UC Davis Bee Team Wins Major Award

The Bee Team: (from left) Eric Mussen, Neal Williams,
Robbin Thorp, Lynn Kimsey and Brian Johnson.
(Kathy Keatley Garvey Photo)

by Kathy Keatley Garvey
UC Davis Dept. of Entomology

DAVIS, CA–“The Bee Team” at the University of California, Davis, has won a major award.

Five faculty members from the Department of Entomology received the coveted team award from the Pacific Branch, Entomological Society of America (PBESA), for their collaborative work specializing in honey bees, wild bees and pollination issues through research, education and outreach. Their service to UC Davis spans 116 years.

The “Bee Team” is comprised of Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen;  systematist/hymenopterist Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology who coordinated the development and installation of a landmark bee friendly garden; and native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology; pollination ecologist Neal Williams, assistant professor of entomology who specializes in pollination and bee biology; and biologist/apiculturist Brian Johnson, assistant professor of entomology who specializes in bee communication, bee behavior and bee health.

PBESA represents 11 states, seven U.S. territories, and parts of Canada and Mexico.

Thorp, who retired from the university in 1994, continues to work full-time on behalf of the bees, and has tallied 49 years of service to UC Davis.  Mussen, who will retire in June of 2014, has provided 37 years of service; Kimsey, 24; Williams, 4 and Johnson, 2.

“The collaborative team exceptionally serves the university, the state, the nation, and indeed the world, in research, education and public service,” wrote nominator Michael Parrella, professor and chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology.  “The Bee Team is really the ‘A’ team; no other university in the country has this one-of-a-kind expertise about managed bees, wild bees, pollination, bee health, bee identification, and bee preservation. Honey bee health is especially crucial. Since 2006 when the colony collapse disorder surfaced, we as a nation have been losing one-third of our bees annually.  Some beekeepers are reporting 50 to 100 percent winter losses. The importance of bees cannot be underestimated: one-third of the food we eat is pollinated by bees.”

Among those lending support to The Bee Team through letters were the Mary Delany, interim chair of the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences; AnnMaria de Grassi, director of federal policy, California Farm Bureau Federation; Christi Heintz, executive director of Project Apis m. and the Almond Board of California Task Force Liaison; Mace Vaughn, pollinator conservation program director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.

Eric Mussen.  Mussen, who joined the department in 1976, is in constant contact with his clientele, determining how beekeeping is faring throughout the state and across the nation.  He discusses local, regional and national happenings in his bimonthly newsletter, from the UC Apiaries, and writes Bee Briefs, both posted on the Department of Entomology website. In his newsletters, Mussen provides practical applications for beekeepers gleaned from research papers published in scientific journals. He watches over the proposed and new registrations of pesticides, both used by beekeepers and by growers across the nation.  He suggests ways in which the chemicals can be used for their desired purposes, without harming the bees.  Mussen is the “go-to” person when scientists, researchers, students, consumers and the news media have questions about honey bees. He is the pulse of the bee industry. His news media interviews have included Good Morning America, New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, and Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio, CBS, ABC and NBC.

Mussen, considered by his peers as one of the most respected and influential professional apiculturists in the nation, was named the California Beekeeper of the Year in 2006, won the American Association of Professional Apiculturists’ Award of Excellence in Extension Apiculture in 2007, and in 2008 he received the Distinguished Achievement Award in Extension from the Pacific Branch of the Entomological Society of America. He received the statewide Pedro Ilic Outstanding Agricultural Educator Award in 2010.

“He  is just as open to answering a question about Nosema to a beginning beekeeper or responding to a child’s question about queen bees as he is to helping a commercial beekeeper with 15,000 hives, or engaging in intricate scientific research,” colleague and entomology Extension specialist Larry Godfrey said.

Recently, Mussen and “Bee Team” member Brian Johnson conducted experiments to determine the effects of feeding bees on a blend of sucrose syrup and high fructose corn syrup.  They studied the effects of feeding colonies high doses of antibiotics, simultaneously.  They are sampling bees from apparently healthy and declining colonies to see if viruses may be to blame for the dwindling bee population.  And they hope to look at the use of various essential oils to reduce virus loads in honey bee colony populations.

Lynn Kimsey.  Lynn Kimsey is the director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology. She spends thousands of hours every year identifying bees and other insects through the Bohart Museum and through queries on the UC Davis Department of Entomology web page. “Do you have an insect question? Ask it here!” She also writes the monthly Bohart Museum newsletters, often dealing with Hymenoptera, her specialty.

As the former interim chair of the Department of Entomology, Kimsey spearheaded the rebuilding of the bee biology program and keyed the establishment, installation and development of the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, a half-acre bee friendly garden on Bee Biology Road. A groundbreaking ceremony took place in 2009 and a grand celebration opening on Sept. 11, 2010. The garden also serves as a demonstration garden and a research garden. The key goals of the garden are to provide bees with a year-around food source, to raise public awareness about the plight of honey bees and to encourage visitors to plant bee-friendly gardens of their own.

Kimsey also fulfilled a major role in the rebuilding of the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Biology lab. Those involved, as well as the beekeeping industry, praised her leadership, insight and determination. In this process, she reached out to industry leaders and gained their support.

