Colony Collapse Disorder, a condition represented by the sudden disappearance of bee colonies, has long been a source of concern. The devastating epidemic is generally thought to be caused by pesticides and other environmental stressors, but new research shows there may be an additional cause: stressed-out young adult bees.

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The stresses of young adulthood are probably something many of us can identify with. Specifically, in bees, a team led by Clint Perry of Queen Mary University of London has found that young bees are leaving their colonies at earlier ages to go foraging, and this puts the youngsters at significant risk.

Speaking to Discovery, entomologist Dr Andrew Barron from Macquarie University explained, “Foraging is by far the riskiest job and the hardest job. So it makes sense for the society if bees only go out foraging once they’ve made other contributions to the society.” These earlier contributions generally take the form of chores around the hive—a period of two to three weeks in which the bees clean and help rear the brood.

Related: Honey bee colony collapse disorder linked to tobacco plant virus

With environmental stresses on hives, such as those from pesticides and lack of nutrition, older, more experienced bees are dying off, and young adult bees are feeling the pressure to themselves on risky foraging ventures at younger and more vulnerable ages.

To conduct the study, Perry and his team “tagged thousands of bees in three experimental hives and three control hives with a small radio tracking device.” What they found was that “bees that started foraging when they were younger, survived a fewer number of days, completed far fewer successful foraging trips and they also took longer on each foraging trip.” The reasons for this? The younger bees have less developed flight muscles and are far less experienced at navigating.

When young bees leave the hive early, it creates additional problems for the colony. There are fewer bees available to take on the chores that young adult bees would typically assume—so fewer caretakers for the brood. In short, Barron told Discovery “everything breaks down.”

This change in the dynamics of a hive could be one of the final components that sends a colony to its “tipping point,” the point at which a colony collapses altogether. And that’s bad news for the bees, and bad news for farmers, food sustainability, and—well, everyone.

Perry is hopeful that the research will help better determine the health of hives, saying to the Independent: “Our results suggest that tracking when bees begin to forage may be a good indicate of the overall health of a hive… Our work sheds light on the reasons behind colony collapse and could help in the search for ways of preventing colony collapse.”

Via Discovery

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