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Penn State Beekeepers Weigh In On The Current State Of Bees

For the last time this year, the Penn State Beekeeping Club pried open its hives Wednesday night and smoked the honeybees into docility. Hidden behind Beaver Stadium along Porter Road, three hives holding thousands of bees are buzzing with honey.

The “hive leader” of the night was Eric Reichard, who handled the bees for most of the meeting after smoking them with burning pine chips. Sophomore club member Carrie Zamonski explained the bees lose their edge when they’re smoked like this.

“The smoke suffocates them a little so they realize that something’s wrong and decide, ‘Okay, we’re just going to chill for a second,’” Zamonski said.

“The smoke suffocates them a little so they realize that something’s wrong and decide, ‘ok were just going to chill for a second’,” Zamonski said.

After the bees were thoroughly light-headed, they seemed to waddle around on the top of their hive trying not to bump into one another. With too much smoke, the bees will start to get angry, Reichard said, so he maintains a delicate balancing act to keep them in a non-aggressive stupor. With a wedge for popping out the honeycombs, Sam Anawalt helped Reichard remove the first block.

Anawalt said he joined the club after being inspired by reading an article about colony collapse disorder (CCD), which has affected a large chunk of honeybees. The club agreed that while the decrease in bee population is one problem, it comes with many causes and colony collapse is a very specific factor. Dr. Christina Grozinger, principal researcher at the Grozinger Lab and Professor of Entomology at Penn State, explained scientists typically refer to this phenomenon as colony loss or survival, because most beekeepers lose their colonies under conditions that don’t exactly match those of CCD.

Grozinger says the loss of honeybee colonies and wild bee populations is caused by pathogens, parasites, pesticides, and reduced nutrition as the diversity of plants around colonies decreases. The Beekeeping Club pointed to an invasive species of parasitic mites they say has weakened the immune system of colonies across the country. By infiltrating the brood — containing bee larvae– the parasites can infect colonies with viruses like black queen cell and deformed wing virus.

“The mites affecting bees are called varroa mites. These are a major problem for Western Honey Bee populations and majorly contribute to colony collapse disorder,” Club President Grace Billy said. “Nationwide, beekeepers are losing 30-60 percent of their colonies.”

The Center for Pollinator Research at Penn State was formed in 2009, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture knew about the loss of colonies as early as 2007, when beekeepers began reporting unusually high losses of their hives. Sudden losses of the colony’s worker bee population and no dead bees found near the hive characterized many cases.

In response, the CCD Sterling Committee investigated and found the same causes for colony loss as the Penn State Beekeepers and Dr. Grozinger explained. Grace Billy is conducting research at the Grozinger Lab, part of Penn State’s Center for Pollinator Research, testing a method for protecting colonies from the parasites by separating the brood from varroa mites. Another project underway is researching to develop strategies to use pesticides in non-harmful ways and develop planting recommendations to encourage pollinator populations, Gronzinger said.

“90 percent of flowering plant species and 75 percent of our major food crops use bees and other pollinators to set seed and produce fruit. It is vital that we develop strategies to mange our landscapes to support health pollinator populations,” Grozinger said. “We would love for everyone to become an advocate for planting pollinator gardens on campus, in the businesses, in their homes, and on farms. We have many resources on the Center for Pollinator Research website to help people get started.”

A couple of bees try to catch their breath after being smoked

The club agreed unanimously the biggest point they want to get across is people shouldn’t be afraid of bees. One of the club’s newest members, Will Pope, said the bees are a lot more friendly than he had anticipated. Zamonski summarized it best, saying, “If you respect the bee, the bee will respect you. If it lands on you, just let it do its thing.” Like dousing them in smoke, handling and interacting with bees in any capacity is a balancing act.

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About the Author

James Turchick

James is a senior majoring in digital and print journalism, James enjoys writing about anything weird and is deadly allergic to bees. Onward State people are very nice to him.

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