Like an enforced hibernation, many of the beehives on La Palma in the Canary Islands were buried under volcanic ash after the Cumbre Vieja erupted in late September.
These six hives were situated just 600 metres from the volcano. When they were finally dug out from under a metre of ash on Nov. 6, rescuers — who suffered a sting here and there — found that five of the six hives had survived, with hundreds of thousands of bees undoubtedly happy to see blue skies again. They had sealed themselves in by creating propolis, a resinous material with which they plugged any gaps, and were able to survive on their food reserves, as the owner had not yet collected the summer honey.
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Their proximity to the volcano was advantageous. Elías González, president of the Agrupación de Defensa Sanitaria (ADS) Beekeepers of La Palma, believes they survived so long because the type of ash that falls closest to a volcano allows air to pass through. The sixth hive was thought not to have survived because they had already been in a weaker state prior to the eruption.
In laboratory studies, the University of Hawaii has found that volcanic ash “interferes with the waxy components of the honey bees’ exoskeleton, leading to dehydration. If you think about the exoskeleton like a suit of plate armour,” it says in its report Volcanic Impacts on Honey Bees and Guidelines for Beekeepers: Plan Bee, “the plates can get ash particles caught between them, which lacerates their sensitive membranes and impedes the workers’ ability to fly.”
Further deaths can be caused post-ashfall. Gasses in the air, known as “vog,” may be avoided by moving hives upwind of a smouldering volcano. Two problems emerge over food sources. UofH suggests that honey bees do not appear to avoid ash-contaminated food and can ingest a diet that will damage their digestive systems. And flowers can die in huge numbers from ash suffocation, depriving bees of food sources.
Each hive can house between 30,000 and 40,000 bees in spring, and between 20,000 and 25,000 when there are fewer flowers.