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Queen Bees and Wannabees: Examining Bee Fitness


Over the past decade, bees have been dying and colonies collapsing in unprecedented numbers, posing a threat not only to the bees themselves, but to the many crops they pollinate. Scientists are still working to understand all the factors that pose risks to bees. This summer, Andre Burnham ’18 and Fiona McLaughlin ’19 are contributing their own research to this important question by comparing the fitness of locally raised queen bees and queen bees imported from California.

They hope their research will produce some answers about the best way to raise healthy queen bees, and therefore healthy bee colonies. Burnham and McLaughlin’s research is supported by a Levitt Research Group Grant and supervised by Professor of Biology Herm Lehman.

McLaughlin and Burnham explained that many local beekeepers choose to import queen bees from California rather than raising them themselves. Some beekeepers don’t know how to raise their own queens or simply find it easier and cheaper to purchase them from California, where large commercial farms can raise large number of queen bees year-round cheaply.

However, Burnham and McLaughlin hypothesize that local queen bees and their offspring will be more productive and less susceptible to common bee problems. Some studies have suggested that bees raised in a cold climate, rather than imported from a warmer one, fare better in cold weather such as New York’s. This climate advantage and familiarity with local flowers may make locally raised bees more productive at gathering pollen. The research team also believes that a locally raised queen and her offspring may be more resistant to disease, largely because they don’t have to undergo the stress of travel.

The research team bought 40 bee hives and established 20 with local queens bought in Vermont and 20 with queens imported from California. These hives will form the basis of their study. The specific factors of bee fitness Burnham and McLaughlin are looking at are productivity and resistance to pathogens, parasites and viruses. Burnham will be examining the hives to measure pollen and nectar intake. He’ll also be counting parasites and pathogens under the microscope.

McLaughlin will compare the presence of viruses between the California and Vermont bees. She is testing for the three largest bee viruses: Israeli acute paralysis, deformed wing virus and black queen cell virus. The pair will also be following up with their bee hives in the fall and winter to see whether the origin of the queen bees affects the colonies’ survival rates.

McLaughlin and Burnham’s results will be of interest to many beekeepers. Burnham, who has been a beekeeper for over a decade, stated that “people are looking for answers” in the face of the current bee epidemic. The team hopes that their research, if it proves their hypothesis, will help to promote local beekeeping and encourage beekeepers to raise their own queens. Both students, however, emphasized that the factors influencing bee health are very complicated. Within their own research, they’ll be asking questions not only about the differences between local and imported bees, but about the possible ramifications of commercialization in the beekeeping world. That world is facing numerous changes and challenges, and the solutions, like the problems, will be complicated.

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