Student Research Spotlight - Ngoc Phan

Posted: July 22, 2016

This is the 12th of thirteen short news articles written by students, during the professional development class, about each other's research.

Like apples? Bee thankful!
By Carley Miller

Fresh red apples. Warm apple pie. Cinnamon apple cider. What do these tasty treats have in common? Bees! Apple trees are completely dependent on pollinating bees to produce the fruits we all love. In Pennsylvania orchards, growers spend a lot of money to ensure their trees are well pollinated. Previously, they have relied on honey bees, but there’s a new player in the pollination game: the Japanese Orchard Bee (JOB).

The enthusiastic Ngoc Phan, a PhD candidate in the Penn State Entomology Department, explains: “Honey bees are becoming more expensive to rent and researchers have found they are a bit lazy. JOBs are much more efficient – a single JOB can visit 15 flowers in one minute, which means they can pollinate 2,450 apple blossoms a day! The honey bee, by comparison, may only visit 50 flowers.”

Because JOBs are such busy bees, researchers believe that just 250 individual JOBs could do the work of 25,000 honey bee workers. And JOBs aren’t only busy in apple orchards, according to Phan “It has been shown that JOB can double the number of cherries produced as well!” As JOBs become increasingly important, researchers are eager to develop better management strategies to protect these bees from the pesticides used in orchards.

Pesticides are used to stop pests from spreading disease and gobbling up apples before harvest, but pesticide residues on apple flowers can be bad for bees. However, studies have shown that spraying pesticides 10 days before JOBs begin pollinating can drastically reduces those negative impacts. “Timing is really important to keep the JOBs healthy. So my research aims to understand the factors that influence a JOBs decision to emerge from their nests and begin pollinating,” says Phan.

In the lab, Phan begins to unravel this mystery by studying JOBs development. She monitors JOBs while they grow in freezers and incubators, watching for signs of maturity in order to create a timeline that will help researchers understand JOB emergence cycles. If researchers can predict when the bees will be ready each spring, then farmers can time their pesticide sprays 10 days before the bees become active.

We can be thankful that students like Ngoc Phan are dedicated to research that provides a better apple and an economic boost: Apples are the fourth largest agricultural commodity in Pennsylvania. As Phan eloquently states, “If an apple is not well pollinated, it is small. A bigger apple equals more money, and money matters!”