A NASA lecture on honeybees? Discussion at Langley to focus on threats to environmentally critical species.

Lisa Vernon Sparks, The Daily Press
·3 min read

Andy Westrich can harvest buckets of honey from the beehives he manages at his Hampton Apiary business and other locations.

It’s a passion that has kept him busy like a bee for 16 years, but in recent years honeybees have been facing threats, he says.

“Bees are disappearing because of two things. They have a very high threshold of pest that they’re dealing with, mainly the varroa mite and the varroa mite spreads diseases. That really hurts the bees,” Westrich, a certified Virginia master beekeeper, said. “The other thing that the bees are dealing with is pesticides. A large amount of people, especially in an urban environment, are using pesticides.”

Honeybee colonies, their threats and what can be done to reverse the trend is the topic of the next Sigma Series at NASA Langley Research Center. Dennis vanEngeldorp, chief scientist with Bee Informed Partnership will lead a virtual session that begins 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

An associate professor at University of Maryland and founder of the nonprofit Bee Informed Partnership, vanEngeldorp has for the past 14 years done research in pollinator health with a focus on honey bee health and why their numbers have been declining, according to a NASA release. His discussion will hinge on those factors affecting honeybees, how parasites infiltrate the hives, plus what the numbers are in terms of decline and what management practices beekeepers can do to improve survival rates.

Bees are vital to our food supply, he said.

“We have to attempt to figure out environmental health for pollinators, including honeybees. The data suggests you need to manage the mites because they are passing viruses and making it harder and harder to keep pollinators alive,” vanEngeldorp said.

With Earth Day coming later in the month, NASA officials wanted to recognize the importance of honeybees.

“Part of our mission at NASA is to advance knowledge of the Earth, in order to benefit our quality of life,” Gretchen Murri, NASA assistant branch head, said in an email. “With the interest in beekeeping growing and the news stories of the decline of honeybee populations in recent years, it seemed a relevant topic.”

Honeybees, along with bumblebees, wasps and hornets are among pollinators that help keep the environment healthy, but bees lend a hand in other ways by providing the raw ingredients for products such as bee pollen, beeswax, royal jelly and other nutritional supplements.

“(These) girls will go for about a mile or two radius and pull in everything they can,” says Laura Scott, president of the Colonial Beekeepers Association, who has been keeping hives for five years. “A lot of our food source will disappear as more pollinators disappear. I’m partial to honeybees because I get some extra stuff from them. We get lots of stuff from people who actually collect pollen.”

Locally, beekeepers also are seeking to find ways to mitigate the effect of traditional pesticides used to manage mosquitoes which can linger in the environment.

“If it’s gonna hurt mosquitoes, it can hurt honeybees. If they spray in the wrong spot or the wrong time, they can devastate a colony,” Westrich said.

Pesticides are a concern, but it’s not the main driver, says vanEngeldorp. There are three things people can do to help. Buy local honey and instead of planting lawns, which takes up more pesticides per acre, plant more meadows, which improve the habitat.

“Become a beekeeper. It’s the most relaxing thing you can do,” vanEngeldorp said.

The Sigma lecture series begins at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and will be streamed at http://www.ustream.tv/channel/nasa-lrc

For monthly email reminders about upcoming Sigma lectures, send a blank email to sigma-series-subscribe@lists.nasa.gov

Lisa Vernon Sparks, 757-247-4832, lvernonsparks@dailypress.com