honeybees in a lab
Elliott Welker is the scientist who wants to be a beekeeper, and Garett Slater is the beekeeper who wants to be a scientist.
Last summer they worked together to complete a very difficult task. They found a way to rear honeybee larvae in a laboratory.
Welker needed the baby bees to do his research on a disease that is devastating the bee population. The disease is called American Foulbrood Disease, and it is caused by spore-forming bacterium that wipe out entire honeybee colonies. The number of managed honeybee colonies in the United States has dropped from six million in 1947 to 2.5 million today.
It’s a serious problem for both crops and honey production. Bees play an important role in pollinating crops. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that more than $15 billion in increased crop value each year depends on honeybees. In addition, North Dakota also is the No. 1 honey producer in the country. In 2013, North Dakota bees produced more than 33 million pounds of honey valued at more than $67 million.
The only treatment for American Foulbrood Disease right now is to burn the hive and the beekeeping equipment. Welker’s research is to find a way to kill the disease-causing bacterium without destroying the hive. »
Welker has a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology and a master’s in microbiology, both from North Dakota State University. He now is pursuing a doctorate in genomics and bioinformatics.
He knows his way around a lab. Bees, on the other hand, make him nervous.
He has been stung dozens of times as he learns the art of beekeeping. But he advises visitors in the field, as they pull on white beekeeping suits not to be afraid. “You’ll emit pheromones that will make them sting you.” He knows this from experience.
Slater is clearly a natural around bees. He’s been a professional beekeeper since he was old enough to have a job. He grew up around bees and beekeepers in his hometown of Hettinger, North Dakota. Now he’s a senior majoring in biological sciences, and also works with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on a honeybee rearing program at NDSU.
It’s a humid late summer afternoon. Welker and Slater drive on a dirt road to their hives located in a shelterbelt north of Fargo. They are dressed in white coveralls. Before they emerge from Welker’s SUV, they put on hats with yellow nets covering their heads. They pull on thick gloves that go past their elbows.
The hives look like small white dressers without drawer pulls. Welker and Slater use crowbars to pry them open. A small cloud of bees starts buzzing around their heads. Slater says that this is the calmest they have been all summer.
“Humidity makes them happy,” he says.
The researchers are looking for the regal queen bees that drag their enlarged abdomens behind like the train of a gown. Once they find the regal queens, they place them in square boxes about the size of a microwaveable frozen meal. The boxes have plastic cells, similar to a honeycomb, where the queens lay eggs that will become the larvae.
The more Welker and Slater poke around in the hives, the more stirred up the bees become. The cloud expands into hundreds of bees buzzing angrily around their heads. “I find it kind of soothing,” Slater says. He rarely gets stung.
Honeybee larvae have been reared in labs before, but it’s a challenging task, because the hive is a highly regulated environment. The larvae thrive better under the watchful attention of nurse bees, which tend to the delicate larvae like hyper-attentive parents. The larvae are accustomed to being pampered, so they don’t do well when you take them out of that environment.
But Welker, remember, needs absolute control of the larvae’s environment to conduct his research, because the disease is caused by spores present in soil and affects larvae in its earliest stages. They are infected through food provided by adult bees, and the infection proves fatal for them. Then adult bees that remove the dead get contaminated and spread it to other larvae, the wax, honey and beekeeper equipment. It also can be spread if the bees wander to other hives or if other bees attack an infected and weakened hive. The disease ultimately destroys the colony.
So in May 2014, Welker and Slater teamed up. Welker directs the lab work, and Slater directs the field work. They started by collecting and reviewing all the published research on the topic. They discovered there was little information published and most of it was dated. So they went to work.
By August they had developed their own method of rearing honeybees in the lab. They plan to submit their research for publication, and Welker plans to run larger experiments as they rear more larvae in the lab. Slater is scheduled to graduate in December, but he’s staying at NDSU to start a biology graduate program in January. He is interested in honeybee nutrition.
— anne robinson-paul