Bee Research Now Possible at the University of Washington

By Andrea Watts

The University of Washington may have a Lamborghini lab, and not one but two ocean-going research vessels, but Dr. Evan Sugden, instructor at the University of Washington for fifteen years and long-time beekeeper, noticed that there was one educational opportunity for students missing: the study of bees and learning bee husbandry.

In 2007, he introduced the first beehives to the campus as part of the fledging UW Farm. Through donations and volunteers, Sugden maintained hives, but he also wanted to educate more students on the importance of bees, the factors contributing to their imperilment, and to cultivate an interest in bee husbandry.

“No one has taught a beekeeping class that I was aware of [at the University],” said Sugden, and it was a “combination of factors coming together at the right time,” that enabled the class to be offered at all. The department had to allocate funds because Sugden admitted, the class is “more expensive than a normal lab course” and equipment had to be purchased. He also had to prove that students were interested but that wasn’t difficult with the many student-led organizations on campus involving conservation or sustainable food production.

The original title of the course was “Science With Bees,” which eventually broadened to become an internship class with the title of Biology 399 Native Bees, Honey Bees, Pollination, and Practical Beekeeping. Sudgen explained that the change of name was because the administration felt having an internship designation was more appropriate so students could assume more responsibilities in maintaining the hives. Eileen O’Connor, head of the teaching branch of Biology and Toby Bradshaw, the department chair of Biology, formally approved the course, and in summer 2011, Biol 399 saw its first internship class; the coursework involved a combination of lectures and hands-on work. The class is slated to be offered for the third time this year, a testament to the valuable teaching opportunity and learning experience that the administration recognizes this course provides students because Sugden admits that “teaching funds have been so drastically short the past few years.”

The students in his classes “bring a lot of skills, which I like,” said Sugden, and many come from diverse backgrounds that add to the enjoyment of teaching the course. Unlike other classes that can have upwards of fifty students, Sugden’s class is capped at fifteen, the number that can fit around a beehive, he explained. Though no other course at the UW requires students to submit to a test sting to ensure they are not allergic, this doesn’t deter students and each year the course is full.

Danny Dawson, who took an entomology course from Sugden, decided to take the course because he had a high-school friend who was a beekeeper, and he watched a documentary on the vanishing of the bees. Dawson repeated the course in 2012 and ended up loving the work, even though he admitted that it “made me get out of my comfort zone” by getting hands-on with the bees. The coursework had him learning to become aware of the bees and their patterns, such as recognizing brood patterns to see where the queen was laying eggs. Even after the honeymoon phase ended, Dawson still wanted to work with the bees in spite of the less than ideal Seattle weather.

Because Sudgen is a beekeeper and a scientist, he has the students conduct science projects while learning beekeeping because “bees are a great tool to study many aspects of science.” In his first year Dawson studied the foraging pattern of the bees and made a foraging map to identify the hotspots. Though he was repeating previous research, Dawson said the assignment was for “our educational benefit, to see with our own eyes,” what the bees were doing.

Dawson enjoyed the combination of textbook material with the hands-on experience in the class, and he also appreciated the balanced approach that Sugden brought to the hands-on portion of the class. “He’s really patient with students who are learning beekeeping,” said Dawson. “[It’s] really cool to learn on your own but having [that] support so you don’t screw up.”

Even after the course ended, Dawson continued working with Sugden on research and maintaining the hives, eventually becoming in charge of the UW Farm’s Bee Committee. “The Bee Committee is an offshoot of the course … [and has] taken on a life of its own,” said Sugden. Dawson is one of the students tasked with caring for the bees outside of the course. He described it “just a club of sorts,” that is composed of all student volunteers.

Right now four hives out of six survived the winter, and we are “doing all we can to keep those four,” said Dawson. Their hives are a combination of feral and hybrid hives that include the traditional Italian strain but also regionally-produced “survivor” bees that are kept for testing and comparison. As a way to reduce the expense of purchasing bees each year, he said they are considering getting their own swarm traps to become self-sustaining. Sugden acknowledged there are difficulties in maintaining an apiary on a university campus; bees have to be cared for throughout the year, he said, and “we need to hire someone having [a] permanent responsibility” to care for the bees perhaps as part of the duties of a UW Farm manager.

