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April 24, 2023

Honey Bee Longevity with Dr. Anthony Nearman (S5, E45)

In today's episode, we talk with Dr. Anthony Nearman on his recently published research on honey bee longivity in the lab. In fact, his research indicates that caged bees in the lab are only living half as long as bees from 50 years ago. Early in his...

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In today's episode, we talk with Dr. Anthony Nearman on his recently published research on honey bee longivity in the lab. In fact, his research indicates that caged bees in the lab are only living half as long as bees from 50 years ago.

Early in his research, he noted that bees used in research in the 1970's were living much longer than the bees in today's research. Anthony started to look deeper into the research of the standards used in the lab for the feeding and water provisioning of honey bees. There were many accepted practices, but nothing backed by research. 

Anthony started to look closer at the water provided to bees - tap, distilled, sucrose, etc. and its effect on bee longevity. The results, may be sur

Along with the research on the water fed to bees, Anthony is investigating whether or not it is possible to determine a bee's age based upon physical characteristics, and how this changes based upon different hive and evironmental changes.

We hope you enjoy the episode. Leave comments and questions in the Comments Section of the episode's website.

Links and websites mentioned in this podcast: 

Honey Bee Obscura


This episode is brought to you by Global PattiesGlobal PattiesGlobal offers a variety of standard and custom patties. Visit them today at and let them know you appreciate them sponsoring this episode! 

We welcome Betterbee as sponsor of today's episode. Betterbee’s mission is to support every beekeeper with excellent customerBetterBeeservice, continued education and quality equipment. From their colorful and informative catalog to their support of beekeeper educational activities, including this podcast series, Betterbee truly is Beekeepers Serving Beekeepers. See for yourself at

Thanks to Strong Microbials for their support of Beekeeping TodayStrong MicrobialsPodcast. Find out more about heir line of probiotics in our Season 3, Episode 12 episode and from their website:

We welcome Blue Sky Bee Supply as a sponsor of the podcast! Check out for the best selection of honey containers, caps, lids, and customized honey labels. Enter coupon code PODCAST and receive 10% off an order of honey containers, caps, lids, or customized honey labels. Offer ends December 31, 2023. Some exclusions apply.

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We welcome Fischer's Bee-Quick as a sponsor of today's show! If you use fume boards during your honey harvest and are tired of the absolutely horrid smell of typical fume board repellent products, you should try Bee-Quick. If you are are using bee escapes because you can't stand the smell of a fume board, but are dealing with clogged escapes, full of dead bees and honey supers still full of bees... you should try Bee-Quick this season. Listen to today's episode for a special 15% discount code for your next purchase on Amazon.


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Podcast music: Be Strong by Young Presidents; Epilogue by Musicalman; Walking in Paris by Studio Le Bus; A Fresh New Start by Pete Morse; Wedding Day by Boomer; Original guitar background instrumental by Jeff Ott

Beekeeping Today Podcast is an audio production of Growing Planet Media, LLC

Copyright © 2023 by Growing Planet Media, LLC

Growing Planet Media, LLC


S5, E45 – Honey Bee Longevity with Dr. Anthony Nearman


Leon:Good day, folks. Welcome to Beekeeping Today Podcast. It's Leon from Back Forty Bees, from northwestern Pennsylvania. I'm a newbie beekeeper that enjoys the podcast, running a few Layens hives and a couple of Langstroths. Have a good day.


Jeff Ott:Welcome to Beekeeping Today Podcast, your source for beekeeping news, information, and entertainment. I'm Jeff Ott.

Kim Flottum:I'm Kim Flottum.

Global Patties:Hey, Jeff and Kim. Today's sponsor is Global Patties. They're a family-operated business that manufactures protein supplement patties for honeybees. It's a good time to think about honeybee nutrition. Feeding your hives protein supplement patties will ensure that they produce strong and healthy colonies by increasing brood production and overall honey flow. Now is a great time to consider what type of pattie is right for your area and your honeybees.

Global offers a variety of standard patties as well as custom patties to meet your needs. No matter where you are, Global is ready to serve you out of their manufacturing plants in Airdrie, Alberta, and in Butte, Montana, or from distribution depots across the continent. Visit them today at

Jeff:Thank you, Sherry. A quick shout-out to all of our sponsors whose support allows us to bring you this podcast each week without resorting to a fee-based subscription. We don't want that and we know you don't either. Be sure to check out all of our content on our website. There, you can read up on our guests, read our blog on the various aspects and observations about beekeeping, search for, download, and listen to over 200 past episodes, read episode transcripts, leave comments and feedback on each show, and check on podcast specials from our sponsors. You can find it all at

Hey Leon, thanks a lot for that fantastic opening to the show. Folks, you know, you too can help us open the next episode of Beekeeping Today Podcast. Simply record yourself with a greeting welcoming others to the show and tell us a little bit about yourself, where you are, how many bees you keep, perhaps even like Leon did, the types of hives you have and send it to questions at Beekeeping Today Podcast and we'd be happy to post it in a future and upcoming show.

