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2016 Apes Valentes Awards Support Undergraduates in Bee Research and Outreach

Posted: November 29, 2016

Do you know where your food comes from? If you enjoy crisp apples, juicy tomatoes, and plump berries, thank a farmer, thank a scientist, and thank a bee. We need strong, healthy and diverse bee populations to provide pollination for us to eat our most healthful foods. While we can all thank a bee, the Penn State undergraduate students who received the 2016 Apes Valentes Undergraduate Research awards directly contributed to our understanding of how to keep bees healthy.

The Penn State Center for Pollinator Research has worked for years to better understand what helps and hurts bees. The Apes Valentes (Latin for “healthy bee”) was made possible by a generous donation to the Center and is competitively awarded to students interested in pollinator research, extension, education, and outreach. These awards provide students the opportunity to work in cutting-edge research labs, develop their passion for science and outreach, and build communication and organization skills. Students worked with faculty, staff, or graduate student mentors to develop their proposals, implement a project plan, and see it come to fruition.

2016 Apes Valentes Undergraduate Summer Research Awardees:
Tim Groh: Tim’s project was to study viral populations in honey bees, and see if they change over time or when bees are exposed to different stressors, like pesticides and poor nutrition. Understanding the dynamics of viral infection and evolution could help us develop better intervention strategies to mitigate the negative effects of viral infection. Interestingly, over the course of the summer, Tim found that the levels of viruses in bees were increasing, but fewer bees were dying. One future direction of this research is to determine if the difference in the growth and impacts of the viruses were due to changes in the viral populations, or seasonal changes in the bees.

Grace Billy: Grace also worked with honey bees, and her project investigated the major virus vector, the Varroa mite. These mites are ubiquitous in honey bee colonies and a major reason for colony death. She used an integrated pest management (IPM) method for limiting the build-up of mites and the impact of viruses. IPM methods use a number of techniques to control pest populations and only rely on chemicals when pest populations are above an economic damage threshold. IPM approaches for Varroa management are important because using chemical mite control methods alone has led to mite resistance. Grace found that a non-chemical, mechanical control method, called drone comb removal, kept mite populations below treatment thresholds throughout the season.

Carrie Hill: Carrie worked to understand the prevalence and seasonality of bee pathogens, like viruses, protozoans, and microsporidia, living in the surrounding environment. These tiny pathogens happen to be among the pollen bees collect to feed their developing young. Carrie found a bumble bee protozoan called Crithidia bombi in 58 percent of her samples, but a common fungus-like pathogen called Nosema was not detected. Understanding when and where these pathogens are likely to occur can help us protect bees from infection.

Jacob Fisher: Jacob also worked with the pollen bees foraged for, but he wanted to know what impact invasive species’ pollen had on bee and plant communities. Thistle is a noxious invasive plant, but bees are highly attracted to its pollen. What happens to native plant communities when a highly attractive invasive plant is introduced? What about that pollen makes bees attracted to it? His results showed that the magnetic draw of bees to thistle may actually lead to increased visitation to native flowers in the vicinity.

Christina Dietz: When Christina, a senior in Fine Art, thought of honey bee pollination, she saw something interesting. “The most exciting things happen when two seemingly disparate subjects are tied together… Sculpture and Entomology; Insects and Feminism; Pollination and Gendered Labor” Christina said while exhibiting her 3D and 4D installation, Honeybees and Homemakers: Pollination and Gendered Labor, at the 2016 Great Insect Fair. Her installation examines the similarities between the often overlooked but vital work of pollinators in our agricultural systems and of women in human societies.

Connecting the dots between people and the bees we rely on is critical to fostering a healthy bee community. These Apes Valentes awardees not only developed their academic and creative spirit, but shared their experiences with the public at outreach events like Wings in the Park and The Great Insect Fair. Their new appreciation for pollinators and the spread of that enthusiasm will help lead to more healthful and sustainable pollinating populations.

Written by Philip Moore