Elliott Welker is the scientist who wants to be a beekeeper, and Garett Slater is the beekeeper who wants to be a scientist.
The NDSU students worked together to complete a difficult task: to develop a method of rearing honeybee larvae in a laboratory. The project was the first step for Welker’s research on American Foulbrood Disease, one of the causes of the declining honeybee population.
The disease, caused by spore-forming bacterium, wipes out entire honeybee colonies. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, “The number of managed U.S. honeybee colonies dropped from 6 million in 1947, to just 2.5 million today.”
The declining honeybee population is a concern because of the bee’s role in pollinating crops. According to the USDA, more than $15 billion in increased crop value each year depends on honeybees. 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 scientist and the beekeeper
Welker has a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology and a master’s degree in microbiology from NDSU. He now is pursuing a doctorate in genomics and bioinformatics. He knows his way around a lab. Bees make him nervous.
“Don’t be afraid,” he tells visitors as they pull on white beekeeping suits. “You’ll emit pheromones that will make them sting you.” He knows this from experience. He has been stung dozens of times as he learns the art of beekeeping.
Slater, a senior majoring in biological sciences, was hired by the USDA to start a honeybee rearing program a NDSU. He grew up around bees and beekeepers in his hometown of Hettinger, North Dakota. He’s been a professional beekeeper since he was old enough to have a job.
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 explains that this is the calmest they have been all summer.
“Humidity makes them happy,” he says.
The students are looking for the regal queen bees that drag their enlarged abdomens behind like the train of a gown. Welker and Slater will place the queens 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 Welker needs for his research.
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.
Up for the challenge
Honeybee larvae have been reared in labs before, says Julia Bowsher, assistant professor of biological sciences and expert on insect development. But it’s a challenging task.
The hive is a highly regulated environment where nurse bees tend to the delicate larvae like hyper-attentive parents. “The larvae are pampered, so that’s why they don’t do well when you take them out of that environment,” Bowsher says.
American Foulbrood, which is caused by spores present in soil, 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 with the bacteria 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.
Welker knew he’d need absolute control of the larvae’s environment to conduct his research. That would mean rearing larvae in the lab.
In May 2014, Welker and Slater teamed up, with Welker directing the lab work, and Slater directing 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.
By August, however, they had developed their own method of rearing honeybees in the lab. They plan to submit their research for publication.
Welker plans to run larger experiments as they rear more larvae in the lab. Slater is scheduled to graduate in December and start a biology graduate program in January. He is interested in honeybee nutrition. Welker and Slater’s collaboration also lays the groundwork for future honeybee research at NDSU.