Speaking of upcoming shows, joining Kim and me in just a few minutes will be Dr. Anthony Nearman of the USDA ARS Beltsville Bee Lab. He'll be talking to us about his recent research about bee longevity. I don't know about you, but this spring has taken a long time to get here. Actually, I think for most of the country, you are enjoying spring. In the Pacific Northwest, we're a little behind on times in the weather.

I was actually reading a weather report this last couple days ago, that March has been the coldest ever recorded spring in the Pacific Northwest and I can attest to that. In fact, are bees coming up from California are several weeks late and those of us waiting for packages and nukes from the south still have not yet received them, and they're looking for them next week or the week after so fingers crossed. That said, I hope your spring is going well and your bees are off to a great start.

One of the main reasons I keep bees is to harvest honey. The thing about harvesting honey I don't like is the smell of fume boards. That's where Fischer's Bee-Quick comes into play. Fischer's Bee-Quick provides a stink-free [chuckles] way of using your fume board. This week, if you use the promo code [Deleted: Listen to audio -ed.] you can receive a 15% discount when you order from Check it out in, hive tool, Fischer's Bee-Quick, get it today.

Are you interested in learning more about climate change and its potential impact on beekeeping and in agriculture and all of us in general? Then you'll want to check out Kim's new blog on He'd been writing about the research he's been doing on the effects of climate change. It is something you really want to keep track of and I encourage you to check that out at and click on the blog page to find out more.

Before we get into today's show with Dr. Anthony Nearman, I wanted to give you a peak at the future with some upcoming episodes here on Beekeeping Today Podcast. Next week we have a talk with Mandy Shaw of Beekeeper Confidential, another podcast on beekeeping. Week after that, we have a talk with Steve Buchmann. He's the author of the book What a Bee Knows.It's a fantastic interview, really hope you can join us for that. Week after that, we're talking to Bill Hesbach out of Connecticut about Varroa mites and later in May, we are talking with Amy Vu from the University of Florida Extension Service.

She's going to be talking to us about what they're doing there in Florida and with her about her podcast with Dr. Jamie Ellis, Two Bees in a Podcast. We have some fantastic shows lined up and many more through the summer. Make sure you keep listening to Beekeeping Today Podcast. With that, let's get on with today's show. But first, a quick word from our sponsors.

BlueSky:This episode is sponsored in part by Blue Sky Bee Supply. Check out, for the best selection of honey containers, caps, lids, and customized honey labels. Enter coupon code 'podcast,' and receive 10% off an order of honey containers, caps, lids, or customized honey labels. Offer ends December 31st, 2023. Some exclusions apply.

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Jeff:While you're at the Strong Microbial site, make sure you click on and subscribe to The Hive, the regular newsletter full of interesting beekeeping facts and product updates. Hey, everybody, welcome back to the show. Sitting across a virtual Zoom table right now is Anthony Nearman from the University of Maryland Bee Lab, Beltsville, Maryland, correct me, Anthony. [chuckles]

Anthony Nearman:All of those things.

Jeff:You're in Maryland, I can say that for sure. Welcome to the show. I appreciate you being here.

Anthony:Thanks for having me.

Kim:Nice to meet you, Antony.

Anthony:You too, Kim.

Jeff:Anthony, we've invited you to the show to talk about some of the research you're doing there at the University of Maryland Bee Lab. Why don't you give us a little bit about yourself, your background with bees, and what got you to this point, then we'll dive into what you're working on.

Anthony:Years ago as I was transitioning out of my previous life and then into my new life as an academic. I had finished my undergrad at University of Maryland and was just looking for just some lab experience to get my footing in a lab and figure out what I wanted to do as a grown-up. One of my friends was working in the bee lab and said, "These people are great. You got to come check it out. You should come get a job here." I started working at the bee lab and that's where they run the Bee Informed Partnership. I just started out just working a few hours a week here and there and helping out in the bee yard and that kind of thing.

Then, I think when I started to really get hooked was actually the first time that I actually got stung. We were out in the bee yard, and I hadn't been around or really thought about bees much since I was a little kid. Everybody's waiting for me to get stung to see what happens. "Oh, is he going to have a reaction?" I'm just hanging back and watching them install packages and setting up an aviary. I just a designated photographer so I'm taking pictures, and some point, a bee stings me right on my eye, right here.

