I remember the day I decided to become a honey bee researcher. It was November 2006 and I was working as a beekeeper. My boss was going to prepare his colonies for pollination. When we got to them, we found there was almost nothing to prepare. Eighty percent of his colonies were dead. We had no idea why. It left me feeling perplexed and helpless. I had been around honey bees my entire life and managing them had always been predictable. In this moment, it truly felt like beekeeping had changed forever and, in many ways, it did. We contacted local extension agents and researchers about our colony losses, but they just diagnosed the problem as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). We knew what CCD meant. It was a way for researchers to say, “I don’t know”. This was a difficult and introspective moment for me. I saw my boss nearly lose his livelihood, yet the research community had few solutions for him. In this moment, I became inspired to become a researcher.
I am a second-generation beekeeper from North Dakota, home of over 220 beekeepers, 700,000 colonies and the major provider for pollination services in the country. I began beekeeping at a very early age and loved it. My passion for bees and beekeeping did not falter as I got older, so I decided to work for a commercial beekeeper as my first full-time job when I turned 14. This job lasted eight summers, and this experience shaped the way I view honey bees and beekeeping. This experience taught me how difficult beekeeping was. Beekeeping requires a deep understanding of honey bee biology and the application of that knowledge to reach certain outcomes. This requires constant monitoring and tweaking to ensure the colonies are healthy and thriving. Oftentimes, beekeepers are managing thousands of colonies and the goal is to make sure all colonies, not just a small percentage are healthy and productive.
There is a lot of phenotypic variation in honeybee populations. It’s easy to see this variation when monitoring colonies: some are healthy and have ample honey stores all year whereas others remain small or become sickly. I knew from my high school biology course that phenotypic variation in a population arises from both genetic and environmental variation. What were the genetic and environmental factors that caused variation in my colonies? Why do some survive a season and others die? More importantly, why did we lose 80% of our colonies in 2006? This observation pushed me to focus my research career on understanding sources of phenotypic variation to improve beekeeping stocks. I wanted to help make our bees healthier.
I worked with BIP for two years and these years taught me how to work with stakeholders to solve real-life problems. With BIP, I got the opportunity to collaborate with seven honey bee labs around the country and with a network of researchers with diverse set of skills. I worked collaboratively with epidemiologists, virologists, data scientists, and molecular biologists. Working alongside these people got me excited again about science and extension. BIP also got me back to working with beekeepers. Prior to working for BIP, I had only worked with beekeepers in North Dakota. Much of my two years at BIP was spent applying and developing rigorous IPM strategies for 30 beekeepers in the Midwest. I collected data on their management style and colony health. I taught at least 30 workshops to employees on IPM, pest and disease identification and beekeeping management. New employees were often not aware of IPM strategies nor of what various honey bee pests and disease looked like even though they are doing much of the ground work. It was important to teach them because they were the frontline in an operation’s IPM plan. I loved teaching new skills to beekeepers, and I saw immediate benefit. After training sessions, I saw employees make huge strides to identify diseases and develop or update IPM strategies for their employers’ operations.
With BIP, I had the opportunity to work alongside beekeepers in 13 states who operate vastly different operations. I saw how different Integrate Pest Management (IPM) strategies worked, learned about regional differences in management decisions and practice, I learned how beekeeper goals and challenges varied regionally, and I saw queen breeding and selection programs from both small- and large- scale queen producers. Much of the time, I tested IPM strategies that helped beekeepers and their bees. Where IPM failed, I had the data I collected from the colonies. This was my chance—and BIP’s—to use the knowledge I gained in the lab and with all the expertise at BIP to help bees and beekeepers. When solutions could be found, it helped me appreciate the utility of partnerships between beekeepers and researchers. It showed me that research has meaning to both scientists and stakeholders. When solutions couldn’t be found, those feelings from November 2006 crept back. This motivated to pursue a PhD and further develop solutions for beekeepers. To continue understanding how variation in honeybee phenotypes—particularly health—arise.