At eight years old, Jamie Ellis had a dream about honey bees. Dreaming about buzzing insects with stingers would be a nightmare for most kids, but not for Ellis. He begged his parents for bees of his own, hoping to make his dream a reality.
Ellis has not stopped dreaming since.
As the director of the University of Florida’s Honey Bee Research and Extension Laboratory (HBREL), part of UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, he leads a team of researchers and outreach specialists who focus on conducting basic and applied bee research and conveying science-based information to improve beekeeping across the world.
“Our biggest strength is our diversity. I think we just do so much for so many different groups of people,” Ellis said.
Ellis’s HBREL is uniquely situated to play a critical role in spearheading bee research and extension with the public, as over 4,300 beekeepers and about one-fifth of the nation’s 2.7 million bee colonies reside in Florida. Soon, this hardworking bee colony will have a more spacious hive. The team will move to a brand-new 7500 square foot facility in 2018, with its groundbreaking expected in September 2017. The building’s unique features will accelerate the team’s bee research and improve existing teaching and extension efforts.
Ellis will lead one of the most complex and innovative laboratories dedicated to bees in the nation. His success did not come easy. The road to the Bee Building, as it’s affectionately being called, began after his parents, unsurprisingly, said no to the bees. Ellis refused to give up.
He told his sixth-grade teacher about his wish to keep bees, so she brought him an empty white box, a hive, to house a bee colony. Ellis did not know a single beekeeper, but vowed he would fill the hive. The only problem was he didn’t have the slightest idea how he would find the bees.
Sometimes solutions are found in the most unlikely places. For Ellis, who grew up in a Christian family in rural Georgia, he found his answer on the front porch of a double-wide trailer owned by a man who preferred chain-smoking and cursing to church. This man, a friend of a family friend, supplied Ellis with bees and agreed to mentor him weekly about the finer points of beekeeping.
“I’ve had the perfect placement of mentors along the way,” said Ellis, an associate professor in UF’s department of entomology and nematology.
Each Sunday, Ellis and his dad would drive about 45 minutes to spend three hours learning from the mentor. They made the trip for about a year until his mentor passed away from lung cancer. Ellis inherited 15 of his bee colonies and all of his equipment.
At 13 years old, Ellis was now the guardian of over 300,000 bees with limited knowledge and no land of his own. His grandfather allowed him to put the bee colonies on his dairy farm in Warren County, Georgia, which was about a 10 minute drive from Ellis’s home in Warrenton.
Ellis invested in learning about practical beekeeping and became curious about the biology behind these bees. By the time he was a senior in high school, he produced about 50 gallons of honey per year from the colonies his mentor had given him. He even snagged four first place awards at the state science and engineering fair and one international science fair award in the entomology category for his bee research.
“I just love science. I love studying stuff,” Ellis said. “I happened to marry my hobby, beekeeping, with my passion, science, and it just took off.”
Battling bee invaders
Ellis and his team address international research concerns, from bee behavior to brood-invading pests. At any given time, Ellis said the HBREL has about 30 different ongoing research projects.
Graduate students and post-doctoral students conduct this research across three different sites: the laboratory, located in UF’s Steinmetz Hall, the Bee Unit, which is about a 5 minute drive from Steinmetz, and remote apiaries, where additional beehives are kept.
During their weekly Friday research meeting, Ellis’s team, consisting of graduate students, post-doctoral students, technicians and coordinators, is so large that its members overflow around the large conference table. While this meeting occurs in Steinmetz Hall, Ellis also holds a morning meeting on Wednesdays over coffee and biscuits at a local restaurant.
Coordinating the logistics across these three sites, such as how to assign bee colonies for a specific research study or transferring bees from the Bee Unit to the laboratory for a study, can be a logistical challenge. Soon, these three sites will all be incorporated at the Bee Building, allowing Ellis’s hive of researchers to operate even more efficiently.
The HBREL researchers can use this extra time to continue targeting the top three concerns of beekeepers: issues with queen bees, nutrition and starvation problems with colonies, and the Varroa destructor mite.
Already, Ellis’s team members have been actively addressing many of these issues. One of these researchers is Cameron Jack, a graduate student in entomology and nematology. Jack, whose grandfather was a beekeeper, is driven to apply his research findings to improve practical beekeeping.
Jack focuses his research efforts on studying the Varroa mite, which feeds on bees the way ticks suck on humans. An aptly named pest, Varroa destructor destroys by invading the brood cells, or nursery room of the hive, where young bees develop. As part of the hive’s natural life cycle, bees seal brood cells with wax. The mite waits until its ceiling has been covered with this wax to lay its eggs on top of the bee larvae.
Trapped together, the bee and mite mature in tandem within these tight quarters. The mite takes from the bee, feeding on it for survival, and gives back to it by passing along a host of viruses. One of these viruses results in deformed wing syndrome, which causes an adult bee to develop shriveled wings.
Other viruses may not lead directly to a bee’s death, but instead gradually weaken the overall health of the bees in the colony. Like a person with a compromised immune system, the feeble bee colony may fall victim to regular stressors, such as poor nutrition or pathogens.
“Even a colony that’s kept in pristine condition otherwise, they’re fed, they have good nutrition, good genetics, Varroa will still take that colony down fairly fast,” Jack said.
To combat this deadly mite, Jack is working to develop a “weapon” for beekeepers to use against Varroa. He is testing existing and new treatments to fight the mite. From his research, he hopes to create a beekeeping management tool for treating Varroa infestations.