Some people are freaking out, and some people are trying to see what's going to happen and they're waiting, then 20 minutes goes by, 30 minutes go by and nothing happens. No reaction, nothing at all. It was fun, the camaraderie, but also, the worry and then-- But it combined with the handling the packages and setting up the bees, That whole thing that whole day was just really just a wonderful experience.

I started to think I could really get into this, and so, I ended up applying for a full-time job in the lab and working for the bee lab and Bee Informed for a couple of years and traveling around meeting beekeepers and learning everything I could and just fell in love with bees, fell in love with the people. The department is great too. I really liked the people there as well. After a couple of years there, I was like, "I think I've pretty much made up my mind here. I'm going to go to grad school and get a graduate degree studying honeybees." I just graduated in December so I'm a newly minted doctor, as it were. That's pretty much how I got to sit before you here today.

Jeff:Congratulations. Newly minted.


Jeff:That's fantastic. Now, I have to ask, we were chatting before we started recording. Prior to your decision to buckle down and get serious into school, how much playing of the guitar were you doing? I spent more time in college playing guitar than I think studying. I have to ask, sorry.

Anthony:I actually, didn't follow the traditional path in life. My undergraduate spanned my late 20s into my early 30s. I want to say at the time though, I wasn't doing a whole lot of playing at university but I was in a couple of bands at the time and we were probably playing in DC and Baltimore, playing out a whole bunch. I think we might have recorded a record or two or something like that. I would say pretty frequently but it was more for the purpose of going out and playing live, less for the trying to impress people around campus or something.

Jeff:Fantastic. [chuckles] We'll get back to bees but thanks. That's fun, brings back memories. The reason we asked you to the show is your recent research on honey bee longevity. You have a couple of different research papers out on that.

Anthony:It's actually just one comprehensive paper that spans into the longevity research.

Interviewer:Give us some background and why you chose that topic and let's talk about that.

Anthony:It was a really interesting one of those aha moments in science where I was studying and one thing I had a good experiment going and this information just landed in my lap. First couple of years of grad school, I was trying to figure out how to maneuver myself with bees in a laboratory setting. I knew I wanted to be a lab researcher and a little bit less so much of doing field research.

I was trying to learn those different experiments in the lab where you take bees and you put them in cages and you do experiments. I was looking for a good, interesting way to learn that and I thought, "I've been reading all these standardized protocols for taking care of bees in the lab and they don't mention anything about supplementing water. I know that there are publications that supplement water. I know that that's an important thing for beekeepers when they're hunting down a holding yard.

I said, "All right, this is something that's at least a good question to ask. It's really straightforward. Then, I'll just see, do bees live longer when you give them access to water when they are in cages?" Unsurprisingly, they do.


Anthony:I gave them a couple of different types of water. In every case, those bees live longer. You're a grad student, you're like, "Yes, I got an experiment. I got results that I can talk about." Now, you've got to start writing up the results. I started researching the different publications where cage studies were happening, whether they were using water, whether they weren't using water. I started and noticed that some of the publications listed lifespans that were way longer than anything I had experienced in my experiment.

At first, my first inclination was that I had done something wrong. I started digging deeper and started collecting data on these publications, trying to figure out if there were details that were different than mine. What I found out was that the historic publications from the 1970s were those bees were consistently living longer. I collected a whole bunch of data very scientifically in spreadsheets and I did the analysis on it.

It turns out that over time, over the past 50 years, at least in the United States is where we have a bunch of good data, the bees weren't living as long. In fact, they were living about half as long. This is one of those very surprise moments of like, this is too big a deal to be real, to be true. Then the paper itself, this particular publication I went, I explored a couple of different areas like honey production and maybe there's some stuff about theoretical models in there as well like the BEEHAVE model is one of the things I use to explore as well. Really, the work just presents a bunch of evidence but there's a good chance that, at least in the United States, bees may not be living as long as they used to.

Kim:What you just said brings up two major questions in my mind is you are giving them water plus what? What were you giving them before you started giving them water? Just sugar syrup?

Anthony:I was giving them a 50% sucrose solution with some type of pollen substitute, MegaBee or something like that, which I think there's like the COLOSS BEEBOOK, they have their standardized methods for rearing bees in the lab. What they say is that a 50% sucrose solution is good enough for hydrating bees but they don't provide any reference for that. They just say it.

Then, it's also recommended, and there's a number of publications that explore the idea of, should we be giving bees in the cages pollen substitute or pollen? Really, it's a difficult thing to to standardize, pollens different wherever you go. Not all pollen substitutes or pollen patties are created equal either. There are mixed results in the research on their effectiveness but overall, some type of protein is good too.

