COLLEGE PARK, Md. (WHTM) — Bad news for honey bees from the University of Maryland.

A Nov. 14 news release from the school describes research that shows honeybees living in laboratory conditions have had their lifespans drop 50% over the last 50 years — and nobody really knows why. The big worry is that, unlike the environmental factors like disease, parasites, and pesticides that are stressing honey bee populations, this problem may be genetic.

Anthony Nearman, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Entomology, was the first to notice the problem. He was studying the standard protocols for raising bees in the laboratory to see what effect adding more water to their sugar-water diet would have. This was done by collecting bee pupae from hives about 24 hours before they would emerge from the wax cells in which they developed. The bees were then kept in special cages for the study. These are all standard procedures, which have been developed over decades of testing.

Nearman found adding water did increase the lifespan of the bees. But when he compared his results to studies done in the 1970s, he realized that regardless of diet, on average his bees lived only half as long as the bees 50 years ago — 34.3 days in the 1970s experiments versus 17.7 days today.

As Nearman explained, “Standardized protocols for rearing honey bees in the lab weren’t really formalized until the 2000s, so you would think that lifespans would be longer or unchanged, because we’re getting better at this, right? Instead, we saw a doubling of mortality rate.”

To figure out if this laboratory finding might be a real-world concern, the research team modeled how a 50% decrease in bee lifespan would affect a beekeeping operation. They calculated a loss of productivity of about 33%. This, as it turns out, overlaps with losses reported by beekeepers over the last 14 years — a 30% loss rate during winter, and a yearly loss rate of 40%. This in turn means U.S. beekeepers are having to replace colonies more often to keep their operations going.

Some possible causes might be viral contamination or pesticide exposure during the bees’ larval stage. But so far the laboratory bees have shown no signs of any exposure.

“We’re isolating bees from the colony life just before they emerge as adults, so whatever is reducing their lifespan is happening before that point,” said Nearman. “This introduces the idea of a genetic component.”

He also says if the genetic hypothesis is right, it raises hope for a possible solution. The next step — collect more data. They plan to examine information about honey bee lifespans in the United States and across the world. If they find bees live longer in some places as opposed to others, they can then study whether the different lifespans are due to environmental factors or genetics.

“If we can isolate some genetic factors,” says Nearman, “then maybe we can breed for longer-lived honey bees.”