My first encounter with bees was visiting my grandparents’ farm in southern Indiana. They had a small orchard and stocked it with a few hives and I remember watching all the honey bees in the apple trees and on the sweet clover, feeling so proud that those were my grandma and grandpa’s bees. Although we lived in Maryland, we visited the farm several times a year and enjoyed the home grown fruits, vegetables, and of course the honey.
I grew up as a free range kid on an island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay where my mom, an endangered species biologist, and my dad, an ecotoxicologist, raised me to appreciate the natural world around me. My mom would take me through the eastern shore of Maryland to help trap Delmarva Fox squirrels and even pulled me out of school for her version of biology class: watching the horseshoe crabs spawning, walking through the woods to set up field cameras, and trips to national parks.
With a deep rooted love for biology, I was ecstatic for my first real summer job, interning at the environmental toxicology lab where my dad worked. I was placed in the plant and invertebrate testing group and in my first week had my first up close and personal experience with honey bees. As I watched them feed and groom each other, I was so intrigued by their sociality. I reached out to our bee supplier at the University of Maryland Wye Research farm, took a beekeeping course through his extension program and that following summer worked alongside of him, helping maintain hives for research as well as hives in his sideline pollination operation. We managed close to 100 hives through the eastern shore of Maryland and helped out at a commercial operation with around 1000. I was hooked. Every hive had its’ own personality, and every time we went through the hives I learned something new. In addition to working with the bees, I helped on the farm monitoring for marmorated stink bugs using a black light trap and scouting for stink bug damage in sweet corn fields. With all of the bi-catch from the black light trap, I started my own insect collection and soon became an avid insect hunter, aka an entomologist.
All of this experience with insects had such a profound effect on me that I ended up transferring from the private liberal arts school I had attended for 2 years, to the University of Wyoming to pursue my interests in biology, chemistry and entomology. On day one, I met with my adviser Harold Bergman who my dad had known during graduate school and who was a founding member of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. After learning I was interested in bees, Harold walked me down the hall to Michael Dillon, an insect ecophysiologist working on bumble bees, and from that day in 2013 until the day I graduated in May 2016, I worked with Michael exploring the thermal physiology of bumble bees. After one year of learning the basics of research and how to work with bumble bees, I launched my own independent project investigating the effects of imidacloprid, a neonicotinoid, on bumble bee (Bombus impatiens) workers.
As I was branching into bumble bees, I was still entrenched in the honey bee world. I returned to Maryland in the summer of 2014, and worked jointly in the field and in the lab assisting in new honey bee testing methodologies, including the chronic larval toxicity test. With this 28-day test, I served as a worker bee feeding hundreds of larvae a day. Witnessing the successful pupation and emergence of larvae I had grafted 28 days earlier was one of the most amazing things I have ever experienced. As my mentor and I worked through this new methodology, the head of Pollinator Safety at Bayer, Dave Fischer, came out and visited our setup. After connecting with him that summer, he offered me an internship at Bayer for the summer of 2015. Now it is important to note, at this point I was entrenched in the neonicotinoid issue in my work with bumble bees. I was certainly fearful that they would try and censor my work, take my data, and/or ostracize me. But instead, they taught me about the risk assessment paradigm, they brought me on field trips to connect with farmers and applicators that use Bayer products, and they challenged me to think critically about experimental design. I walked away completely amazed by the knowledge of all of the entomologists and toxicologists I shadowed under and Bayer’s dedication to bee health, as contrary of an idea as that sounds.
I went back to Wyoming and continued my research with neonicotinoids and presented it at multiple regional and national conferences before graduating in May 2016 with a B.S. in Zoology and a minor in chemistry. I knew that I had just scratched the surface with my 3 month internship at Bayer, so eager to dive into the world of ecotoxicology, I decided to come back to Bayer for a 2 year appointment prior to starting a PhD program. Since May 2016, I have been working with toxicologists and entomologists who have made me grow immensely as a scientist and furthered my passion for bee health and environmental toxicology. I have had the intellectual freedom and support from my mentors to pursue different areas of bee health and ask questions to better understand the world of the honey bee.
After working with hive scale data last summer for one of my projects, I started thinking about what all you could learn from looking at hive weights. Bayer has several apiaries scattered around in RTP and Clayton, and as I traveled around, I became very curious about how the forage in these landscapes might differ and how hive weight might be able to show these differences. I approached my mentor Allen Olmstead, an ecotoxicologist and beekeeper himself, about my interests in this kind of work to see what he thought. He was in full support and had often wondered these same things. As I reached out to several other members of the pollinator safety team, they too voiced similar curiosities and with a stack of scales in storage, everyone thought this would be a great use of resources. So with the backing of my colleagues and my manager, I started reaching out to local beekeeping groups to ask if they too were interested in this kind of insight. With a unanimous “yes”, I began connecting with local beekeepers to deliver scales and in the process, have had the fortune of meeting some amazing knowledgeable people with a true passion for bees. I’m excited to watch this project develop and to see the data that comes out of it, and I am thrilled to be able to share it with everyone here!