Disappearing Bees or Disappearing Science?

23 Feb, 2014

Fortunately the plight of disappearing honeybees, known as Colony Collapse Disorder, is getting the attention of the scientific and public communities—Häagen-Dazs even named its Vanilla Honey Bee flavor for the cause. One young scientist in the bee research trenches, Noah Wilson-Rich, made a disconcerting discovery that wasn’t in the lab: the scientific advances being made in the researching of honeybees were sitting isolated in an ivory tower, not available to on-the-ground beekeepers who could really use them. Wilson-Rich has now made it his life’s work to be a bridge between hard-core science and the beekeepers—with both his own research and that of others—on this vital link in our food supply.

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“It’s a disconnect that is so frustrating,” Wilson-Rich told Organic Connections. “There’s so much work that’s been done about bees that hasn’t been disseminated. As a grad student, I came across one 2004 paper presenting research done by USDA labs that showed how giving honeybees beneficial bacteria in their diet can improve their immune function. I thought that was astounding, and I wondered, ‘How come nobody’s doing this? The scientists figured it out and then published it, and it’s just collected dust for a decade.’ It kind of pissed me off, to be honest. It was a good example of how scientists don’t always communicate their findings to the public.”

Wilson-Rich set out to rectify the problem. “Ever since then I’ve made it one of my missions in life to help fill that gap,” he continued. “I got off my butt and hit the road. I put together research talks that compile all the latest literature: new findings about what’s killing bees, new ways to make bees healthy, and even just ways to understand it all. I try to communicate what all of that science and the statistics mean in a way that would be accessible and comprehendible to anybody, really.

Selling Beehives to Finance Research

Shortly before finishing grad school, Noah evolved yet another way to bring beekeepers—and the population in general—more vital information concerning bees. Interestingly this method came about as a way to fund his future research.

“I was getting ready to graduate in a very bad economy, and I knew the job prospects were very challenging,” Wilson-Rich related. “At the time I was heading toward a tenured faculty position—that’s what I was being groomed for. But I also knew what that job would be like from seeing my PhD advisor writing so many grant requests a year, and the grant money would never come in!

“So I really wondered how I was going to devote my life to research while spending more time applying for grant funding than actually doing the science. It just didn’t make sense to me. It all came together one day in 2009: I decided that I was going to start selling beehives. I would volunteer my time, and the funding that I brought in from the sales and management of the hives would then fund the research. That’s the whole model and it has been going strong ever since.”

The result was The Best Bees Company, a nonprofit that sells and manages some two hundred beehives throughout the greater Boston area. “We’ve been around for five years now, and we’re no longer running out of my apartment,” Wilson-Rich said. “We’re in an industrial space that’s called the Urban Beekeeping Lab and Bee Sanctuary, and we’ve grown to seventeen beekeepers. I started with no money and no business training—I’m a scientist at heart just trying to get that research funding.”

Preaching the Benefits of Urban Beekeeping

Through The Best Bees Company, Wilson-Rich delivers, installs and maintains beehives for anybody who wants them, in businesses and private homes located throughout the city. In doing so, he promotes an understanding of the many benefits of bees. “It’s really important for the sustainability of gardens and urban farms,” he said. “We need pollinators, and honeybees are one of the best because there are so many individuals—tens of thousands—per hive, versus a few dozen in most of the hives of other bee species.”

That understanding is obviously easily grasped; all of Best Bees’ business has occurred through word of mouth.

Wilson-Rich has found that, surprisingly, bees survive better in an urban environment. “We’re finding that to be true just based on how much honey we’re harvesting from beehives in Boston and Cambridge—two cities right here in Massachusetts—compared to towns outside of the cities. They produce the most honey of any communities. It’s really astounding. They also have higher survival rates through the winter.

“We can only speculate as to why. There is lower pesticide use in cities and there’s also a large diversity of flowers in the community gardens and other private gardens, and that’s really great for bees. Published data have shown that bees are healthier when they eat a varied diet compared to the same diet, just like people.”

Wilson-Rich also imparts that beekeeping in the city is actually easy. “When people think about honeybees and beekeeping, they tend to have an image in their heads of something that is a bit more rural and that an older person might do. Many people, though, live in an urban environment. And even if you live in the suburbs or rural areas, the population is growing and land availability is decreasing.

“There are many different ways that you can incorporate beekeeping into the urban fabric,” he explained. “There are two main tricks to it really: one is placement of the hive and the relation to where the opening to the hive is. You don’t want to point the opening, let’s say, right at your neighbor’s property or right on the public sidewalk or at an open window. Hives can also be put on rooftops.

“The second thing is creating a flight path. You can put any type of an obstacle about a foot away from the opening of the hive—such as a lattice fence or a bush or any other type of object—and it forces the bees to fly up and overhead instead of right at people. It’s kind of like The Jetsons—the highway in the sky. In so doing, you can actually put a beehive anywhere and control where the bees are going and where they’re not.”

Filling In the Gaps

Just as Wilson-Rich’s research funding model is unique, so is his research, with which he aims to really benefit beekeepers.

“There are a lot of researchers looking at what is killing honeybees as well as other pollinators,” Wilson-Rich said. “But once the global scientific community reaches a consensus on what is killing honeybees, then what? I started thinking, ‘Okay, if it turns out to be a particular pesticide or a particular disease, then we need to have a plan.’ So I just saw this glaring need for that plan.

“I had devoted my dissertation work for my PhD to figuring out how the immune system of bees works. So I’ve set out to try and help regulate the immune system to make bees healthier. For example, what kind of beneficial bacteria can we give bees? Or how can we trick the bees’ immune system into thinking that it’s infected when it’s really healthy—which is the whole concept behind a vaccine? That’s a big part of my research.”

Wilson-Rich has had good results in the laboratory and is now working to replicate those results in the field.

Mission

“The Best Bees Company’ overall mission is straightforward,” Wilson-Rich concluded. “Everything we do is devoted toward increasing the health of these very important pollinators. We still to this day keep applying for grants, endlessly and tirelessly; but if they don’t come in, we don’t let that stop us. We go out and sell beehives, volunteer our time to manage them to the best of our ability, and that’s how we get funding for our research. So without the grants we can still move forward.”

To find out more about Boston’s Best Bees, please visit www.bestbees.com.

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