The honey bees have wasted no time in exploring the dining options in their new neighborhood. They arrived in central Oregon a few hours ago, before the sun rose over the white sea of lacy carrot-seed flowers that is now their all-you-can-eat buffet. The crop is a switch from the radishes near Portland where these nomadic pollinators just came from. Overnight, about 6 million bees inside 120 hives were trucked here on a flatbed. They’ll stay here for the next month until the carrots stop blooming and pollination services are no longer needed. Then they’ll be hauled back to the Willamette Valley, where they will tuck themselves into their honeycomb condos for the winter.
As they settle into their new digs, researchers from Oregon State University pay them a house call. Honey bee expert Ramesh Sagili and his team pry open a few of the hives and ballpark the amount of bees, honey, pollen, and brood inside. Back at Sagili’s lab, his crew will analyze the protein levels of some of the bees and look for mites and a harmful fungus. This project, now in its third year, involves 80 hives from eight commercial beekeepers. Its goal is to assess the bees’ health upon arrival here and then track them over the next 9 months to see how they fare through California’s almond pollination season. Sagili will use the information to develop management practices that beekeepers can use to ensure robust hives.
The research in Madras is just one of the ways that OSU collaborates with farmers and beekeepers to protect a crucial pollinator of crops that include blueberries, pears, cherries, and apples. OSU’s research comes as policymakers and the public increasingly recognize the importance of pollinators, including the 2.74 million commercial hives across the country. Public concern in Oregon increased in 2013 when thousands of bumble bees died after feeding on linden trees in a parking lot in Wilsonville. The following year, President Barack Obama created a task force to develop a strategy for research, public education, and improved habitat for pollinators. In 2015, the Oregon Legislature approved two bills requiring OSU to establish best practices for urban beekeepers and to develop educational materials that pesticide applicators can use to avoid harming pollinators.
Sagili has never been busier. He chaired a governor-appointed committee on pollinator health and testified several times at Oregon’s Capitol about the committee’s recommendations and the plight of honey bees. He also answers questions from the public in his role as the honey bee specialist for the OSU Extension Service. “From April to October, I get about 100 emails a day,” he says. “They aren’t always from beekeepers. Sometimes they’re from people who find dead bees on their porch and want to send them to me for analysis.” It’s a far cry from his inconspicuous days in graduate school. “When I was getting my Ph.D., people said, ‘You study bees? Are you going to be able to get a job?’ Now my phone is ringing nonstop.”
A few years ago, some of those calls were from beekeepers reporting that some of their hives in the Madras area were in poor shape after pollinating carrot seed that season. “We brought back hives that were one-fourth the size they had been at the start of the season,” says Mark Johnson, a beekeeper from Portland. “I called Ramesh and said, ‘What’s wrong with my bees?’” Sagili and his team discovered that a pesticide was causing the bees to die of starvation within a week of exposure. He now advises growers to apply it well in advance of the bees’ arrival. “We’ve changed so it is applied 3 weeks or more before bees come,” says Bruce Martens, a field representative for Central Oregon Seeds, which recommends management practices to about 40 farmers in central Oregon and funds most of Sagili’s research in Madras.
Bees have a hard enough time in hybrid carrot-seed fields as it is, because the crop doesn’t produce enough pollen to provide them with the protein they need. So Sagili gave them a hand. At the start of the carrot-seed pollination season, he added 2-pound protein patties to hives and found that 2 weeks later, protein levels in the bees had dropped only 12 percent versus 21 percent in the hives that didn’t have the supplement.
But nutrition is only part of the problem. The ominously named Varroa destructor mite, which was detected in the U.S. in 1987, is their No. 1 problem, Sagili says. The parasite sucks their blood and spreads deadly viruses. Sagili found that the mites doubled during a 3-week period in July in Madras, well before most beekeepers tended to treat for mites after their hives were back home—giving the mites time to multiply. As a result of his research, Sagili recommends that while the bees are still in Madras, beekeepers supplement with protein and use a miticide as soon as the bees are done pollinating. Mark Johnson is following his advice as closely as possible. “I’ve reduced the number of bees that die during the winter,” he says.
When he’s not helping Oregon’s beekeepers care for their 70,000-plus hives, Sagili is overseeing research in his lab on campus. Among the work is a study of the headline-making class of chemicals known as neonicotinoids. Part of that research involves spiking sugar syrup with a neonicotinoid insecticide, after which master’s student Stephanie Parreira will dissect glands in the bees’ heads, analyze their guts, and draw their clear blood to see how the insecticide might affect their immune system, their digestive abilities, and their capacity to produce food for young bees.
