Editor’s note: This article updates a previous Today story about the honeybee research project.
What’s the buzz on the CU Denver campus, especially with spring just around the corner? More bees!
Christy Briles, PhD, assistant professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and her research team added 15 honeybee hives around the Denver metro area, including five hives on top of the CU Denver Student Commons Building in April 2017.
Through this addition, they hope to increase pollination and food production in Denver, while continuing to learn how to support urban pollinators.
Why study bees?
Briles’s research team consists of undergraduate and graduate students – a common occurrence at Colorado’s only public urban research university.
Kristen Birdshire, a graduate student in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, assists in maintaining hives and processing the collected pollen. Katie Prince, also a graduate student, and Quinsen Joel, an undergraduate student, are examining parasitic mite populations.
Other CU Denver faculty collaborating on the project include Annika Mosier, PhD who is examining the microbiology of the hives, and Peter Anthamatten, associate professor of Geography and Environmental Sciences, who is surveying hive health and beekeeper management practices and mapping data on the bee hives.
Briles and her team specifically chose to study honeybees, or Apis mellifera, because of their essential role in the food supply.
“They are the most commonly used species in commercial beekeeping,” said Briles, who teaches in the Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences. “They are important for the pollination of commercial crops like almonds, and the production of honey.”
Bees, both managed and wild, are also great indicators of ecological health. If there are toxins in the environment the bees may struggle or even die. They are also a keystone species, meaning that their decline could result in reduced pollination, leading to reduced habitat and food for other species.
About once a month, Briles and her team inspects the hives for disease, and checks food levels and the overall population. If food is scarce, they will intervene and feed the bees sugar syrup and pollen. During these checks, they also collect pollen to examine foraging patterns and resource availability for the bees.
Bee health is affected by a variety of anthropogenic and natural factors, including the presence of pollutants, pesticides, insecticides, changing climates and the availability of healthy and numerous plant resources. If the environment is negatively impacted by one of these factors, a hive can become stressed, which can lead to death of the hive.
“In the late-2000s, many beehives collapsed,” said Briles. “There have been large losses in the past, but the internet and other news outlets have raised awareness of these events. Since then, there’s been a bigger push to understand bee ecology and health.”
The team’s current study focuses on bee health across two types of locations: the urban environment in downtown Denver, with five beehives located on top of the Student Commons Building, and the suburban environment in Littleton, with a total of 10 hives placed at various residential locations. The studies will continue as long as the team has funding to maintain the hives and conduct the research.
“Surprisingly, the hives on the Student Commons Building are doing better than our hives in Littleton,” said Briles. “We believe this is due to an increased use of pesticides used to combat a Japanese beetle infestation that occurred in Littleton this past summer.”
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Bee health is also affected by the presence of the mite Varroa destructor, an invasive parasite that shortens and weakens the lifespan of bees. Briles and Anthamatten received funding from the Office of Research Services to begin mapping these parasitic populations in the Denver area, in hopes of curbing their potential destruction in the future.
CU Denver Urban Bee Project
The study of the urban and suburban beehives is part of a larger project run by Briles and her team: the CU Denver Urban Bee Project. This project supports beekeepers in the Denver area and involves and educates the Denver community about bees. In fact, their current project studying bee health has involved local bee clubs and local beekeepers.
“We want to provide people with tools to make better decisions around beekeeping,” said Briles. “We’re excited about the direction of the project. We certainly had more bees on campus last summer than before the project began.”
The bees are currently over-wintering on the top of the Student Commons Building, but you should start seeing more bees once temperatures consistently get above 50 degrees and plants start pollinating again.