Conducting a “practical line of research” is one of Sugden’s goals of having the hives on campus. Dawson collaborated with Sugden on a mite monitoring project to test the success of mite treatments, and an ongoing project that is in its second year involves wax purification. We have a contaminated wax supply, Sudgen said, and we are working to locally purify the wax and “draw out the pesticides.”

Other departments also use Sugden’s hives for research. The Department of Psychology had a class conduct a behavior study on foraging behavior, while Dr. Callis in the Department of Chemistry had graduate students painting bees as part of a research study to develop an aerodynamic paint that could be scaled up for use on aircraft. Other ways the hives fit in with the educational component of the UW are as part of tours of the Biology Greenhouse and Medicinal Herb Garden. The observation hive is a popular educational feature, explained Sugen, which raises the exposure of the beekeeping program.

Though the Biology department has supported funding the program, he is actively pursuing other avenues to maintain the UW’s apiary and support further research. Though most people would assume that selling honey could be used to raise money, Sugden said that because the bees are used for research and consequentially disturbed, honey production tends to be less than normal, but there is still an interest in exploring this possibility. To raise funds for the wax purification project, he started a Microryza site called “Microyza Developing Small Scale Bees Wax Purification Techniques” that provides information about the project and its goals.

Though Dawson is unsure what he will do after graduation, he “definitely wants to [continue beekeeping] at least as a hobby.” He is also doing his part to educate the public on the importance of bees. Dawson explained that during his talks with people, there is still confusion regarding bees, such as confusing them with wasps or yellow jackets, and people do not realize that “doing small things for bees is easy,” such as planting seed bombs. Dispelling this confusion is something that Sugden tells his students to expect; “we are all ambassadors now days” on educating the public about the importance of bees and the issues facing their survival, such as pesticides and diseases, he said.

This year’s course won’t see much change in the coursework, explained Sugden, though there is more of a liability overlay this year for the students participating because of the risks associated with getting stung. Though safety guidelines were already developed the first year the course was offered, official waivers will have to be signed this year. But Sugden said that hasn’t discouraged students pledging to sign up or the administration delaying in offering the course. To further increase visibility of the beekeeping course, Sugden maintains a course blog that details hive activities, course happenings, and local beekeeping events.

Though he knows that not all of his students will become beekeepers, they will become ambassadors who can educate on the necessity of bees and become advocates for its protection. For Sugden, he will continue teaching the course as long as the department supports his work and there is student interest. “It’s just a constant fascination,” studying bees, said Sugden. “I can’t imagine not having bees in my life.”

The class blog is available at http://beeinterns.blogspot.com and the Microryza site is at https://www.microryza.com/projects/training-students-to-be-next-generation-beekeepers

2 Comments

  1. Please help. I am a member of the Xerces Society and President of a 400+ environmental group in North Bend WA (35 miles east of Seattle) and last year I found and sent in pictures of a few Bumblebees that were disoriented or dead. This year I’ve found 2 that were dead. Other people here in North Bend have found some that were disoriented and gave them a mixture of water and honey and revived them. My guess it that the problem boils down to the insecticide that the City and maybe King County are using to kill the scotch broom – the bees love their flowers and they are in bloom now – and the insecticide is killing them too. Can you please give us your best advise as to what we can do to preserve this and other magnificent bee species in our area?

    Best,

    Jean Buckner, President of Friends of The Snoqualmie Valley and Trail and River (and bee lover) Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/302913583506885
    Website: http://fosvtr.org/
    GoFundMe: https://www.gofundme.com/Friends-of-The-Snoqualmie-Valley-Trail-and-River
    KUOW story: https://cpa.ds.npr.org/kuow/audio/2018/06/NEWS_20180620_NorthBend.mp3

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