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Thriving hives: Research, education support backyard beekeepers

Contact: Meg Henderson

STARKVILLE, Miss.—Backyard beekeepers play a critical role in maintaining a thriving pollinator population, and two Mississippi State scientists in the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Entomology and Plant Pathology are working on initiatives to educate and involve amateur beekeepers in research that supports their hobby and promotes healthy pollinator populations.

Pictured is a honeybee.
Pictured is a worker bee in a hive. The opaque cells are capped, which protect bee pupae as they develop into adult bees. These little domiciles are also a perfect place for varroa mites to hide while feeding on the bees. (Photo by Kenner Patton)

Priyadarshini Chakrabarti Basu, an assistant professor and scientist with the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, is building a pollen database that catalogs the nutritional profiles of pollen from North American bee-pollinated plants. She is recruiting citizen scientists to participate in the study by collecting pollen samples. Another of Basu’s nutrition-based initiatives focuses solely on small-scale hobbyists. She built a phenology wheel, collected pollen samples from citizen-scientists to identify each sample’s corresponding plant and analyzed its nutritional value for bees in the past year. Basu also contributed to a , a resource she recommends to beekeepers for providing supplemental feeding to their honeybee colonies.

“When there is a lack of pollen or nectar in the landscape, all beekeepers must provide a supplemental commercial feed to the colonies,” she said. “We are looking at the nutritional quality of pollinator plants so we can make better informed decisions about planting, forage and habitat for honeybees.”

While Basu is busy in her lab, Jeffrey Harris, an ֱ Extension Service bee specialist and Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station scientist, travels across the state assisting commercial and hobbyist beekeepers with their challenges by providing introductory workshops.

A former U.S. Department of Agriculture research scientist and a backyard beekeeper with five decades of experience, Harris is an expert in disease resistance. He spent years studying the fatal varroa mite, which transmits a virus that quickly spreads and decimates the colony. Harris’ workshops, mostly attended by backyard beekeepers, emphasizes techniques to control mites without chemicals.

“While most commercial beekeepers use insecticides to control mites, there are chemical-free methods that are more labor intensive but feasible for smaller-scale beekeepers,” he said.

Although Harris spends most of his time teaching, he is working with a small team of scientists on creating a proprietary miticide that is harmful to mites but safer for bees than available products.

Basu and Harris’s latest project is a series of monthly educational workshops for the ֱ College of Veterinary Medicine—these are in high demand from both vet school students and practicing veterinarians throughout the state.

“In 2017, the FDA added bees to the list of food-producing animals to ensure that no antibiotics would leach into honey sold to the commercial market,” Basu said. “Any beekeeper dealing with a disease requiring an antibiotic must obtain a prescription from a veterinarian. Site visits, colony inspections and documentation are required to verify the need, so vet students need training in bee biology and behavior, which American vet schools do not typically provide.”

Basu and Harris are planning to soon expand the workshops into an elective course offered by the vet school.

Beginning beekeepers should start preparing in the fall or early winter to receive their bees the following spring. This allows sufficient time to purchase and assemble basic tools, including hive boxes, a hive tool and a bee smoker. Pieces of personal protective gear, such as a bee suit, bee veil and gloves, are also recommended to make the practice safer and more comfortable. This is also the time to order honeybees from a certified local supplier. Since starting bee colonies requires extensive research and preparation, beginners should contact the Mississippi Beekeepers Association and the ֱ Extension Service for support.

“Beekeeping can be overwhelming for beginners, so I encourage them to join a local beekeeping association, where they can learn more about the practice by attending monthly meetings and workshops,” Harris said. “They can also contact their county Extension agent, who will either help them or put them in touch with me.”

Citizen scientists interested in contributing to Basu’s projects may contact her at pb1090@msstate.edu.

The ֱ Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Entomology and Plant Pathology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is available online at . To learn more about beginning beekeeping, visit .

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