It's highly unlikely that all bees will go extinct, although some have become extinct and many are in decline. Bee losses can mean that at sometimes crops may fail or not be as successful. This will mostly impact us in the cost of fruit and nuts.

rogert25 karma

Is there anything we can do to stop varroa?

Wikipedia says:

> Bee-breeding efforts to develop resistance against Varroa are ongoing. The USDA has developed a line of bees which uses Varroa-sensitive hygiene to remove reproductive mites. This line is now being distributed to beekeepers to be used as part of their integrated pest management programs.

Are there technological solutions, like placing UV lights near hives to kill the varroa mites? (That's entirely fictional.) How well-studied is varroa, and what have we learned about potential weaknesses?

westernsydneyu5 karma

We are doing a lot in Australia already. Incursions have happened and been stopped because of biosecurity with sentinel hives at ports. Bees with Varroa-sensitive hygiene have limited success so far but it seems like across the world there are bees which are naturally evolving tolerance to varroa. The mechanisms behind this, we don't fully understand, but many seem to be related to disrupting varroa reproduction.

drevolut1on4 karma

Do you think the banning of Neonicotinoids (the pesticides proven to weaken bee immune systems) might prevent varroa from wiping out all hives or is that not enough?

Do you see any bee species more resistant to varroa? Such as how Russian and Belarusian honeybees were found by some to be more resistant to mites than European honeybees and began to be used by more apiaries in the West, saving many from colony collapse (though certainly not all).

westernsydneyu5 karma

Do you think the banning of Neonicotinoids (the pesticides proven to weaken bee immune systems) might prevent varroa from wiping out all hives or is that not enough?

Short answer - no, it's not enough. There are a number of factors responsible for bee declines, including varroa and disease habitat loss and pesticides and the interactions between these are still not fully understood.

Do you see any bee species more resistant to varroa? Such as how Russian and Belarusian honeybees were found by some to be more resistant to mites than European honeybees and began to be used by more apiaries in the West, saving many from colony collapse (though certainly not all).

Yes, different kinds of honey bees have different susceptibilities to varroa. For instance, Africanised bees are able to tolerate varroa, but come with their own set of problems such as they are more aggressive, form smaller colonies and swarm more frequently. There are also differences even between different populations of European honey bees. Much is still unknown about this and research is being done across the world to better understand this.

Rosasome4 karma

Are common honey bees native to Australia or were they introduced?

If they were introduced should Australia think about growing more Australian native crops?

westernsydneyu3 karma

Common honey bees are introduced to Australia. Although this is a nice idea, most of the foods we like to eat do not originate in Australia.

Macluawn3 karma

Do you assume every other pollinator species, besides just bees, don't exist?

westernsydneyu9 karma

Definitely not! There are a multitude of extremely important specialist and generalist pollinators which without our ecosystems would collapse. However, currently here in Australia the only commercially managed pollinator in our cropping systems is the honey bee Apis mellifera. As such here at Western Sydney University we are trying to secure our pollination by looking at alternative native pollinators such as stingless bees.

irratatinglilblonde8 karma

I read once that although there are other pollinators, they don't account for nearly as much activity as the bees. So if bees go, so does A LOT of produce since other species just can't keep up. I don't know how accurate that is since I read it in passing while I was researching why my garden wasn't producing stuff, but I thought I'd put that here in case someone wanted to read up on it. I could be wrong.

westernsydneyu5 karma

It depends on the crop and its reliance on honey bees as a pollinator. There are many crops that don't rely on pollination at all. They can self-fertilise and therefore do not need pollinators. If honey bees decline most crops won't go entirely as they are visited by other pollinators, however, in most systems, honey bees are the most numerous and heavily relied upon pollinator.

At this stage, we do not know to what extent other bee species are at risk. A lot of research has focused on honey bees (Apis mellifera).

NothappyJane3 karma

I've got a few questions

  • what pollinates more native bees or introduced species

  • I've got heaps of osteosoernum growing in my yard. When they bloom the native bees are all about them but they are less interested in my native plants. What plants to you recommend to support Bee populations.

-Is it too early to say how bees are affected by global warming? How do you define that and replicate it? Does it mean trying out? Heat? Are growing conditions already changing?

  • how important are suburban Bee populations

westernsydneyu2 karma

what pollinates more native bees or introduced species

It depends on what species of plant we are talking about. Take for instance, apples in Australia, honey bees which are introduced here are typically the dominant pollinator. This is not to say that native pollinators do not contribute to apple pollination. Likewise, within natural ecosystems, plants have co-evolved with native pollinators, however, they are now also frequently visited by honey bees, which can contribute to their pollination.

I've got heaps of osteosoernum growing in my yard. When they bloom the native bees are all about them but they are less interested in my native plants. What plants to you recommend to support Bee populations.

You are correct in saying that native bees love certain types of introduced plants. These plants may typically provide a greater floral reward than the native plants within your garden at that particular time. I strongly recommend planting a wide variety of native species as this will increase your chance of supporting your bee populations. I assume you are in Australia, in which case I would recommend species like grevilleas, leptospermum, persoonia and banksias.

Is it too early to say how bees are affected by global warming? How do you define that and replicate it? Does it mean trying out? Heat? Are growing conditions already changing?

Currently, my research is focused on this question. Typically it looks as though extremes in weather will affect plants and pollinators causing either a mismatch in flowering times or mortality to the insects themselves. We need to look at data patterns from a number of years, as well as utilise experiments in climate control facilities to determine the effect of things like elevated CO2 on nectar quality and quantity and it's subsequent flow-on effects to pollinators. As for growing condition changing, drought and extremes in temperatures are already affecting both plants and pollinators.

how important are suburban Bee populations

Very important! They are often very healthy because of the diversity of plants in peoples gardens giving them a diverse diet all year round.

Dante4722 karma

Are you related to that woman from Frasier?

westernsydneyu3 karma

Not that I know of!

hitomaro2 karma

What is a bee hotel and are they suitable for urban environments?

westernsydneyu6 karma

A bee hotel isn't actually a place where bees go on a holiday but rather a place where they lay their eggs and allow the larvae (babies) to develop. There are several types of bee hotels which are designed to mimic the natural habitat of bee species. They are definitely suitable for the urban environment, in fact, ideal! As they are portable, don't take up much space and because our urban environments are also home to a range of native bees.

the_faecal_fiasco-2 karma

[deleted]

westernsydneyu6 karma

Hi the_faecal_fiasco. We sure will. This is our first AMA so we weren't sure on how much lead time to give. We'll start answering questions in about an hours time. Thanks for your patience!

the_faecal_fiasco6 karma

I'm so sorry, I feel like such an arse now.

westernsydneyu3 karma

Sorry for making you wait!

puckit-6 karma

Any relation to Peri?

westernsydneyu2 karma

Not that I know of!

ohkss-6 karma

Are you actually going to answer a fucking question ?

westernsydneyu7 karma

Hi ohkss. We sure will. This is our first AMA so we weren't sure on how much lead time to give. We'll start answering questions in about an hours time. Thanks for your patience!