Thrilling Time-Lapse of Developing Bees Shows a Cause of Colony Collapse

Photographer Anand Varma kept a hive in his backyard to capture what’s affecting the growth of the pollinators.
May 21, 2015·
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

One-third of honeybees have died off since 2006, so figuring out what’s causing this disaster—and how we can save young bees—has become a national priority. Last year, the White House committed to taking federal action to keep the pollinators from dying. When National Geographic asked Berkeley, California–based photographer Anand Varma to work on a story about what’s going on with bees, he did more than simply snap photos of the insects in the wild. Varma teamed up with the honeybee research facility at the University of California, Davis, and began to keep a beehive in his backyard.

One of the results of that partnership is the incredible time-lapse video above. In just 60 seconds, viewers can watch the 21-day transformation—from tiny eggs into the full-size adult insects that pollinate our crops and flowers and produce honey—the bees undergo.

Why You Should Care: What Varma also captured is footage of an invasive parasitic mite named the Varroa destructor. Although most people have heard about the connection between pesticides and bee deaths, the tiny brown insects seen crawling around on Varma’s bees are also having a catastrophic effect on them.

There’s no explanation on the video, but as Varma explains in the video below of a TED Talk he gave in March in Vancouver, British Columbia, the mites suck the blood from the vulnerable growing bees, contributing to colony collapse disorder. “This eventually destroys a hive because it weakens the immune system of the bees, and it makes them more vulnerable to stress and disease,” Varma says.

As Varma shares in his talk, scientists working in an experimental program at the USDA Bee Research Laboratory in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, have figured out how to breed bees that can survive attacks by the parasitic mites, and they’re introducing them into the wild. Although this “makes it sound like we’re manipulating and exploiting bees,” says Varma, “the truth is we’ve been doing that for thousands of years.” If the experiment works, more of the insects will be around to keep pollinating the crops millions of people depend on for food.