I wasn't just giving them water. My control group was just 50% sucrose solution and pollen and patty. Then, the control groups had all of that plus different types of water that they had access to. I can't say for certain that they were drinking it. I can say for certain that they were taking it out of the feeders. That much I know.

Kim:Going back to the work that was done in the '70s and before that, exactly the same thing, that same solution, and the same protein source?

Anthony:It was a mixed bag. That was one of the things that I was testing when I started collecting data on all those previous experiments was I was looking at, "What was the lifespans that reported? What was the dietary variables that were included? If they did include water, did they mention what type of water they included? Did they use honey? What was the incubator settings?" All those kinds of things too to see now incrementally testing which one of these seems to have some relationship with the differences in lifespan. Time was the big predictor in that one. None of the dietary variables really came out as anything all that strong.

Kim:The diet of the bees in the '70s and before that was essentially the same as the diet you were using now but you're adding different kinds of water. Your variable is the water, not the carbohydrate source and the protein source. At least that gives you a good thing to measure.

Anthony:Yes, it just happenstance that I noticed it in reading the protocols. They didn't reference anything there. I don't think anybody studied that. Certainly, I went and looked and see if I could find a publication where somebody had researched bee lifespan and water in cages, and sure enough, I couldn't find anything.

Kim:You were saying that you are using different kinds of water and I'm envisioning distilled and tap and mud puddle. What were the different kinds of waters that you were using and did you see much difference between any of them, some of them, or none of them?

Anthony:I wanted to use stuff that was readily accessible in a lab setting. I used the tap water that came out of the faucet at my lab. Then, we have a nice deionized water. Though it's not 100% deionized, it's probably about half of what the tap water is. It's still a little bit dirty. Then, I use the deionized water just to make a 1% salt solution. In retrospect, I think, and actually, a beekeeper asked me this a while ago that maybe I should have gone and bought distilled water from the store and use that. That might have been a good thing to test too.

Anyways, the bees that had the tap water actually live the longest. The control group bees died something like five times faster than the bees that had access to tap water and then the other two, just the deionized and the 1% salt solution, I think the control bees died about twice as fast as those bees. All in all, a pretty big difference. I think by the third week, by about 21 days, when most bees are, hopefully, moving on to being foragers, the tap water group had retained about 67% of their population, compared to about 12.5% to the control group. Then, it was pretty much in between. I think it was 37% for the other two groups.

Kim:I think if nothing else. You've reinforced, in a big way, make water available for your bees in the bee yard. Without a doubt, it's nice to have numbers to say, yes, you've got to have water but if you don't, your neighbors are going to find bees in their water faucets and swimming pools and things. If you provide water, not only are you saving your neighbors that grief, but you're making your bees live longer. That's two for two. You can't lose on that one, I think.

Anthony:Oh, yes. That's a good point.


Anthony:I'm going to remember that one for my next bee talk.


Jeff:This is a great opportunity to take a quick break and we'll be right.


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Kim:You found out that bees are living longer as simple as providing water in a cage. I'm going to guess that you could probably measure that in a hive somehow. You could put them in a location where there is no additional water other than what you provide. The assumption, for me, is that I got to a hive in my backyard and they're going to find water someplace. I got a creek next door. I've got a pond next door. I've got a wet ditch from the rain up by the road. My bees are going to get water. I'm pretty sure they're going to get water and they're going to get as much as they need, what else does this show that I can be doing different as a beekeeper to enhance the quality and quantity of the life of my bees?

Anthony:This particular experiment, I'm not so sure that it-- Like you said, they're going to find it if they need it. Bees are resourceful. I guess if you live in areas where you have a long nectar dearth or it's particularly dry year-round, you might be able to set up some type of supplemental feeding or something like that, that would certainly help out. The big part of that experiment is mostly for researchers, to be honest. The goal of the lab studies is to be able to provide good evidence for really expensive field trials. Field trials, to do good science with bees in a field, you got to have multiple apiaries, dozens of colonies.

As I'm sure you know, that is hours and hours and hours of work just to even inspect them, let alone do your data collection and whatever it is you're trying to manipulate out there in the field. The cage studies, they're really inexpensive, really fast turnaround, and they provide great evidence for those field trials. The goal is they have to mimic as much of life in the field as possible. You're already you're taking bees out of the colony so they're being removed from all the hormone influence and the pheromones and all just the big environmental factors that drive behavior in bees so we can measure stuff about their health.

I think this provides at least an extra leg in that direction of-- We need to be taking better care of our bees in the hives. We're having good inference once we get out into the field to do those more expensive experiments.

Kim:Saving money is always a good thing to do and that's what you'd be doing. Tell me what the cages were. What did you make the cages out of? What were they made out of? How many bees? That sort of thing, just so I can envision what's going on here.

