Throughout the world, bee colonies have been devastated by a parasite called the Varroa mite. These mites – which are visible to the naked eye – leach on to bees, and have devastated honeybees since the late 1980s. The treatments for this parasite vary; however, recent studies have shown the Varroa mites have built up a resistance to the treatments.
Rachel Mackelprang, professor of biology at California State University, Northridge who conducts studies on microbial communities, has been working to figure out if these treatments are affecting the symbiotic bacteria in the bees’ guts, which may negatively impact their health.
Mackelprang stressed the importance of understanding the current treatment and human intervention.
“Bees pollinate many of our foods crops,” she said. “They’re important pollinators of flowering plants.”
“We are in the preliminary stages of this study,” she said, of the research which began in May 2017. “There’s a never-ending list of things we can do and learn from this study.
“I am interested in whether human interventions, and/or environmental factors impact the beneficial bacteria that colonize the bee gut,” she explained. “Examples [of potential factors] include mite treatment, supplemental feeding with sugar water, changes in seasons, and increasingly dry and hot weather patterns.”
Walking past the Botanic Garden or the Orange Grove to get to class, students may not have noticed the beehives Mackelprang has placed on campus. There are five hives at the heart of Mackelprang’s research. The hives are made up of Italian honeybees, which are know for being docile. The hives are surrounded by fences for extra protection – posing no threat to students, faculty or staff.
Since 1879, backyard beekeeping was banned in Los Angeles, inspired by inaccurate research that said bees damaged fruit crops and put people in danger. The measure proved to have the opposite effect. It was not until October 2015 that this legislation changed.
Eight years ago, Mackelprang visited her father in Spokane, Wash., and helped him with his bee hives. That experience inspired her study.
“My dad kept bees in his backyard, and I enjoyed it,” she said. “I thought it would be interesting to combine this enjoyment and my expertise in microbiology into a research project.”
Mackelprang’s is personally funding part of the study by harvesting the bees’ honey — with help from CSUN biology students. She plans to sell the product in collaboration with CSUN’s Marilyn Magaram Center for Food Science, Nutrition and Dietetics.
Mackelprang and her students’ suit up in white bee suits, veils and gloves to work and harvest the honey. “We’re harvesting the honey and bottling it,” she said. “It will enter the market soon.”
The importance of protecting bees in the ecosystem is crucial, said Mackelprang. She hopes to spread the word to members of the community that if they see a bee colony, they should not try to kill the bees.
“Call a beekeeper rather than an exterminator,” she said. “They will remove the hive and re-home the bees.”
Mackelprang noted that it’s important to support an environment that’s friendly to bees, including avoiding the use of pesticides, and planting flowers and shrubs that attract pollinators.
“Select bee-friendly plants like lavender, sage, rosemary, sunflowers, California poppy or California buckwheat,” she said. “These plants will attract honeybees and other important pollinators.”