Neal Williams. Williams, a pollination ecologist, is an assistant professor of pollination and bee biology in the department and a core faculty member in the UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute.  His research on pollination spans the disciplines of conservation biology, behavioral ecology and evolution.  One of his primary research foci is on sustainable pollination strategies for agriculture. This work is critical given ongoing pressures facing managed honeybees and reported declines in important native pollinators such as bumble bees.  With support from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Specialty Crop Research Initiative,  the California Department of Food and Agriculture and others he and colleagues explore the role of wild native bees, honey bees and other managed species as crop pollinators and the effects of landscape composition and local habitat quality on their persistence.

Williams was part of an international research team that found that honey bees are more effective at pollinating almonds when other species of bees are present. The groundbreaking research was published earlier this year in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. The research, which took place in California’s almond orchards in Yolo, Colusa and Stanislaus counties, is especially important because it increases the pollination effectiveness of honey bees as demand for their pollination service grows. When blue orchard bees and wild bees are foraging in almonds with honey bees, the behavior of honey bees changes, resulting in more effective crop pollination, they found.

“My research program spans a tremendous diversity of fundamental and applied areas in pollination and bee biology,” Williams says. “It is linked by a common goal to understand mechanisms from individual to landscape scales that affect pollinator communities, populations and pollination function.  One major research area in our lab is working to identify native plant materials to support managed and wild bee species in order to bolster their health, their populations and achieve greater stability of pollination in agricultural landscapes.”

Robbin Thorp. Bee expert Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor, retired in 1994 but he never really “retired.” Thorp continues to do research, teaching and graduate student mentoring. Every year he teaches at The Bee Course (http://research.amnh.org/iz/beecourse/) at the Southwestern Research Station, Portal, Ariz., which has an all-volunteer faculty.  The Bee Course draws conservation biologists, pollination ecologists and other biologists from all over the world who want to gain greater knowledge of the systematics and biology of bees. He has trained hundreds of students, ranging from professors to graduate students.

Thorp is skilled in insect classification, general entomology, natural history of insects, field entomology, California insect diversity and pollination ecology. He is a member of 10 professional societies including the International Society of Hymenopterists.  He is the regional co-chair of the North America section of the  International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)  Bumblebee Specialist Group. IUCN is the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization.

Thorp  is deeply engrossed in identifying bees for research projects, including that of  UC Berkeley conservation biologist Claire Kremen, a McArthur Fellow studying wild bees. Overall, he  has identified more than 170,000 bees since his retirement in 1994, usually averaging at least 10,000 a year. He is also heavily involved with research, education and public outreach activities at the Bohart Museum, with Department of Entomology and other entities. .

Thorp does research at the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven. He has monitored the bee population since it was an open field. Over the last three years, Robbin has identified more than 80 species of bees—and counting–in the garden alone; these include bumble bees, carpenter bees and sweat bees.

An authority on Western bumble bees, Thorp delivered a talk on “Western North America Bumble Bees in Peril” to the Smithsonian in June 2009. His bumble bee research and his drive to save bees from extinction are two of his projects known nationally and internationally. He is the world authority on Franklin’s bumble bee, a bee feared extinct and known to habitat a small area in southern Oregon and northern California. He teamed with the Xerces Society to successfully fight a battle to include the bee on the threatened and endangered species list. He is now working to “save the bees” found in the Midwest and East Coast.

Thorp was honored for his work when he received the 2010-2011 Edward A. Dickson Emeriti Professorship, a high honor for UC Davis retired faculty. He delivers many talks, both scientific and for the lay audience, on wild bees and pollinator habitat. In addition to threatened or endangered bumble bees, his expertise includes vernal pool bees.

Brian Johnson.  Brian Johnson, the newest member of the team, is a former University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow and a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow who received his Ph.D. in behavioral biology at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. His thesis: “The Organization of Work in the Honey Bee.”  He studies communication and bee behavior, help is the honey bee industry and the scientific world, and is working feverishly for solutions to boost the declining bee population. His paper on “Effects of High Fructose Corn Syrup and Probiotics on Growth Rates of Newly Founded Honey Bee Colonies” is pending publication in the  Journal of Apicultural Research. His paper on “Individual-level Patterns of Division of Labor in Honeybees Highlight Flexibility in Colony-level Developmental Mechanisms” was published in 2012 in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology.

Johnson works closely with the California State Beekeepers Association (CBSA)—statewide, California has 500,000 colonies–and recently received a grant from CSBA to study “Testing Feeding Methods for Maximizing the Growth and Health of Honey Bee Colonies.” He is involved in graduate teaching/advising and undergraduate lab teaching. He is teaching a UC Davis graduate seminar on Colony Collapse Disorder  (CCD) and just completed teaching a course on honey bee communication for a freshman seminar. Johnson presented a talk on honey bee communication at the inaugural event of the UC Davis Honey and Pollinator Center; a lecture on “The Study of Social Insects” to the UC Davis Animal Behavior Core Graduate Group; a seminar at Howard University, Washington D.C. on the “Organization and Evolution of Honey Bee Societies”; and a talk on “Task Allocation in Middle-Age Honey Bees.” He also addressed the California Department of Food and Agriculture on “Roles of Self-Organization in Collective Decision Making” and discussed “Future Research Directions at UC Davis” at a California State Beekeepers’ Association meeting.