The 25-year NASA veteran has made a career studying patterns of plant growth in the world’s oceans and how they relate to climate and ecosystem change, first from ships, then from aircraft, and finally from satellites. But for the past year, he’s been preoccupied with his bee hives, which started as a family project around 1990 when his son was in the Boy Scouts. According to his honeybees, big changes are underway in Maryland forests. The most important event in the life of flowering plants and their pollinators—flowering itself—is happening much earlier in the year than it used to.
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[The] 1-to-5-kilometer-radius area in which a hive’s worker bees forage is the same spatial scale that many ecological and climate models use to predict ecosystems’ responses to climate change. It also matches the spatial scale of satellite images of vegetation collected by NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites. This similarity of scale means that all these ways of studying ecosystems could be integrated into a more sophisticated picture of how plant and animal communities will respond to climate change than any one method alone could provide.
Esaias is particularly interested in comparing the hive data to satellite-based maps of vegetation “greenness,” a scale that remote-sensing scientists commonly use to map the health and density of Earth’s vegetation. Scientists have been making these types of maps for decades, and they have used them to document how warming temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere are causing vegetation to green up earlier in the spring than it did in the 1980s. Such maps are an excellent general indicator of seasonal changes in vegetation, says Esaias, but by themselves, they won’t tell you something as tangible as when plants are flowering.
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About half of the approximately 6 million honeybee colonies in the United States are kept by individual or family-scale beekeepers. Esaias’ vision is to develop a how-to guide, an automatic data recorder, and the computer and networking resources at Goddard Space Flight Center that would be needed to collect and preserve the data. Ideally, a hive data recorder would be hooked up to the Internet so that volunteers’ hive weights could appear on a Website hosted at Goddard. His goal is to get the cost per kit below $200 and then to get NASA funding to outfit a network of volunteers — HoneybeeNet — and analyze their data.
“Ultimately, what we’d like to have is thousands of these across the country. Even if we can get the cost down to $200 a piece, that is still a lot of money to ask for until you have a test data set that proves it is valuable,” admits Esaias. He’s been working with local bee clubs in Maryland, rounding up some 20 volunteers who already have or are willing to purchase their own scales. He hopes that the data collected during the 2007 spring-summer season will be a prototype that will convince NASA to fund a pilot project.
Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)
Heat Island Effect