Anthony:I think the general standard that most people do is they take 16-ounce Solo cups-- I'm not trying to plug Solo unless you all want to get some advertising dollars for that, then you should.


Jeff:We'll contact them after this show-- Before the show [cross talk].

Anthony:You definitely should because we buy our cups straight from Solo. We get a big box of a couple of hundred of them. We modify those to be able to fit feeders in them, put a bunch of ventilation in them, but also be able to remove the dead bees daily. It's basically a 16-ounce Solo cup with a lid, a couple of feeders sticking down in it. I take a Dremel and I just dash holes in different ventilation, and then that's pretty much it. Sometimes, some people will cut up in the lids and put mesh down instead of a lid to provide even more ventilation. If you do your job right and it works good, then those bees will live pretty long. Not as long as they used to, apparently, but they'll live pretty long.

Kim:[laughs] Just curious as how that was just so I can envision all these bees in Solo cups.

Anthony:Oh, yes, you asked, how many bees? The number of bees, that's something that's been studied a bunch, too. It's been a little bit of mixed results, but for the most part, the couple of studies that looked at that say probably 60 bees or so, 50 to 60 bees per cage is pretty optimal for that small environment. It's not too few bees that they die off real quick. Once the bees start getting really low in numbers, they don't live too long. Also, if you have too many, you can't feed them fast enough. They're overcrowding and they can't breed as well or at least they can't spread out and move around enough to be able to ventilate properly.

Kim:That makes sense, especially too few bees. I'm trying to think of a cup full of 50 bees. That'd be an exciting adventure. All right, you've already determined that there's an outside factor that was affecting bees but can you move that outside and say that's part of the problem beekeepers are having today is their bees aren't getting enough water? I don't think that's the case but I'm not sure.

Anthony:That would be a tough question to answer. I don't know if it's something that beekeepers are looking for, to be honest. If you're a hobbyist and you just have your backyard, I think you assume that if it rains enough and there's a stream nearby, you're probably doing okay. Whether or not we can measure that, though, for certain, that'd be a great question to answer. We're just providing a small water source. It's not like they can even carry that much. Bird baths, even though I hear these days they're apparently not that great for birds, but maybe they'll be just fine for your bees. Something to that effect. They can only carry a couple of microliters or something at a time anyways.

Kim:One of the standard practices in parts of the US is to provide a Boardman feeder with every colony and you just refresh the water when it gets empty. I've tried that here in Ohio, and we certainly aren't a desert here but sometimes we have hot, dry weather and I've kept Boardman feeders and they'd disappear. I put them on in 8:00 in the morning, they're gone by lunch. I don't know if it's because there's no water out there for them or they're going, [chuckles] why go way over there when I got it right here in the front door? I don't know if there's a difference there, but I'm sitting here thinking, I'm going to put a Boardman feeder with water on it on every hive I've got this summer just because.

Anthony:There's some other really interesting stuff, too, about-- I think there's just not enough of this in the research today, about how different bees become different types of foragers. It's not just that you've got a nectar forager that one day decides to be a water forager. They seem to-- There's some genetic proclivity towards becoming a certain type of forager and that tends to vary from colony to colony. You might even have access to water but if for whatever reason the genetics aren't there-- This is a bit of a stretch saying this because like I said, it's not represented very well in the literature.

What we do know is that there does seem to be some indication that there's a little bit more going on with genetics and what a bee forage is than just necessarily what a colony needs at a given moment. I would say that we should be focusing much more effort into that thing. Because like I said, if it is a problem, then we would want to know, is your stock of bees less likely to produce water foragers for whatever reasons if the genetics just weren't there? That could be a path to answering your question, I think, of whether or not it's something beekeepers could do about water foraging. I think we'd have to do a little bit more research first.

Kim:That leads it to the next question then, the house bees. When a water forager goes out and she comes back, are there house bees that will only take nectar? House bees that will only take water? And/or then, where does the water go?

Anthony:Also, wonderful questions.


Jeff:We're waiting for the answers.

Anthony:Fast forward 10 years of research real quick.

Kim:I know that when nectar comes back to the hive and a house bee takes nectar, she will put it in a nearly empty or empty cell and hang it from the top and let it dehydrate. It will either stay there and she will add to it or it will get moved to a cell that has dehydrated water/honey already in it. I wonder, water is also used too of that for transpiration. It will cool the interior of the hives as it evaporates. You've just opened up a whole bunch of doors here. What's going on? Maybe the answers are out there. I just haven't seen them over the years.

