Zoo, University of Maryland researchers stay busy with bees

By Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 1, 2010

Struggling for survival, showing themselves off and even contributing to the national defense, bees have produced a fair bit of buzz this summer in two locations in the Washington area.

On Connecticut Avenue NW, the National Zoo is trying to maintain its hive in the face of many obstacles that burden present-day beekeeping.

In College Park, on the campus of the University of Maryland, researchers are eyeing the flight of the bumblebee to glean tips for designing tiny aerial robots.

The flying robots, researchers said, might safely gather information in dangerous environments such as the battlefield.

According to a news release from the university's A. James Clark School of Engineering, researchers at Maryland have even built a small-scale wind tunnel to study in detail how bees keep flying amid strong gusts.

The idea, said biologist and researcher Jason T. Vance, is to "identify mechanisms that enable insects' robust flight performance" and find the aspects of bee flight that can be used in "micro air vehicles."

At the zoo, staff members have tried again this year to set up a honeybee colony. Such efforts in the past have had what the zoo described as "varied success."

The exhibit is designed to allow visitors to "get up close," zoo entomologist Donna Stockton said in a news release. But over the years, problems have arisen. Varroa mites attacked. Worker bees brought back pesticides. Outsider bees made off with the colony's wax and honey.

"Sometimes it's a challenge to start and keep a colony," Stockton said. Nevertheless, she said, "we learn something new about these important insects and are grateful to share the experience with our visitors."

Earlier this year, as happens when good beekeeping increases bee populations, half of the bees took off with their queen.

A new queen emerged, raising keepers' hopes. As of a few days ago, a zoo spokeswoman said, "the bees are still here." But they have been "invaded by hive beetles and are under siege," she said.

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