Local Honeybees and Their Keepers Collect Climate Data

Dec 7, 2017

Honeybees on a warm day in Wellfleet.
Credit Elspeth Hay

All beehives are full of activity. This week on the Local Food Report, Elspeth Hay talks with a beekeeper in Wellfleet who's taken the phrase "busy as a bee" to another level—with one of his hives collecting climate data for NASA.

EH: John Portnoy has been keeping bees since 1980. Today he has 20 hives on his farm in Wellfleet, and one of them sits on a scale.

JP: So this is the scale hive, it’s just one of the hives set on a platform scale. It’s a way of keeping track of the hive’s gains and losses and thereby keeping track of nectar flows. So usually bees are losing weight, but for 4-5 weeks out of the year and only 4-5 weeks out of the year when major honey plants are blooming then the scale hive gains weight.

EH: John says this kind of data collection is common. In fact, it’s an important tool for beekepeers all over the country.

JP: A number of years, maybe 8 or 9 years after I started collecting data myself, I learned about a project that NASA has been running. A retired NASA engineer who’s a beekeeper who studies climate change realized that the nectar flow as indicated by a scale hive you know the timing of nectar flows could be an early indication of changes in the timing of plant bloom which could be an early indication of changes in the phenology of plants due to climate change. So he set up a program whereby beekeepers all over the country could send in data from their scale hives.

EH: John’s been sending in his hive data now for over 17 years. On the Outer Cape, we have very little open farmland or pasture for bees to forage. Instead our bees rely on the flowers found mostly in the woods around wetlands. This year John’s scale hive gained a record breaking 17 pounds in a single day.

JP: It’s on this graph let’s see it was during sweet pepper bush bloom, in August. And it’s very predictable, every year, when black locust, winterberry and sweet pepperbush are blooming, that’s when we get our gains.

Credit John Portnoy

EH: And can you describe clethora again?

JP: That’s the sweet pepper bush, which is a white flower, it’s a spike, and it grows around the kettle ponds and around wetlands throughout the Outer Cape.

EH: And it smells really nice?

JP: It smells really good. In fact this year I guess because of the heavy rain the bloom was really profuse and even driving down roads like Gull Pond Road, you could smell it, it was great.

EH: Winterberry is a deciduous holly—most people notice it more in the fall when it forms the red berries many Cape Codders use to decorate around the holidays—but it blooms in early July. Black locust is one of the most common trees on the Cape and also the first big gain for local bees when flowers come out the first week of June. There are also lots of native and planted flowers blooming in April, May, and June, but during these months the bees consume most of the honey they create as they buildup the hive after a long winter. John says the scale hive also helps him estimate how much honey to harvest.

JP: Here we say generally you’re going to need 50-60 pounds of honey just for the bees. So I know pretty much what all the wooden ware, the hive needs, this hive has 3 boxes, 3 supers so called, the weight of just the hive with the comb is probably around 40 pounds, so I like to see a colony way at least 100, 110 pounds in November.

EH: John harvests twice—once in July after the black locust and winterberry blooms, and again in August after the sweet pepper blooms. For the most part, he says the scale hive acts as a dependable guide.

JP: The only confusion I once had is I thought I had a tremendous weight gain, and it was because a chipmunk ran up the stack. And any small increase in weight in this linkage is magnified, multiplied, so I had like a 30 pound weight gain, it’s not that the chipmunk weighed 30 pounds, because he was fooling with my linkage, so I bang on it now in the summertime to knock the chipmunks out.

EH: Nasa is using data from beekeepers all over the country to track changes in spring bloom times and the availability of local forage. Over the past twenty years, data from beekeepers like John Portnoy has shown bloom times in the U.S. are moving up by about a half a day a year. The big question now is whether honeybees will be able to change their rhythms fast enough to keep up. 

NASA produced a video based on it's honeybee research called "The Sting of Climate Change"...you can view that here