Finding Honey Bee Blue Zones
Geographic information systems (GIS) provide an incredibly powerful software tool that allows our research team to test hypotheses relating to bee health across landscapes. The idea of blue zones has for years been used by researchers to describe regions with human populations living substantially longer than anywhere else on the planet. From centenarians in Saradinia, Italy to the residents of Loma Linda, CA where locals typically live to be 90 these areas have given massive insight into human health.
Using a combination of data both from our partner, the Best Bees Company, and other collaborators we seek to find similar blue zones for honeybee colonies. We aim to not only find out where honeybee colonies are surviving longer, but also to find the root of their longevity. This would in turn open the door to breeding programs and insight into factors that can help save this beloved species. Metrics we intend to look into in blue zone areas include floral diversity, disease presence, hive setup type and climate.
In collaboration with Prof. Neri Oxman at the MIT Media Lab, our research teams collaborate to understand how bees are inspired by design, and how design is inspired by bees. These investigations involve advance technologies including 3D printing with a variety of materials, data sensors (see SmartHive™ details, below), and so much more.
Results from the honey bee genome sequencing project revealed fewer immune-related genes compared to solitary insects, such as mosquitoes. In the absence of individual immunity, these social animals rely on external forms of disease resistance, including mutual grooming and excretion secreting. Bees create products as a function of their genetic code. As such, bee products can be considered external phenotypes. An extended phenotype is the manipulation by an organism, or more specifically its genes, on their environment. Honey bees can be considered a keystone species that has a strong impact on its community through their extended phenotypes that relate to disease resistance. Honey bees extended phenotypes of honey, propolis, venom, beeswax, bee bread and royal jelly confer pathogen/pest resistance. This impacts the community within the hive. In addition, humans can use these honey bee products as well for pathogen resistance. The implications of this is that honey bees, through their genes, can manipulate the community structure both within and outside of the hive. Humans can breed honey bees to increase their disease and pest resistance.
Heritability of Immunity
In collaboration with Prof. Rebeca Rosengaus and her laboratory at Northeastern University, we are studying the heritability of immune strength from parent to offspring. Bees make an excellent model system to test hypotheses relating to the evolution of immune benefits because of their social nature and genetic structure. Our Ph.D. researchers, field beekeepers, and student interns are collecting eggs from honey beehives, freezing them in liquid nitrogen, and storing them until the running immunology and microbiology assays in bulk. We predict that there is vertical transfer of immune benefits from queen to egg, indicating heritability of immunity.
Formula for Overwintering Survival Rate of Honey Bees in MA:
A comprehensive equation to help determine overwintering survival in beehives in Massachusetts. The equation will ultimately factor in nosema, varroa, population size, pesticides, and other factors as well as their relative importance to hive survival.
Knowing exactly what type of honey your bees produce adds value, both on the markets and in the experience. Identify the floral source of honey with our new, state of the art product, HoneyDNA. We send you a bar-coded test tube for privacy, along with a stamped return envelope to our laboratory. You fill the test tube with 10mL – 20 mL of honey. Our research team analyzes the DNA of all the pollen found in your honey. We then compare the pollen genomes to our comprehensive database of known plant families. Within six to eight weeks, we will deliver to you the results in the form of a custom infographic, with hand-painted illustrations of the flower families found in your sample of honey.
These results inform the general public about exactly which plants contribute to bee health and nutrition. Our research team is compiling the plant data, overlaying them with geographic information system (GIS) mapping software, and comparing the qualitative and quantitative forage data with our ongoing measures of bee health (e.g., honey production, population ecology, and overwintering survival). Combined, these data will help test the hypothesis that diverse floral habitat is the primary contributor toward good bee health.
The “internet of things” is pushing outdoors, connecting live beehives with big data and cloud storage. Our SmartHive links beehives with real-time data sensing and 2-way communications, allowing for remote beekeeping. Our first SmartHive deployment is at the Museum of Science Boston, on exhibit now. Our second deployment is at Booz Allen in Washington DC, complementing their innovation hub.
Our patent-pending SmartHive™ connects beehives to the Internet of Things by incorporating data sensors inside the nest. SmartHive™ continuously gathers data on any environmental variables of interest, including temperature, humidity, sound, light, video, and more. SmartHives™ have data parameters that can be set at exact levels, such as high- or low-temperature, to alert the beekeeper for when each beehive is at a critical environmental point, using text messaging, phone calls, or e-mails. Two-way responses are now being developed, so that the beekeeper can text, phone, or e-mail the SmartHive™ back, saying to turn on the heat, open a vent, or even move its position. These data are available in real-time through our online portal, and also stored in a device with 4 hubs for customizable sensor options. The data can be downloaded to CSV spreadsheets for analysis, making it an especially useful tool for to conduct research relating to bee health.
Work by Marla Spivak and colleagues at the University of Minnesota showed that honey bees have a genetic basis to hygienic and aseptic behavior. As such, it is possible to breed honey bee populations that favor these traits to benefit bee health in the long term. Our research team tracks genetic lines of bees with favorable traits, such as low Varroa mites, low Nosema spores, gentle behavior, repeated overwinter survival, and good honey production. We mark these queens with a special purple color, for research tracking purposes. Our goal is to rear locally adapted queens across each of the eight regions where The Best Bees Company provides beekeeping services, and further, to partner with David Tarpy’s lab at North Carolina State University to develop genetic markers to track each of these genetic lines of bees in the future, for the benefit of beekeepers, honey bees, and food systems.
Bats & Bees
In 2006, bees started disappearing in what became known at Colony Collapse Disorder. The first beehive reporting vanishing bees were in Pennsylvania. That same year, a few hundred miles away in Howe Caverns, New York, bats became infected with the fungus we now know causes White Nose Syndrome. Offshore in oceans around the world, an unprecedented number of unexplained mortality events lead to mass die offs of marine life. What happened in 2006?
This investigative writing piece examines ecological connections from our backyard beehives, to underground caves, to underwater mysteries, all bound through the ties of life, death, human impact and climate change. What can we learn from these events? And how can we prevent this in the future, before it’s too late?
Multiple Ph.D. researchers and a rotating group of elite student researchers work to analyze samples of honey bees collected from beehives under management by The Best Bees Company. We are constantly monitoring for all of the most common pests and pathogens of honey bees, at our Urban Beekeeping Laboratory in Boston’s South End. These diseases include Varroa mites, Nosema fungus, deformed wing virus phenotype, and others. Data are recorded in our proprietary software, Bzzz, for which our in-house software engineers wrote the code. Bzzz stores disease data on beehives across the national landscape, for analysis by our research team routinely.
Winter is a harsh time for honey beehives. Our bee research team analyzes data both retrospectively, from The Best Bees Company’s records going back to 2010, and prospectively, using proprietary mobile app software for beekeepers to use in the field. Our mission is to elucidate which environmental and behavioral factors contribute to the highest overwintering success of beehives. Each student intern receives the opportunity to create their own research study by asking a unique question based on existing data collected. These research reports are submitted to each student’s academic program for credit, and the very best projects are presented at conferences or beekeeper meetings, and also published in writing, either in our blogs or professional journals.