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Missouri Southern students work to make campus bee-friendly

April 12, 2019

JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) — Katie Kilmer gently removed a frame from beehive No. 3, pulling it out to reveal a swarm of bees and a solid collection of both eggs and pollen in its cells.

“Good job, guys,” murmured one of the biology students with her who was visiting the hives for the first time, a note of affection in her voice.

The prairie just northeast of Missouri Southern State University is buzzing with activity just a year after faculty established four beehives there with assistance from the Joplin Area Beekeepers Association. After 12 months of experimentation and practice, the beehives now are a growing source of study and research for students and faculty alike, and there is currently a waiting list to be able to buy their most famous product — honey.

Students are taking an increasingly strong interest in the bees with the establishment last semester of the MSSU Pollinators Club, an undergraduate student organization. The club, with cooperation from the student senate, this month will get four additional beehives on the prairie, to be reserved exclusively for use by its members, the Joplin Globe reported.

The club also is working to make the Missouri Southern campus friendlier for pollinators through the development of native habitats, and it plans to pursue certification for MSSU as a bee-friendly campus through Bee City USA, a North Carolina-based nonprofit.

“It’s just devastating, thinking about how much we depend on pollinators,” said sophomore Maya Strick, president of the Pollinators Club. “I definitely lean toward activism, and I want to do something if I can, whether that’s doing something myself or just spreading awareness to others.”

About 20,000 species of bees have been identified worldwide, with about 4,000 of those located in North America. Most are solitary, living by themselves and producing a few offspring during their life span.

Honeybees — representing approximately seven of the 20,000 species — originated in Southeast Asia about 34 million years ago. Humans have interacted with them for thousands of years, with the earliest documentation of collecting honey from bees showing up in cave paintings in Altamira, Spain, from about 25,000 years ago.

Western honeybees, Apis mellifera, interact well with humans, tolerating them fairly well, said Kilmer, an assistant professor of biology and environmental health. They have now been introduced to nearly every corner of the planet by humans and are found year-round in nearly every part of North America.

“At this point, they’re such an important part of our ecosystem that we really couldn’t function without these bees,” she said.

Worker bees can fly up to 4 miles in a day looking for flowers to pollinate. When they find a good source of nectar, they return to the hive to recruit other workers through a complex system of chemical, visual and vibrational signals. They’ll return to the hive with essentially sugar water, storing it in honeycomb cells until the water evaporates and they’re left with concentrated sugar.

The average worker bee produces one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey during its lifetime. To make 1 pound of honey, it takes about 550 bees visiting roughly 2 million flowers and flying approximately 55,000 miles, Kilmer said.

But bees are under attack. In 2006-07, beekeepers in the U.S. began noticing that their colonies weren’t making it through the year. In an average year, normal colony losses are around 10% to 15% — but they saw 30% to 90% of their colonies were gone, Kilmer said.

“The colony wasn’t dying — it just disappeared,” she said. “You’d go out one day and there was nothing. The bees left and never came back.”

Called colony collapse disorder, the trend has been consistent every year since, Kilmer said. Starting in 2006, the U.S. average annual loss of colonies has hovered around 20%, with some fluctuations. Missouri, for example, had drought conditions in portions of the state last year, leading to heavier colony losses in those parts.

“It’s clearly a problem,” she said. “The problem here is there doesn’t seem to be any single cause to explain colony collapse disorder.”

Causes that have been identified as a reason for colony collapse disorder include severe habitat loss and fragmentation, the replacement of native habitat through urban development, pesticides and insecticides, viral and bacterial diseases, loss of genetic diversity and the introduction of commercial beekeeping practices.

The consequence for us will be seen in our food sources, Kilmer said. Approximately 30% of the leading crops in the U.S. require pollination. At least 90 commercial crops rely on honeybee pollination in some way, she said, and the almond industry in California requires 1.8 million colonies alone to survive.

“We don’t have enough pollinators,” she said. “Native pollinators can do a great job on species native to the Americas, but we don’t have enough native bees, and we don’t have enough honeybees due to colony collapse disorder. ... If we lose our pollinators, it almost certainly will affect the availability of food; it definitely will affect the prices of food.”

To help combat colony collapse disorder, people need to find ways to better detect and treat bee diseases, ensure their genetic diversity, reduce the use of pesticides and improve and preserve bees’ natural habitat by planting native species and species that serve as good food sources for them, Kilmer said.

At Missouri Southern, the beehives have expanded from an initial experiment to a source of pride for the campus.

Students currently are researching pollen from the hives, using it to try to determine what types of plants the bees are visiting and when. Also under construction is a pollen image library, for which students and faculty are collecting pollen from local flowers and taking microscopic images of it. Several such libraries already exist on a global scale, but images from species native to southwest Missouri are lacking, Kilmer said.

Interest in the beehives across campus has been high. Kilmer this spring is teaching a class for the first time called Biology of Bees and Other Pollinators, offered through the biology and environmental health department and open to students of all majors. It enrolled over capacity for the semester, and it includes both students enrolled for credit and nonstudents who are auditing the class.

As part of the class, students must complete a service project related to pollinators, Kilmer said. Several student groups are planting pollinator-friendly plants, benefiting not only honeybees but also other pollinators such as butterflies and hummingbirds. One group is working on an outreach campaign for local schools, while a third group is developing a website or brochure of some kind that can teach the public about pollinators.

Kilmer and the Joplin Area Beekeepers Association also will soon begin a series of community workshops, with the first to be hosted April 27 on the MSSU prairie. Attendees will learn how to produce their own queen bees and how to split hives; at least 50 people have already registered.

Phil McGowan, vice president of the local beekeepers association, said his group has a good partnership with Missouri Southern.

“We like to call ourselves a teaching club,” he said. “We want to teach people about bees — they’re nothing to be afraid of.”

Paula Carson, provost and vice president for academic affairs, said the beehives have been an asset to the university in many ways.

“It’s the perfect project for us,” she said at a recent campus presentation about the colonies. “It’s serving society and the community, and it is providing a real unique opportunity for our students to engage in educational experiences, but more than that — educational experiences that they did not know they could even have because they did not know such possibilities even exist. When we help our students to know what they don’t know, I think it’s just the brightest light of higher education.”

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Information from: The Joplin (Mo.) Globe, http://www.joplinglobe.com

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