These bees are just some of the thousands in Sagili’s lab that have given their hairy bodies to science. Hundreds of plastic jars full of them line the shelves and drawers. Three freezer chests are packed with more bees. OSU research assistant Carolyn Breece opens a freezer and points to a bag containing pollen. “This was from a study on alternative forage,” she says, explaining that mustard, clover, and wildflowers have been planted in some of California’s almond orchards to diversify bees’ diets. “We put pollen traps on hives to see what they’re bringing in,” she says. “As the almond season wanes, you can see different colors of pollen coming in.” OSU is now comparing the protein levels in bees that ate a varied diet and those that foraged only on almond blossoms.
Breece points to pollen from another study. OSU research assistant Ellen Topitzhofer collected it from almonds, cherries, meadowfoam, and blueberries. Topitzhofer fed a mixture to some bees while she fed others pollen from only the almond or meadowfoam crops. She found that nurse bees that ate only pollen from almonds had the lowest levels of protein and had difficulty digesting it. This is important because nurse bees need protein to produce food for larvae. If the bees aren’t eating enough protein, Sagili hypothesizes, the larvae might not be getting enough food.
In another freezer, vials contain a slurry of crushed guts from a study on Nosema ceranae, a fungus that hinders bees’ ability to digest protein and results in starvation. Sagili’s former Master’s student Cameron Jack surprisingly found that the bees with the best nutrition had the most fungal spores but lowest death rate. “Parasites thrive better in hosts that have better nutrition,” Jack surmises.
Yes, bees are beleaguered, but Sagili also worries about something else: America’s graying beekeepers without a next generation to replace them. “Bees are not going to be extinct,” he says. “The beekeepers are going to be extinct.”
To help, OSU and the Oregon State Beekeepers Association (OSBA) created the hands-on, three-part Oregon Master Beekeeper Program in 2012. So far, more than 200 people have completed the beginning level and 9 have finished the intermediate level, says program coordinator Breece. The curriculum for the master level will launch in early 2016. One of the beekeepers working toward intermediate certification is Portland resident Dan Brown. “It’s like getting a Ph.D. without having to pay the tuition,” he says of the program and adds, “Everyone is so friendly. I think hanging around with bees makes everyone more social.” On a Saturday morning in a classroom on OSU’s campus, he and about 20 other beekeepers in the intermediate level peered into microscopes for a lesson on bee anatomy. As if they were back in eighth-grade biology, they tweezed apart legs and heads with a running commentary: “Wow, I feel so klutzy.” “I ripped my bee in half.” “It looks like some medieval torture weapon.” “This is amazing.”
The more you learn about bees’ biology and secret society, the more you want to know, says Brown, who compares caring for honey bees to raising a puppy. “It’s like you go to the shelter and bring it home and it’s suddenly pooping in your house and chewing on your furniture. The same is true for bees. There’s more to it than you think,” he says.
To graduate from the intermediate level, participants must take written and hands-on tests. On a Saturday morning at the apiary at OSU’s campus, Max Kuhn, who keeps a dozen hives in Florence, Oregon, donned his bee jacket, opened a hive and pointed out drone cells and pollen. With clipboards in hand, OSU bee research technician Heike Williams and OSBA President Paul Andersen quizzed him. Is the hive in a good location? How would he feed it? How would he check for mites? “This hive needs more open cells for the brood,” Kuhn concluded as he closed it up. Afterward, Williams and Andersen conferred and tallied up the points. Kuhn passed. He wants to eventually advance to the final level and become an official Master Beekeeper. “It’s a very in-depth program,” Kuhn said. “If you’re certified, you definitely earned it.”
Back in Madras, the bees are now ensconced in the carrot-seed field. Sweating inside their protective bee jackets, Sagili’s crew continues plucking frames from the hives and dictating their contents: “80 percent bees, no honey, 10 percent pollen, trace of brood...” Protein patties are placed in hives, and bees are corralled into plastic jars so they can be checked for mites and nosema back at the lab. Closing the lid on the last hive, the team calls it a day. They’ll be back in about a month to treat for mites, collect more bees, and assess the colonies again. It’s long-term, repetitive work, but it’s an endeavor that aims to make life a little sweeter for agriculture’s most important insect.