Fifteen years ago, Carl Chesick was as anti-social as they come. It wasn’t a problem, though: He could tend the hives at Green Goddess Farm & Apiary — the 14-acre West Asheville operation he owns with his wife, Joan — in relative solitude. But as organizer and president of the nonprofit Center for Honeybee Research, Chesick is now a social butterfly — and the humble honeybee has become a poster child for environmentalism.
“The more I’m around bees, the more social they’ve made me,” says Chesick, adding that he’s found community with fellow beekeepers and enthusiasts. He used to wonder if “a certain kind of person is drawn to keeping bees? Or is it that when they start keeping bees, they become that kind of person?” Today, though, he wholeheartedly believes that if you keep bees long enough, they’ll make you a better human being.
That matters because this insect is in trouble. Although reported cases of colony collapse disorder — when the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear, leaving behind a queen, plenty of food and a few “nurses” to care for the remaining young bees — have declined substantially in recent years, populations of this key pollinator continue to dwindle.
Chesick’s conversion to extrovert started with a simple question: Why are bees dying, and at alarming rates? That led him to get involved with the local chapter of the N.C. State Beekeepers Association and commit his days to Project Genesis, the research center’s flagship effort. Now beginning its sixth year, the pioneering longitudinal study has Chesick interacting with and coordinating more than 150 volunteers.
Every two weeks, Larry Sanders and other local volunteers collect data from 20 research hives on the nonprofit’s West Asheville property, meticulously recording information such as pollen color, hive weight, details about the queen and any signs of disease. The hope is that, one day, this data may help answer not only the why but also the how of declining honeybee populations and colony collapse disorder.
“It’s fascinating,” says Sanders, who’s donated his time twice a month since the project began in 2012. “The colony goes through an annual cycle. … Going in and looking at them one time won’t give you the understanding we can gain by measuring.”
In a way, both men note, the project functions like a hive. Yes, a colony needs a queen, but its successful operation isn’t solely up to her. “It’s not like an old British monarchy,” quips Sanders.
Chesick adds, “It has an intelligence about it that looks centrally controlled, but it’s a collective effort.” Sensing that the hive is too warm, he explains, one go-getter bee will start fanning its wings to cool things off, then bring others in to help remedy the situation. The research center, Chesick points out, operates in a similar fashion: The mite collector and the weigher come on different days, and volunteers find the time to be involved when they can. Everyone works individually for the health and well-being of the whole.
A mite-y problem?
The data these folks are collecting may seem basic, and it is — but it’s crucial to determining how bee colonies fare when they’re left to their own devices. And up till now, says Chesick, “There’s never been a longitudinal study that I know of that actually records basic information about the bees.” Researchers, he points out, “are in a lab. They don’t get to see bees like we do. And most beekeepers aren’t scientists, so they don’t really observe what needs to be observed.”
Typically, commercial beekeepers are constantly manipulating their hives, doing whatever they can to get the best honey yield — and that often means trading in an old, poor-performing queen for a younger model. Of course, the new one could turn out to be a lemon, and likewise, other manipulations may or may not end up improving the colony. But without a control hive to compare theirs to, they simply can’t know if all their hands-on help, well, helped.
Enter Project Genesis, each of whose two yards contains 10 colonies. All the hives have identical equipment and face in the same direction, but one yard is entirely hands-off, except that bees are fed sugar water when needed. In the other yard, the bees receive an organic treatment for parasitic mites, the alleged smoking gun behind the current honeybee crisis.
Chesick has his doubts about that, however. “Nobody really established that the mites are killing the bees,” he maintains, stressing that just because two things are associated, it doesn’t necessarily mean one causes the other. To him, it’s like saying, “If we could just kill all the crows, we wouldn’t have any more roadkill. … But No. 1, you can’t kill all the crows. And No. 2, we’d still have roadkill. You just associate the two together.”
More likely culprits, posits Chesick, are new viruses and the plethora of chemicals in the environment that are impairing the bees’ immune systems. In fact, he and his volunteers have documented “crawler” bees that appear to be suffering from deformed wing virus, which they suspect is associated with colony collapse. Bees with faulty wings can’t warm themselves or keep their brood at a healthy temperature; this, in turn, triggers a whole cycle of bees dying or leaving the hive, ultimately resulting in something that looks a lot like colony collapse disorder.
Nonetheless, says Chesick, due to political pressures, most researchers aren’t considering these other possible causes — including the pervasive herbicide glyphosate (aka Roundup). What’s more, he continues, many studies don’t run long enough to get a colony set up and stable, much less answer why the bees are struggling.
“All these conclusions that get repeated are not backed up by data, as far as I can tell,” Chesick explains. “They’ve reasoned it out, and it makes sense — just like the crows killed all those animals.” He hopes the center’s carefully controlled study population and long-term data may help lab researchers isolate viral effects.
No ax to grind
Project Genesis, stresses Chesick, didn’t start with a hypothesis to prove — and isn’t going out of its way to demonstrate support for any particular theory, as he fears some industry-funded bee researchers may be doing. Rather, the center’s longitudinal study is open-ended: It’s about spotting trends that merit closer examination, which can then identify additional avenues for research. “The questions,” he remarks, “are innumerable.”
In 2017, for example, he and the project’s volunteers have found that the colonies treated for mites did better than the control group. That surprised them, because over the last five years, the two yards have shown comparable survival rates. So a big question for 2018 and beyond is what accounted for the difference this year.
The eventual goal is to post all their data online in real time, so anyone in the world can see what’s been collected and draw their own conclusions. And though this information specifically concerns colony norms in Asheville and Western North Carolina, Chesick believes it has much broader application.
That conviction leads him to think big: Chesick envisions beekeepers around the globe mimicking the local model, setting up research yards and uploading their own data. HiveTool, a cloud-based hive monitoring and management system, is already being used internationally; the free software is available at hivetool.org. Spearheaded by Chesick and Paul Vonk, an electrical engineer who serves as the center’s vice president, the system was launched with the help of a worldwide team of volunteer developers.
Eventually, Chesick predicts, “We’ll have megadata, because our idea is to have — I’ve never thought small — hundreds of thousands of beehives online from all around the world that are reporting in real time to the hosting website.” And out of that massive data set, he hopes, a definitive answer to the pollinator problem could emerge.
Project Genesis, says Chesick, is evaluating potential corporate partners that could help get the data online and available to whoever wants to use it. “Our progress will accelerate if our funding expands,” he explains, stressing that they’re looking for someone who can write software or develop a useful tool “that becomes publicly available with no profit to the developer.” And in the meantime, he and his team of dedicated volunteers will keep getting the job done, week in and week out.
“No matter how long I’ve been there, I always seem to pick up something new,” says Sanders. “A thousand bees on a frame: How do you find the queen? I still get a thrill out of that!”