Entomology student’s honey bee research creates a buzz
During the past decade, honey bee colony losses have averaged thirty percent in Virginia. The loss of these important pollinators could have devastating effects on agricultural crops and ecological systems. But what is driving the decline?
Virginia Tech senior Jennifer Williams became interested in this question after taking a beekeeping class taught by Rick Fell, professor of entomology at Virginia Tech. Afterwards, during the summer of 2011, she began working in the lab of Troy Anderson, assistant professor of entomology at Virginia Tech.
The Anderson lab seeks to understand how pesticide residues affect the health of bee colonies, in order to develop ecologically and chemically based management strategies to minimize the risk of pesticide exposures to these pollinators. Different types of pesticides enter the bee hive in a variety of ways.
In-hive miticides and antibiotics are pesticides applied by beekeepers to treat hive mites and American foulbrood disease. Also, bees can pick up other pesticides used to protect agricultural crops. Suddenly, bee hives become a chemical pot that some scientists believe is contributing to bee declines.
To test this hypothesis, Williams collected bees from hives maintained by the Fell research group. The bees were used to test the toxicity of in-hive pesticide combinations. Researchers found that bees exposed to in-hive antibiotics were more sensitive to miticides currently used.
“If beekeepers become reliant on in-hive pesticides to control parasites and pathogens, without regard to infestation or infection levels, the excessive use of these pesticides can affect bee health,” Williams said. “Ultimately, we’d like to use this research information to improve hive management practices that will help reduce bee colony losses for beekeepers.”
In order to do this, Williams is now involved in a series of experiments designed to figure out exactly how the bee’s health is affected by these in-hive pesticide combinations.
At a recent meeting of the Entomological Society of America in Reno, NV, Williams received the President’s Prize for her presentation on the effects of pesticides on bee colonies. She took home first place in the Physiology, Biochemistry & Toxicology category.
“Bee decline has become a nationally recognized problem, demanding attention from both the scientific community and beekeeping industry,” Anderson said. “Pesticides are implicated in the decline of these pollinators. However, knowledge of pesticide exposures, alone and in combination, in relation to bee colonies and their decline is limited. Jen has significantly contributed to our examination of the possible link between pesticide exposures and the susceptibility of bees to infectious diseases. She is an essential member of our research team, and an exceptional student and researcher.”
In the Anderson lab, Williams collaborates with graduate students Alison Reeves and Ngoc Pham, and fellow undergraduate researcher Sara Scates. After graduation in May 2012, Williams plans to continue on in Anderson’s lab as a masters student.