Anthony:There's some new research that indicates, like you mentioned, the dirty water, the turbid water earlier, that the micro nutritional content is also a big thing. It's not just that there's micro nutrients in dirty water, it's that pollen varies in its micro nutritional content from season to season, location to location. That there's some indication that they're supplementing what's missing from the seasonal pollen micronutrients with what they're getting from the water. It's definitely, and yes, the thermo-regulation thing too, for sure, the story is definitely a lot deeper than we currently understand but terribly interesting.

Kim:When I give water to bees, sometimes I will give them two choices. I will give them pure tap water. I'll give them tap water that is scented. It's got something in it that smells and I'll give them the same water that is not scented at all and the scented water is all gone before they go over to the other one. It's easy to find. They bring it back and they say, here's what water smells like. Go look for some. They'll find it because of the odor. I would guess that that's probably part of why they would rather go to a ditch with dirty water in it than they would go to a water faucet leaking water, just because there's something else in that ditch water that doesn't exist in the faucet water. It makes sense?

Anthony:Oh, yes. Bees have this unbelievable ability to learn and unlearn rewards. It's all based around their sense of smell. It's really just fantastic.

Jeff:I'm going to go back to your research because you were focused specifically on cage bees in the laboratory, and you're going by COLOSS standards for lab standards and everything. I have two questions. One, will your research contribute to the improvement of the COLOSS standards to make sure that water is provided to a certain level for the bees used in research? Then, secondly, I don't think we ever really stated the life that was determined in the research for before and after or bees with and without. Answer that, whichever one you want to in whichever order you'd like.

Anthony:The making addendums to COLOSS or mentioning research, I'm certainly hoping to submit it and have them mention that in the standardized protocols for sure, certainly seems to make sense that given the types and levels of evidence that are presented to standardizing that stuff, this certainly falls, I think, right in line with that kind of thing.

In the 1970s, the median lifespan is what-- The median lifespan is typically what's measured by putting bees and cages and that amounts to 50% population loss. The average median lifespan was about 34 days, and then, in the past decade or from 2010 to 2019, it was about 17.5 days is what I found and it's important to note though, that that measurement in the '70s was pretty much on par with what is generally accepted in the field research for bee longevity as well.

Now, there's, obviously, a seasonal component but if you exclude the long-lived winter bees, the overall average median lifespan for bees in the field colonies that was established in the '50s and the '60s was pretty much right on par. I think it was 32 or maybe even 33 days for bees at that time period.

When you put it in a bigger context, us researchers, when we go to write a paper, we're referencing the well-established work. When we ref and we gain our inference from the well-established work, we're saying that, "Oh, bees live this long during the active season and when we measure this effect, this is the effect it had on their lifespan."

I think it's even more critical to keep in mind that as we measure the effects of whatever it is we're measuring the effects of, that bees might have changed over the past 50 years. A lot has happened, agriculturally, over the past 50 years and it might be important for us to perhaps revisit some of those earlier assertions before Varroa showed up, before all these different types of pesticides shows up, before we started altering the landscape and eliminating all the additional forage that bees had access to. I think that was generally where I was going.

Jeff:One of the follow-up questions was how the genetics or different types of bees or bee races, that's the big topic now is Carniolans versus Russian versus Italian versus whatever, how that may have played into the selection or longevity of the bee in addition to the water.

Anthony:That was a really interesting part of this research was trying to think about, what could be causing this or what could we do about it? There's really limited research on, can you select for bee lifespan? There's not a whole lot of that going on. Breeding programs, we're a little more interested in disease resistance and honey production and those things because that's the end game but I think it's really interesting to consider that, we know that Varroa and viruses are reducing bee lifespan. We know that pesticides can have sub-lethal effects on bees and reduced bee lifespan, but what if in our efforts to select for disease resistance, what we are actually doing was selecting for shorter lifespans?

We measure disease resistance by inspecting colonies and they have lower disease loads. I'm going to select from this colony with lower disease loads compared to this other one because they have high disease loads but bees that don't live as long are less likely to pass on disease. Maybe we're just selecting for shorter-lived bees. I think that was a really interesting, the thought experiment part of this work was, can we test this? Can we select for longer-lived bees? Does it the colony do better or is that just mean that they're going to do worse with diseases? We don't really know.

Jeff:Then you get in the whole discussion about the productivity levels of a colony. If you have a colony of shorter-lived bees, are they going to produce more or less honey than sick bees but that live longer, potentially sick, or just longer living bees?

Anthony:There's actually a ton of research and I think this is one of the reasons that, as a lab researcher, why we measure lifespan because it's intuitive. The longer a bee lives, the more it can forage, then the better the colony does but there's actually a ton. I found more publications that link the amount of honey a colony produces that positively correlates with the lifespan of the bees in those colonies.

