A bee keeper tends to the hives at the Dyce honey bee lab.

Ben Parker / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

A bee keeper tends to the hives at the Dyce honey bee lab.

April 19, 2019

Through Research and Outreach, Cornell Lab Confronts Declining Bee Population

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Three years ago, a small lab just a short drive off campus sat empty. The Dyce Lab for Honey Bee Studies, originally built in 1968, was facing demolition or sale. It had been closed for two years and its work on honey bee health was at a standstill.

Without faculty to continue its work in research and extension programs, the lab lacked buzz — that is until 2015, when Dr. Scott McCart, entomology, was named Professor of Pollinator Health.

The position was brand new, created at the time to focus on not just honey bees, but all kinds of pollinators, according to McCart. He reopened the Dyce lab along with Emma Mullen, who took on the role of honey bee extension associate.

Today, the Dyce Lab for Honey Bee Studies is humming along and focuses on multiple research and extension initiatives. It is staffed by about 20 students, staff and volunteers, and hosts nearly 100 colonies, according to the lab website.

Dyce Bee Lab staff checks on the bees to see how the colonies are growing.

Ben Parker/Sun Assistant Photo Editor

Dyce Bee Lab staff checks on the bees to see how the colonies are growing.

McCart, who is a chemical ecologist by training, conducts and oversees research with a focus on honey bee health. The lab’s work examines bee health factors and risks, searching for an answer to a question that has long puzzled researchers: What is driving the honey bee population decline, particularly in New York State?

“We’re mostly focusing on transmission of parasites — how do different bee species transmit parasites to other bees?” McCart said. Though several other universities and institutions in New York are also investigating bee health, McCart said, the Dyce Lab is “a little bit unique in the parasite transmission world” as a “pioneer” within the pollinator health field.

Man-made pesticides are not the only threat to honey bees, and parasites and pathogens are often a significant contributor to poor bee health, according to McCart.
“We have some fancy chemistry stuff in our lab and we can basically quantify almost any pesticide,” McCart told The Sun. “We try to figure out how bees are being exposed to pesticides and what sort of risk is associated with that.”

According to Mullen, who is also involved in the Dyce Lab’s research, the lab has made significant findings this year regarding a particularly pernicious honey bee parasite: Varroa mites, tiny parasites that attack bees and eggs and can devastate colonies.

“We’re finding that it’s really important to manage this one parasite,” Mullen said. “Certain practices that beekeepers do can actually maintain low levels of this parasite and keep colonies healthier.”

The final component of the Dyce Lab’s research focuses on honey bee habitats, a subject area that ranges from addressing what types of environments best suit honey bees to a close examination of what wildflower mixes are healthiest for the bees.

“We’re trying to figure out what types of habitats are really good for pollinators, and especially in a more applied context,” McCart said. “We’re trying to create habitat that’s pollinator-friendly.”

Bees hibernate over the winter, so the colonies still have relatively low populations.

Ben Parker/Sun Assistant Photo Editor

Bees hibernate over the winter, so the colonies still have relatively low populations.

McCart doesn’t just focus on research. His role includes extension projects related to pollinator health, such as writing a monthly column for the American Bee Journal.

As the Dyce Lab’s extension associate, Mullen works alongside McCart to implement the lab’s research on pollinator health in practice, partnering with New York State beekeepers of all expertise levels — ranging from amateur hobbyists with a hive in their backyard to commercial companies that manage and sell pollination services and honey as well as bees as livestock.

“We’re working with a lot of folks,” she said, estimating that the state has around 3,000 beekeepers. “New York has a pretty diverse industry.”

Mullen exchanges ideas and information with these beekeepers, sharing resources through the New York State Tech Team, an extension program she runs within the Dyce Lab.

“We meet with them, we’re in their beehives with them, we have sit-down meetings, we share reports,” Mullen said, describing the Tech Team’s work. “We work with them to create these plans, to try to keep their colonies healthy next year.”

But Mullen doesn’t just work with the beekeepers themselves — she works with stakeholders in bee health from varying industries.

One such stakeholder are veterinarians. According to Mullen, new FDA regulations passed in early 2017 required veterinarian prescriptions for antibiotics given to food-producing animals.

Honey bees, which are susceptible to certain bacterial infections, fall into that category.

The problem is, “none of the curricula in the U.S. actually teaches vets about bees,” Mullen said, “so the Dyce lab has tried to fill that gap.” Mullen and McCart collaborate with the rest of the Dyce Lab to organize conferences that train veterinarians on taking care of bees and identifying diseases.

The Lab also offers coursework to vet students at Cornell on honey bee health, including a one-week summer course and continuing education program, according to McCart.

“It’s pretty neat,” Mullen said. “Cornell is one of the leaders in the Northeast that’s working to train vets on this.”

The Dyce Bee Lab is about a ten minute drive from central campus.

Ben Parker/Sun Assistant Photo Editor

The Dyce Bee Lab is about a ten minute drive from central campus.

Beyond the Tech Team program and the Lab’s extension initiatives, Mullen also spearheads the Master in Beekeeping Program. The one and a half year program involves four online courses that culminate in three in-person exams held at the Dyce Lab, one which is based on an independent research project.

The program, relatively new, was just introduced in 2017, and takes roughly 125 students a year.

“I’ve hired three new course instructors to help teach the class,” Mullen said. “It’s exciting.”

But despite the advances made by the Lab in spreading best practices, the New York bee population — which includes 417 species of bees — has continued to struggle.

“There’s actually a lot of native bees that are currently in decline,” she said, highlighting the fact that, in New York State, 13 percent of native bee species are suffering from declining populations.

Helping these struggling populations, she said, is a multifaceted problem that requires collaboration across multiple different groups in agriculture and beekeeping.

“I’m really hoping that we will continue to have great biodiversity of pollinators, but a lot more research is needed in that area,” she said. “Certainly, honey bees have been a very major focus if we’re looking at health, but a lot more research is needed — what is the status of a lot of our pollinators here in NY, and what can we try to do to improve their health?”

Finding the answers as to how to best help bee populations will also require some introspection, according to McCart — as the issues they face are often not inexplicable phenomena, but man-made problems such as pesticides and climate change.

“Habitat loss and destruction for bees is 100 percent human-made,” he said. “I think that all of these problems are human-made, and if we can figure out ways and actually do something about it, we can have an impact.”

Still, looking forward, Mullen remains hopeful about the continued role and sustainability of honey bees.

“I think about the future with honey bees and about how there’s so much research and extension going on right now — not only at Cornell but at various institutions across the U.S., Canada and worldwide,” she said. “So even though there are a lot of issues with honey bees, I’m really optimistic that through research and extension we’re going to have healthy honey bees in the future.”