Bees are all the buzz

Between studying a devastating disorder and dealing with the aftermath of a tornado, Ohio State’s honey bee researchers are as busy as you know what.

honey bees

Published in the May/June 2011 issue of Ohio State Alumni Magazine

by Mary Alice Casey

Honey bees have some true advocates at Ohio State. It’s a good thing, because they need them.

Mirroring a trend seen across North America, Ohio’s honey bee population has declined dramatically over the last 60 years. Experts say the number of hives fell from a high of 330,000 in the 1940s to about 14,500 in 2009, and they speculate on several possible causes, including the phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder. Whatever the reason, the drop is especially alarming because almost a third of Ohio crops rely on honey bees for pollination.

Susan Fisher, chair of the Department of Entomology, and associate professor James Tew are determined not to allow Ohio State’s stature in the honey bee field to succumb to recent setbacks.

The latest challenge came last September when a tornado ripped through the Ohio Agricultural and Research Development Center in Wooster and caused millions of dollars of damage to the campus. The twister leveled the two-story storage and maintenance building housing the honey bee program’s inventory and equipment, valued at more than $400,000.

“The loss is still painful,” said Tew, who oversees the program and its many outreach efforts. “A university resource for beekeeping information and education blew away, but that doesn’t mean we’re out of business. We won’t do what we used to do, because we can’t. We will do things differently, because we have to.”

Tew said the building housed “65 years of bee program acquisitions,” including every kind of plastic hive ever made, an array of antique and modern queen bee production boxes, and other irreplaceable tools of the beekeeper trade. Drums containing 3,000 pounds of unfiltered honey were knocked over, and much of the contents leaked out.

“It flashed out across the bee world, and people around the U.S. sent donations of $10 and $15 along with notes,” Tew said. Beekeeping clubs and other groups also contributed. Tew used most of the money to purchase equipment and hire students to assemble it, and he held some back in case he needs to buy more honey bees this year.

The storm and the resulting cleanup came right when Tew would have been winterizing OARDC’s bee yard. “Due to the absolute chaos, the bees got ignored,” he said. “They didn’t even get a promise, and I don’t know what effect that will have.”

While Tew dealt with the mess in Wooster—and he emphasized that com-
pared to the overall damage to the campus, his loss was “miniscule”—Fisher focused on bolstering her department’s honey bee expertise.

“For 30 years, OSU Entomology was the home of Walter Rothenbuhler, the most eminent honey bee geneticist in the nation, maybe on the planet,” Fisher said. Rothenbuhler, who came to Ohio State in 1962, is credited with establishing a genetic basis for honey bee behavior and identifying how the bees fend off disease.

Ohio State retained its national reputation in the field through the work of professor Brian Smith, who joined the faculty a year before Rothenbuhler retired. When Smith left in 2005, the position went unfilled—until now.

Reed Johnson, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, will come on board this fall to teach and conduct research at OARDC. One of his primary interests is Colony Collapse Disorder, which is believed to stem from mite infestations and environmental stresses. “My sincere hope is that we will recapture the leading role in honey bee biology and that we will again be identified as the go-to place for honey bee research and teaching,” Fisher said. “It’s important academically because honey bees represent a great biological model.”

Fisher and Tew serve on the Ohio Honey Bee Task Force, formed by lawmakers to investigate and help reverse the drop in bees’ numbers. Among other measures, the group recommends raising public awareness of honey bees’ importance. “One of the things we’re lacking in Ohio is education about honey bees and the role they play in pollination, agriculture, and the economy,” Fisher said. “Kids are scared of them, and parents reinforce that. And those in agriculture don’t always recognize the benefits of a healthy honey bee population.”

An educational effort called Pollinataria is a pair of freestanding facilities that feature interactive displays, literature, and even a recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee.” The first Pollinataria opened at OARDC in April, and a second is planned for a prominent location in Columbus.

What would Walter Rothenbuhler think of all this?

 “He would be elated that we’ve seen the light and are working to reclaim our prominence in this area,” Fisher said.

Help the honey bees

  • Add plants that will attract bees to your yard. Options include basil, bee balm, cosmos, geranium, lavender, mint, poppy, rosemary, sunflower, verbena, and zinnia. If you have room for a tree, plant apple, cherry, hawthorn, locust, or willow. Your local Extension office or garden center can give you more ideas.
  • Limit your use of pesticides. Some kill bees before they return to the hive, while others are carried back and harm the entire hive. Sprays intended to kill wasps, hornets, and ants also affect honey bees. If you use them, do so in late evening after honey bees are back in their hives.
  • Looking for a new hobby? Consider placing a beehive or two in your yard. Your Extension office can provide instructions and alert you to local ordinances governing beekeeping.


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