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Rescuing the honey bee

Honey bee colonies are collapsing in record numbers, and Penn State entomologists are leading the pack of researchers scrambling to figure out why.
Honey bee colonies are collapsing in record numbers, and Penn State entomologists are leading the pack of researchers scrambling to figure out why.
June 13, 2013

Entomologists are exploring the causes of a massive die-off of the honey bee population, from viruses and mites to the role of pesticides on bee health and behavior. “To the bee, a flower is a fountain of life, and to the flower, a bee is a messenger of love,” wrote poet Kahlil Gibran. Whether or not love is involved in the exchange, the evolutionary dance between pollen-transporting honey bees and nectar-producing flowers is one of nature’s most extraordinary symbiotic relationships, a hundred million years in the making.

Yet what took eons to evolve can be undone in decades, as the growing roster of endangered species makes clear. While the words “endangered species” typically call to mind photogenic tigers, pandas, or whales, an estimated 80 percent of all known animal species on earth are insects, and their extinction often goes unremarked. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that honey bees and other pollinators play a crucial role in the production of about $30 billion worth of crops.

Colony collapse disorder is decimating the honey bee population, and Penn State, one of the country's leading honey bee research facilities, has been investigating the problem both in the lab and in the field. The effort is being lead by Christina Grozinger, associate professor of entomology in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences. The team, made up of faculty and students, is a unique collaboration of researchers from different disciplines looking at a number of different systems, including honey bee genomics, bioinformatics, and insect physiology, all with one goal in mind: to help the honey bee grow and thrive in the face of this crisis.

“Pollinator decline not only has alarmed the scientific community but has gained prominence in the popular press, raising the public's awareness about threats to our ecosystem.”-- Christina Grozinger, associate professor of entomology

Penn State to host international conference on pollinator health

With populations of wild and domesticated pollinators, such as honey bees, in decline, some of the world's foremost scientists in the field will converge on Penn State this summer to discuss the latest research aimed at understanding and overcoming challenges to pollinator health.

Hosted by the Center for Pollinator Research in the College of Agricultural Sciences, the second International Conference on Pollinator Biology, Health and Policy will be held August 14 to 17 at The Nittany Lion Inn on University Park campus.

Pollinators are essential for both plants and animals in agriculture and natural ecosystems, but there have been dramatic drops in pollinator populations worldwide, according to Christina Grozinger, associate professor of entomology and director of the Center for Pollinator Research.

“Pollinator decline not only has alarmed the scientific community but has gained prominence in the popular press, raising the public's awareness about threats to our ecosystem,” she said. “The causes are complex, and we believe many stressors are contributing, including parasites, pathogens, environmental toxins, poor nutrition, and habitat loss.”

Grozinger noted that the event will bring together experts from universities, government agencies, agrochemical companies, nonprofit organizations, and several stakeholder groups for a dialog about the research, management, conservation, and policy approaches needed to tackle these issues.

Lauren Russert preps a dissected honey bee to remove its glands to analyze the effects of parasites at the Honey Bee and Pollinator Research Lab in the Agricultural Sciences and Industry Building. This photo was taken by a photojournalism student in one of two sections of Intro to Photojournalism, COMM 269, taught by John Beale, senior lecturer in communications.The conference will feature two world-renowned keynote speakers: David Goulson, of the University of Stirling in the United Kingdom, an expert in the behavior, ecosystem services, and conservation of bumble bees; and Heather Patisaul, of North Carolina State University, who will share insights into the genomic, neurophysiological, and behavioral impacts of environmental contaminants that act as endocrine disruptors in mammals.

The conference will begin on the evening of August 14 and will be preceded the same day by the Pollinator Conservation Short Course, hosted by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. The Short Course, also at the University Park campus, will feature presentations on creating and protecting pollinator habitat and related research by Penn State scientists.

Online Beekeeping Course Receives International Recognition

Beekeeping 101, a web-based Penn State Extension course designed to help beginning and experienced beekeepers, was named an honoree in the 2013 Webby Awards, a competition sponsored by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, a global organization of industry experts and technology innovators.

An interactive approach to online learning that can be taken anywhere and anytime, the course was created by Penn State Public Media in collaboration with Tom Butzler, Penn State Extension horticulture educator, and Maryann Frazier, senior extension associate in entomology.

With colony collapse disorder decimating honey bee populations in recent years, educating beekeepers has taken on great significance. 

"The Beekeeping 101 online format enhances Penn State Extension's ability to broaden access to the course internationally," said Dennis Calvin, director of Penn 

State Extension and associate dean in the College of Agricultural Sciences. "Whether you're in Pennsylvania or another country, you can participate in a global learning community of beekeepers helping to strengthen the honey bee population."

The ten-module course provides basic knowledge needed to keep and manage a healthy beehive and to produce honey and beeswax. Modules cover bee biology, bee behavior, hive management, diseases and pests, swarming, and other topics.

Butzler noted that the course could be used by schoolteachers for professional development and by gardeners who want to start beekeeping as a natural extension of their hobby.

"Whether someone is new to beekeeping or wants to add to their beekeeping knowledge, Beekeeping 101 is a fun and interactive way to learn," he said.

Speaking about the Webby Awards competition, course project co-manager Diane Espy, senior producer/director with Penn State Public Media, said it is the top international awards program honoring excellence on the Internet.

"As the first Webby Award given to a project at the University,” she said, “this is a prestigious recognition for Penn State."


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