Posted: May 12, 2017

This is the 7th of thirteen short news articles written by students, during the professional development class, about each other's research.

Busy as a Beekeeper
By Brianna Flonc

In a world where honey bee populations are in severe decline, our heroes don't wear capes and spandex. Instead they are garbed in mesh hats, gloves, and white jumpsuits. These heroes are beekeepers, and they are currently trying to figure out why so many honey bees are disappearing, and how they can boost health in bee colonies. A major problem honey bees have is dying off, often in the winter. Beekeepers are currently working with scientists at Pennsylvania State University to try to figure out what factors might increase a hive's chance of surviving the winter.

Tyler Jones, a PhD student working on honey bee research under the direction of Dr. Christina Grozinger, states, "A bad beekeeper can do well in a great landscape, but a great beekeeper may not fare as well in a terrible landscape." For instance, if bees are placed in environments with more food to forage, they will be able to increase their stocks for winter and increase their survival rate. "Beekeepers lose about 30% of their bees every winter," she says, showing the full gravity of the situation.

Tyler is working with a group of 30 beekeepers in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New Jersey to study the winter phenomenon of honey bee death with honey bee overwintering and the factors that can lead to winter colony losses. With so many heroes working together you might think the problem would be solved in no time. Unfortunately, there are a lot of environmental factors and management methods that Tyler and the beekeepers need to take into account. Every landscape has such different characteristics that the beekeepers almost need superpowers to know which characteristics are most important to the bees.

In order to figure out which landscape is the best for bees, Tyler travels to beekeeper sites and also has them report their findings in addition to helping her quantify specific aspects of the environment. She and the beekeepers record colony weight, pest (Varroa mite) levels, and the methods the beekeepers practice in general. She is also using models of forage quality and possible instances of pesticide use. If she can determine what levels of these factors influences honey bee overwintering success the most, she can help beekeepers in less ideal environments provision for their bees.

Since Tyler needs a variety of landscapes to assess in her study, her project has become very extensive and relies heavily on the beekeepers' participation. Involving everyday people in research by having them report their observations to researchers is known as Citizen Science. It is often used for projects like hers that are too expansive to do as one person. Tyler enjoys this side of her project immensely.

"Citizen Science is really cool," says Tyler, "it puts you in direct contact with the people you want your science to help. It keeps things in perspective and gives you faces and names to tie into the success of your project."

Tyler and the beekeepers have learned from their bees that the best way to defeat a villain is by working together as a community, and that's exactly what they are doing to solve the honey bee crisis.