That bit of science has been done I think in every country in the world, probably multiple times over. There's definitely a strong relationship there and then we also, in the publication, one of the things I found was that the change in lifespan over the past 50 years for the cage bees actually really strongly correlates with a decline in the average amount of honey produced per colony in the US over the same time period. It's an association but it's a fairly strong one and certainly has other evidence that corroborates that type of thinking.

Kim:Anthony, I want to go back. Basic question here on I keep going back to the cage just because I want to clear in my mind, in the cages that didn't get water, they just got sugar syrup and protein substitute, the cages that did get water then had a sugar syrup feeder, a water feeder, and a protein supplement feeder?

You've got bees that are getting both and bees that are only getting sugar water. Did you notice, was there a difference in how much sugar water the bees lived in the cages that only had sugar water compared to the bees that had water and sugar water? If they were thirsty the only place they could get a drink would be at the sugar syrup feeder. Were they eating more of that than the other bees who were eating a little bit of both? That make sense?

Anthony:It does. The answer is there was no difference. They pretty much consume the same amount of sugar syrup regardless of whether they had access to water or not but the amount of sugar syrup compared to the amount of water was 10 times more or something like that. I don't have the exact figures off the top of my head. It's been a long time since I looked at that data but I know the water was maybe a couple of microliters per bee per day where it was in the 10s of microliters per bee per day for the sugar syrup.

It was definitely a lot, it was a lot more but there was no difference between bees that had, and this isn't in the paper, we didn't publish this data, but I do remember doing this part of the analysis because when I first did that experiment, that was a lot of the data that I collected was me weighing the feeders every day and figuring out how much had been taken out, and so, there was no difference in the amount of sugar syrup overall that was consumed.

Kim:That makes it a little clearer. What's next?

Anthony:With this research, I'm really hoping that we can establish the lifespan of bees in different parts of the country and the different parts of the world because that would be the clincher would be, is it really happening in the US and not just to caged bees? If we were to go out and tag bees in different colonies around the US and figure out their seasonal lifespans, would it match up with those experiments that were done in the '50s and '60s that first laid that groundwork? If it is happening with the field bees, is it happening in other places in the world? I didn't really have access to enough publications from around the world.

I had a huge number of publications between 1970 and now in the US that I could pull data from but it was just a smattering here and there in different parts of the world, a little bit of New Zealand, a little bit of Australia, different countries in Europe. Nothing consistent enough to say that there was a trend of change in lifespan happening. That would be the next question I would ask as well.

If it's happening in other places or it's not happening in other places, but it is happening here, that gives us some pretty strong comparisons that we can make, whether it's genetically or what the local access to food, what the beekeeping practices are, those types of things. That gives us a lot of things that we could investigate to try to nail down a little bit further what's going on.

Kim:Do Carniolans drink more water than Italians or vice versa? The bees that you were using in your research were, I'm going to guess, at least close to being identical in terms of genetics from a queen or--

Anthony:I had about six rooftop colonies and I tried to keep-- We, for the most part-- I'd have to check back on the records exactly what type of queen it was. Through most of our apiaries at the bee lab, we tended to get the same types of queens. There was a couple of years where we went out of our way to, at least on my rooftop colonies, to mix up as much queen genetics as possible because usually when I'm running experiments, I try to do multiple samplings of the same colonies and then I'm able to separate in the analysis later, whether genetics or not, local genetics has a strong effect on the outcome.

There was definitely a couple of years there, I'd have to go back in the records and see exactly what it was but it's not there's a whole world of options. You're only getting a handful of different types of queens in the US but I do know that we definitely try to mix it up as much as possible, at least for some of the research colonies. Some of the field experiments, it was more important to keep as much consistent genetics as possible. At least, I think, within a given apiary. Hopefully, that answers your question.

Kim:I can see a queen ad coming down the road here. Our bees drink more and live longer.


Anthony:That'd be an easy thing to test and promote for a breeder, I think.


Jeff:[chuckles] Each queen comes with its own thermos of water.


Jeff:You get a queen-branded water bottle along with our queens.

Anthony:That'll be in your ABF tote bag next year.

Jeff:That's exactly right.


Jeff:This has been really entertaining. What are you working on now? What researcher can you tell us about that you're working on that we can talk to you about next year?

Anthony:I'm trying to wrap up and publish the work of my dissertation and I've also just started a new job, a new postdoc at the USDA here in Beltsville, which the two things are entirely unrelated, which is great.

I'm trying to expand knowledge as much as possible wherever I can but the dissertation work is, basically, I'm expanding on the idea of lifespans a little bit in that, my general hypothesis is that not only does lifespan affect the life and the future of the colony but I want to be able to measure it. I want to be able to take a sample of bees and tell you a rough estimate of how old each bee is in that sample because, as I'm sure you're aware, unless that bee is newly emerged, it's could be a week old, it could be three weeks old. You got two in your hands, you're not going to be able to tell the difference between them.

