The Secret Life of Team Honey Bee

With 7 species of bees being listed as endangered species this week, it is good timing to welcome a guest post by Rachael E. Bonoan, a  Ph. D. candidate from Tufts University about her research with honey bees. 

“Anyone have to pee?” I ask loudly so that Joanna, one of my interns, will wake up. It has been a long week of long drives, made longer by the fact that the air conditioning in my 1996 Honda Accord is broken. We have finally reached the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine (Tufts Vet) in Grafton, MA for the third and final time this week, and the campus center is our last chance to use the bathroom before going out to the field.

Joanna stirs enough to mutter “No.” James, another one of my interns, and I head into the air-conditioned campus center for a moment of relief. Minutes later, we take Wildlife Drive, turn right onto Cornfield Lane, and then left onto Discovery Drive. Further ahead, Discovery Drive turns into a dirt road which leads us to our field site. (I like to think that the fact that our field site is off Discovery Drive is good karma.)

My Honda rocks up and down as we take the dirt road. In no time, we are at the edge of a sprawling field. Our field. I pull my Honda up to the edge of the grass and put it in park. Earlier in the week, I learned that driving across the field of tall grass is not the best idea if I want my car’s low suspension to last the summer.

We step out of the car, stretch, and take in the sights and smells of Tufts Vet. Yes, smells. Our field is near one of Tufts Vet’s swine barns; we are sometimes welcomed by the smell of pigsty. It’s not a pleasant smell but it always brings me back to my childhood, when my grandparents lived near a pig farm. More pleasant though, is the smell of the dewy grass that has made early morning fieldwork worth the drive from the city.

I look out into the field as we unload my car. The six beehives we have already set up are neatly tucked away along a row of trees. From the dirt road, you would never know they were there. Scattered throughout the green field are large rolls of grass ready to be fed to the cows under the blue, cloud-speckled sky.

Our field site at Tufts Vet in Grafton, MA.

Our field site at Tufts Vet in Grafton, MA.

James, Joanna, and I carry our supplies to the appropriate spot among the trees and begin setting up our final three hives, making a total of nine hives ready to be filled with bees. Our week’s work complete, we return to the car for our drive back to the city. Although our hives are ready for bees, our bees will not be ready for pick up until next week.

3 bee hives

Three of our nine hives at the shady edge of the field with James and Joanna comparing notes (and my car) in the background.

When the day to pick up the bees finally arrives, we excitedly return to Tufts Vet with nine small boxes of bees strategically packed into my Honda. These small boxes of bees are called nucleus colonies, or nucs. A nuc is a small colony of bees that is then installed into a larger hive. On this happy day, we traipse through the now-taller grass and place one nuc outside each hive. We let the nucs rest after the stressful drive while we head to the campus center to relieve our bladders and refuel before our work begins.

Refreshed, we begin the installation. As we install the bees into their new homes, we examine each nuc to make sure there is a queen and that the colony is healthy. After each frame of bees is carefully inspected, we move it from the red nuc into our freshly painted yellow hive. This is James and Joanna’s first real beekeeping experience, and my first experience installing bees. We are all excited.

James and Joanna inspecting a frame of bees as they install the bees into their new home.

James and Joanna inspecting a frame of bees as they install the bees into their new home.

With the bees installed, we are ready to begin our experiment. For this summer’s study, we are measuring foraging effort of our hives. To do this, we sit outside each hive and count the number of bees leaving the hive in 10-minute intervals. To aid with the counting, we enlist a couple more helping hands. Adam, a beekeeper, budding biologist, and high school student from Lexington, MA joins us, as does Luke, a Tufts undergraduate who has been working with Team Honey Bee for over a year. I appreciate the extra help but I especially enjoy giving more young scientists a chance to experience fieldwork firsthand.

Adam counting bees leaving the hive.

Adam counting bees leaving the hive.

As a kid, I loved catching and observing insects. It wasn’t until the summer before my senior year of college that I realized I could catch and observe insects as my job. That summer, I worked with butterflies and fell in love with fieldwork. For my study, I caught butterflies in the field and raised their caterpillars in the lab.

Working with the butterflies, I learned how to tell the difference between a male and female simply based on how the butterfly was flying. I learned how to gently handle the insects in order to stress them out as little as possible. I learned that fieldwork takes a tremendous amount of creativity and troubleshooting, and a lot of trips to the hardware store. But in the end, I learned that it’s all worth it.

Watching my bees, I again feel this intimate connection with my study system. I can hear (and even smell!) when my bees are angry; I can identify how honey bees fly compared to other bees; I can point out which bees in the hive are the youngest just by looking at them.

Although it sounds (and sometimes is) tedious, I feel true joy in our fieldwork while sitting quietly and counting bees. After all the driving and preparation, we are finally collecting data! And outside in a beautiful place no less! Sitting there in our field, watching our bees, I hear only their collective buzz and chirping birds. No cars, no sirens, no indications of the hustle and bustle of day-to-day life. Tufts Vet is truly a rural oasis for both humans and bees, and sitting there in the open field always manages to put me at peace.

VIDEO: https://vimeo.com/178503484

CAPTION: Foraging honey bees, slowed down to ¼ speed. For the play-by-play of this video, check out my blog post, Organized Chaos, at http://www.rachaelebonoan.com/blog.

Twitter: @RachaelEBee