The new building will likely accelerate Jack’s research efforts because the bee colonies, laboratory and collaborators will all be in the same location as opposed to their current disparate arrangement. Another researcher in the lab, graduate student Ashley Mortensen, will also benefit from the consolidation of space.
On a rainy day at the Bee Unit, Mortensen stuffed pine straw into a smoker, her dreads tied back in a bandana. She carried the smoker over to a bee box and opened the lid, puffing smoke on bees.
The smoke masks the bees’ alarm pheromones, chemical messengers that can mobilize bee troops to attack the invader.
Mortensen reached into the hive and picked up a frame, bravely brushing off its bees, so that she can collect its brood. In her dissertation research, Mortensen is most interested in studying animal behavior. She is curious about whether there are differences between how bees reared in natural and laboratory conditions behave.
In the new Bee Building, Mortensen will be able to observe bees without their knowledge. Bees cannot see red light, so a unique room in the new laboratory will be equipped with all red lights. The bees will occupy glass hives that protrude into the room, allowing the viewer to conduct observational studies on bees in their natural environment.
These building features will be accessible to UF researchers, like Mortensen and Jack, but also to international scholars like Bram Cornelissen, a visiting scientist from the Netherlands.
In the HBREL laboratory in Steinmetz Hall, Cornelissen conducts research on the small hive beetle that has worldwide implications. Cornelissen travelled to Gainesville over the last two summers to study the hive beetle.
Growing up, Cornelissen collected insects in his forested backyard. His first memory of a bee colony is “how everything moved.”
“It seems like chaos. Through the years, you learn that it’s not,” Cornelissen said.
Cornelissen said he was drawn to HBREL because of its positive reputation and Ellis’s thorough knowledge about hive beetles, an invasive pest present already in the United States and perilously close to invading the Netherlands. This beetle, which fully grown is only about the length of a fingernail, can wreak havoc on colonies.
A female hive beetle lays eggs within a honeycomb, with larvae emerging from the eggs in about three days. Focused on food, these larvae take what’s not theirs, burrowing themselves in the honey’s cells and destroying the bees’ nectar and honey supplies.
With little space to raise their young and store their food, these bee refugees are forced to abandon their hive and start anew elsewhere. The beekeeper is left with a hive full of milky-white hive beetle larvae.
Although these hive beetles have not invaded the Netherlands yet, they are very close. Cornelissen is working to develop a disaster preparedness plan for the likely invasion. This summer, he is focused on how these beetles fly to invade a bee hive.
Ellis said researchers like Cornelissen enhance the diversity of the lab. The new bee building will provide additional space that the HBREL team can use to host more international researchers.
“With more space, we’ll be able to host more visiting scholars,” Ellis said, adding that these individuals have unique knowledge and skillsets from their personal experiences around the world. “They come here and share their perspective with us and our beekeepers.”
Sharing the art of beekeeping
Serving as a bridge between academia and the public via extension, Mary Bammer, the extension coordinator for the HBREL, hosts events designed to provide beekeepers with the most current research and updated management practices about bees through classes and hands-on activities.
Bammer became interested in bees on a whim as an undergraduate student and mentioned it to her dad, who happened to have beekeeping gear in his shed. Beekeeping ran in the blood. She still remembers her first close-up encounter with bees.
“I remember just sitting or kneeling down in front of the colony and watching bees come in and out for 20 minutes,” she said, her placid face cracking into a smile. “I’ve never been able to describe it that well, but there’s something weirdly magical about getting close-up to bees.”
Bammer shares this bee magic with beekeepers by leading events like Bee College. Bee College is held in three places throughout the year: St. Augustine, South Florida and various locations in the Caribbean. During the event, participants can submit their honey and bee-related products, including candles, textiles and gadgets, to be judged at the Honey Show.
Bee College classes focus on beekeeping basics, such as honey extraction and pest management. While Bee College offers both a beginner and an advanced track to cater to different needs, Bammer said she especially enjoys working with beginners and taking them into a hive for the first time to overcome the “general fear of bees.”
Beyond the basics, she said Bee College provides people with an opportunity to network in their region. The HBREL fosters community at a regional level through Bee College and at a local level through a variety of additional activities, including the Alachua County Beekeeping Classes, which they host in collaboration with the Alachua County Extension Office.
This series of six classes is offered to beginner and intermediate beekeepers throughout the year and focuses on seasonal issues impacting bee colonies. For example, the June 2017 class centered on honey extraction, as summer is the season for harvesting honey.
Two attendees at this Alachua County Beekeeping Class, Leland and Angela Gallup, fanned themselves in the shade after a full morning of honey extraction. The couple recently retired in Maryland, moved to Florida to be closer to family, and decided to take up beekeeping.
“They’ve already done all the hard work,” Leland said. “(We) just reap the benefit of all of their research and knowledge. You learn the best practices.”
While many beekeepers attend in-person events like Bee College and the Alachua County Beekeeping Classes, the HBREL offers digital content, including their online blog, “The Melitto Files,” which provides current research updates and best practices.
The Melitto Files serve as a continuation of the print newsletter, “Hum of the Hive,” that was created by UF’s first beekeeping extension specialist, John Haynie, in the 1940s.
Ellis said that influential people in the history of UF’s bee program, such as Haynie, will be featured in displays throughout the building.
The new building will also include a dedicated teaching laboratory that contains a recessed glass wall. Outside of this glass wall, Ellis plans to put a bee colony, an intercom system, and a webcam, so that during live or online instruction, students and beekeepers can watch an expert work a hive and ask questions.
After the September groundbreaking, Ellis and his team expect to enter the empty space about a year later. Luckily, Ellis has experience with taking an empty hive and turning it into success.