After thousands and thousands of autopsies and crying undergraduate technicians helping to collect all that data, I'm starting to get to a point where I think that may be possible. I definitely, the latter half of my PhD work was, can I take bees of known ages, investigate their physiology and use that to predict their ages? Then, further, the physiologies that I think are predictive of age, can I actually relate them to colony loss? I got a whole bunch of work that's hoping to be published this year where I took archive samples from the Sentinel Apiary Program.

Is that something y'all are familiar with? Because as a citizen science program, hobbyist beekeepers send in their bees for varroa and nosema analysis and they also send in their inspection data and the mortality data. I'm looking at colonies and I'm taking samples of bees in the fall that die the following winter, and I'm looking at their physiology in the fall and I'm seeing if I can use those age-related physiologies to make predictions about whether they're going to die or not.

You can imagine a situation where we know things that'll basically change the age profile in a colony. That if you have a queen event and that colony doesn't recover, a lot of those older foragers, they're going to come back to the colony and they're going to start trying to raise a new queen and raise that next generation of bees because there are no new young bees because the queen died.

That's something that's going to change the age profile of a colony. The same thing happens though if the bees aren't living as long. If your foragers aren't living as long, your bees aren't living as long in general, those younger bees become precocious foragers, that's going to change the age profile and the colony as well. That's what I'm hoping to detect with this work and the work that I did with the archive bees in the Sentinel Apiary Program, at least preliminarily shows that there are a number of traits that I show that are related to age, that are also predictive of colony, of overwinter mortality.

Hopefully, this can open up some new branches of research that look into the age profile of a colony and how that can contribute or at least hopefully be detectable of any type of stress around the colony, really. If you think about like we do all these different types of measurements. We check the wax for pesticides. We're doing sugar shakes, We're trying alcohol washes, trying to figure out the Varroa loads. Changes in age profile could, I think, tell us about all of those things in one go. Whether or not it's practical for your everyday beekeeper, I'm not so sure yet. We're still smoothing out the research and trying to figure out just how accurate it is. That's the short of the story really.

Jeff:If you could put that all into some bee sensor, then you'll make your first and second million that'd be--


Anthony:Short of tagging every bee in the colony, you don't really know anything about how old they are and that's, it's not terribly-- That's even less practical than what I'm suggesting.

Jeff:Anthony, it's been a great pleasure having you on the show, and look forward to having you back next year to talk about your new research. We've been talking with Anthony Nearman of University of Maryland and soon-to-be USDA ARS Beltsville Bee Lab. Thank you.


Anthony:Thank you so much for having me. It's been great.

Kim:Congratulations on that, Anthony, and thank you for being with us today.

Anthony:Thank you, Kim. Y'all have a wonderful evening.

Jeff:You're going to go out there and make sure you got all those Boardman feeders filled with water on your hives?

Kim:Hey, you better believe it. This guy's got me convinced and I'm going to dig a pond and I'm going to put in a river and I'm going to make sure my bees have all the water that they want from now on it. I'm not going to say it's unbelievable but it's certainly woke me up to the importance of something that most people take for granted.

Jeff:It's definitely inspired me to put that Jacuzzi in I've been wanting.


Jeff:It seems like it's an obvious finding that bees with water live longer, but as he pointed out, it had never been actually articulated or confirmed through research, what a difference it makes.

Kim:When I put a jar of sugar syrup on a colony, I'm putting a jar of water on that colony. That's what I have always thought. They got water, they got food. What more could they ask for? But he's saying they can ask for more water without the sugar and he convinced me.

Jeff:It doesn't matter whether it's tap water, spring water, pond water, or pool water, they just want water. That about wraps it up for this episode. Before we go, I want to encourage our listeners to rate us five stars on Apple Podcast wherever you download and stream the show. Even better, write a review and let other beekeepers looking for a new podcast know what you'd like. You can get there directly from our website by clicking on the reviews along the top of any webpage.

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Finally, and most importantly, we want to thank you, the Beekeeping Today Podcast listener, for joining us on this show. Feel free to leave us questions and comments at leave-a-comment section under each episode on the website. We'd love to hear from you. Thanks a lot, everybody.

Anthony NearmanProfile Photo

Anthony Nearman


After completing a BA in Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics at the University of Maryland in 2014, Anthony first joined the vanEngelsdorp Bee Lab as a lab and field technician for Bee Informed Partnership. Over the next two years, he discovered a love for bees and beekeeping and decided to pursue a PhD.

Anthony’s primary research focus is honey bee pathophysiology and its relationship to colony loss. He is currently developing statistical models that predict colony mortality using pathology and other measures of bee health.